What's New on the Rialto
The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements
by Peter Filichia
Book Review by Rob Lester
Also see Rob's review of "Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers" by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
The Introduction states: "This book is for completely dedicated musical theater fans." That having been said and having been read, some of those in that target audience might wonder why so many oft-told anecdotes and facts are relied upon or deemed necessary for background, like devoting a page and a half to the plot and other facts about the Filichia-favored A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, his pick as the most underrated musical of its decade. And I suspect that many readers know that Ethel Merman didn't want Stephen Sondheim as Gypsy's composer, but that Oscar Hammerstein convinced him to take the job of just doing lyrics. It comes up in multiple interviews and pieces about those legends. Or maybe I've just read too much about Broadway, including other worthy books by this authority of an author. The "semi-dedicated" and neophytes need not hesitate. The rest of us have plenty to discover and mull over, too.
Although the title specifies Broadway, a detour allows observations on notable works from other stages, e.g., a few Off-Broadway gay-themed properties and The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium where the voice of one yellow brick road traveler was dubbed through the venue's sound system. (Who? The uncooperative live dog cast as Toto.) Film musicals are on the table if there was a stage version for purposes of comparing and contrasting and complaining–or proving that movies made improvements. There are 15 captioned photos (13 in color); one is a montage of leading ladies in bright red dresses with Katharine Hepburn in her Coco black garb superimposed. (Bonus points if you "get it.")
Musicals–the good, the bad, the baffling–are discussed, defended, dissected or dismissed. They're organized by decade, single year, subject matter, genres (jukebox musicals, revivals, revisals, etc.). Dozens and dozens of debate topics are presented in the form of questions, pondering what show, star, song, recording, idea, or abandoned project should be named as the best, worst, strangest, most unexpected, most unappreciated, most worth being reconsidered, etc. You get the idea.
Often, "runners-up" (close-but-no-cigar candidates) are offered. The "usual suspects"? Sometimes. The number of performances managed by hits and misfires is perhaps over-emphasized. Peter Filichia justifies many choices effectively, whether it's a position many of us share (cheering most anything Sondheim, being disappointed in the film of A Chorus Line) or advocating for an unexpected contender (although I admire the work of Frank Sinatra, Jr., I wouldn't have proclaimed him as the prime candidate for someone I wish had done Broadway). My reactions were not about feeling my taste was validated or insulted. I don't get fired up when someone puts the blame on Mame or can't get into Into the Woods or insists that nothing in Applause deserved applause.
While distributing weighted Peter praise or a Peter pan within the lore and judgments, fun-loving Filichia has a charming trademark, used now and then: Within sentences, he'll excerpt phrases from the book or lyric of a musical and, by purposely not putting them in quotation marks to flag them, these planted discoveries are bonuses just for those in the know–and the sentences still make surface sense. For instance, to reinforce some truth about the vagaries of show business, there's a nod to an observation from the lyric of "There's No Business Like Show Business," but not the title line. And his colorful summary of a wild tiger's triggered behavior on a page about The Apple Tree repurposes the song cue for "Honestly Sincere" (Bye Bye Birdie) when a hormonal teenager describes how rock singer Conrad Birdie makes her lose control.
There's mega-emphasis throughout–plus a 37-page separate chapter–on one form of recognition: the Tony Awards. Other awards are barely acknowledged in the text, not even earning a presence in the index. Barely mentioning other awards might seem surprising, given his own professional associations with the relevant nominating committees. He goes so far as to suggest what might have won Tony Awards in categories that dont exist and in years before these awards were awarded. Results of stirring these dream-fueled "might-have-been" Tony honors–and other abundant "What-if-there-were-such-a-thing-as" fantasies–started to feel increasingly silly to me. I understand the appeal this has for some, and that it creates a way to bring up accomplishments not prompted by standard questions. Singling out both a song and a production number from each season makes for a worthwhile structure and resulting list, but I find it to be overzealous overkill to frame it with an invitation to analyze what would be in the heads of Tony voters in each year since 1947.
For those who've had limited opportunities to experience live productions of shows that have played Broadway–because they are young, belatedly addicted, are geographically or financially challenged, etc.–a few more pages on cast recordings themselves and TV broadcasts of musicals could be beneficial. After all, these are the entry point media for so many people. Still, the author's enthusiasm, language choices, bounty of information, and attention to detail paint a rich view of the theatre world and its colorful characters (roles and real).
There are a few small errors, such as giving the surname of 13's protagonist as Goodman instead of Goldman, the very occasional misplaced comma, a couple of index mistakes (e.g., being one page off in indicating where to turn for a fact about The Fantasticks and In My Life showing up twice in the alphabetized names). And there's some information that could use expansion, such as when Foxy is lamented as having no cast recording: true of the original production, but the Musicals Tonight! company's mounting decades later got preserved on CD. And, while we learn that Jerry Herman considered writing the score for a musical starring Carol Channing as Victoria Woodhull (the first woman to run for president of the United States), it would seem relevant to add that a musical about this real-life person was written and produced (Onward Victoria). Granted, it closed on opening night, but it did get a cast album.
As tantalizing food for thought served to those eager to devour delicious tidbits about their beloved genre, The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements is a never-ending banquet of food: glorious food with more hot pies, bubbling brown sugar, and vanilla ice cream. Or at least a real nice clambake.
The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements