Of Show & Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes by Ken Bloom (OUP; 352 pages, trade paperback; SRP, $19.95; index), celebrated composer Charles Strouse states: “It’s a thoroughly delightful tribute to what makes the theater great – the passion, creativity, craziness, and sadness, too.”
Writer, director, producer Ken Bloom’s been around and really knows the territory (Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time and Broadway: An Encyclopedia; his contributions at www.indiesongs.com). He fills his books with the stuff theater fans love and digs deep to get it right – and does it with humor and a few well-targeted zings – especially when writing about the most beloved shows and stars.
Here, in 25 delightful and one with a great deal of heartache chapters, Bloom, in addition to shedding light “on the heartwarming, spectacular, and bittersweet moment in the life of a show from conception to opening night,” delves into the inner workings of Broadway and the culture surrounding its hits and flops. He covers front of house to backstage.
Bloom takes behind-the-curtain to previews and allows the reader “to experience the thrill and sometimes despair, of opening nights.” And more than a few closing ones.With the exception of Personalities, which opens the book with biographical profiles, Writing the Show, Producing the Show, Rehearsals, Out of Town, Opening Night, and Performing the Show, chapters are much too short. The great-fun Quotes chapter could go on days, but doesn’t.
Through a vast resource of books and interviews and oral histories, Bloom offers a most unconventional history of theater in all its idiosyncratic glory.
Among the featured creatives are George Abbott, Lee Adams, Bock and Harnick, Abe Burrows, Gower Champion, Martin Charnin, George Gershwin, Yip Harburg, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb, Kaufman and Hart, Burton Lane, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Josh Logan, Bob Merrill, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Rome, Charles Strouse, and Jule Styne.Star tales abound about and from Channing, Lansbury, Martin, Merman, Ann Miller, Mostel, Orbach, Rivera, and, among numerous others, Verdon. and David Merrick also make appearances.
There’s plenty of amusing and revealing tidbits about beloved shows (Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, West Side Story) and some long–forgotten ones – such as 1866’s four-act romantic musical spectacular The Black Crook – considered the first musical [with a cast of 60 set in the Harz Mountains of 1600 Germany], right up to the jukebox era and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
You’ll hear tons of tales-out-of-school. Take, for instance, cantankerous retorts from legendary George Abbott; Yul Brynner’s massive ego; good ole salty Maureen Stapleton blurting out the F word at the White House; Katharine Hepburn antics; secrets of stars revealed; and facts such as Sinatra being considered for Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof [Oy vei!].
There’s lascivious gossip about Mitch Leigh (Man of La Mancha) as the “cheap” producer of a Mame revival for Broadway starring Mame herself, Lansbury, whom for reasons unknown he immensely disliked – even referring to her with a word rarely heard [when no doubt his problem was with her husband Peter Shaw, the star’s ax man].
The brilliant but not-so-loved [and that’s being kind] Jerome Robbins naturally doesn’t escape unscathed. Bloom lets the cat out of the bag re: the fact that Robbins didn’t choreograph West Side Story’s showstopping “America” or “Dance at the Gym.”
Beloved dancer Peter Gennaro (Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, Bells Are Ringing) was segueing into choreography as Robbins assistant. He created those numbers, but Robbins refused to credit him – even when accepting his Tony for choreography – proving, as someone put it: “he was a bastard to the very end.”Gennaro went on to a career that spanned from 1959 to 1997 and such hits asAnnie, Fiorello!, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown – not to mention countless TV variety shows.
Though subtitled: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes, it’s the old cut-and-paste ones that have been written/spoken about time and again that are most fun to revisit. That said, better organization might benefit readers. Anecdotes by, say, Comden, Anita Gillette, Fosse, Penny Fuller, Herman, Loesser, and Merman are scattered throughout. So, thank-you-very-much for the index.
Bloom provides a wonderful resource for theater buffs with the epilogue, Further Reading. The biggest let-down – one hard to believe knowing Bloom’s connections and collections, is that save for the B&W cameos on the jacket, there’re no photos.
Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline.