What's New on the Rialto
Inside Tales of the Not-So-Legitimate Theatre
by Steven Suskin
Book Review by Joshua Ellis
Fifty-plus years on, Suskin is a well-respected theatre historian, author and critic. How many important critics started out as concessionaires? In Suskin's case it was at Broadway's Shubert Theatre during the run of Promises, Promises. He knows the territory–the art and craft of creation and collaboration in the theatre, as well as the bullying and bullshit. Every time he digs in a certain area, he keeps digging deeper and deeper. For five decades he had personal relationships with hundreds of Broadwayites–on stage, backstage, in the wings, the orchestra pit, the box office, advertising and press offices, composers' and lyricists' living rooms, and most significantly, producers' and general managers' fortressed offices. He worked with and occasionally partied with them.
Suskin is opinionated. He smells hits and flops early. He critiques everything. He has a unique love of some actors whose performances transformed his life. He has worked with kind souls and crazy bosses, higher-ups who pushed him around but taught him the tricks of the trade. He also worked for some of the the theatre's most famous villains, first and foremost, David Merrick.
Full disclosure: for 13 years I worked with Broadway's infamous producer David Merrick, widely known for decades as "the abominable showman." Suskin also worked for Merrick, but our paths almost never crossed. He worked in the Merrick Office. I worked in a large public relations office hired by Merrick. Early on we both worked on the Gower Champion/Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical Mack & Mabel. We were kids starting out.
Significantly, Offstage Observations is the first book that offers a thorough and insightful understanding of how Merrick ticked. Merrick was like one of those stackable Russian dolls, and Suskin reveals what's inside, layer by layer. Merrick had a reputation for firing people but he had a team of craftsmen who worked on every Merrick show: head propman, head carpenter, and head electrician. I had superficial working relationships with them. Suskin knew them well, and their wives and children. He visited their homes and enjoyed their company. It's no wonder the book is filled with details below the surface. It's not gossip; it's close observation.
One could accuse Suskin of namedropping, but I doubt there was any person who toiled in the fields of Broadway in the past five-plus decades who is not mentioned in the book. He has hilarious and/or poignant stories about all of them: George Abbott, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Bennett, Michael Butler, Carol Channing, Gower Champion, John Cullum, James Earl Jones, Bob Fosse, Alan Jay Lerner, Hal Prince, Joseph Papp, and many more.
But Suskin also drops un-famous names, like Mitchell Erickson, an important character throughout the book. Suskin informs us that Mitch was the son of a blacksmith from Duluth, Minnesota, who became one of Broadway and London's most in-demand production stage managers. Actors and directors put him in their contracts to guarantee his participation. He was one of Broadway's beloved behind-the-scenes heroes. Mitch mentored Suskin and in Offstage Observations, Suskin makes Mitch a star.
Take note of how Suskin packages each chapter and the sections within a given chapter. The titles and subtitles themselves are a delight. We are guided somewhat chronologically from "Through the Stage Door" and "Passport to Times Square" to "Above the St. James [Theatre]," "Upstage Left" and "Toiling in the Vineyards." Many pleasures are delivered when Suskin takes us on frequent side-trips, not necessarily chronological, offering anecdotes, histories, background, contexts, personal observations, unique reference points, behind-the-scenes follies, subjective and objective critiques, and fun miscellany that enhance the journey. He's an excellent writer who knows how to grab his reader's attention and not let go.
Offstage Observations: Inside Tales of the Not-So-Legitimate Theatre is the perfect book for theatre aficionados. Reading it will alter how you perceive the "show" and "business" of Broadway. It is not for the casual reader. Part autobiography, part theatre history, it will hold a special place on readers' shelves for the research and pleasure it provides. Not for a moment do I take for granted that it is extremely well-written, well-edited, has a nice selection of photos (I wish there were more, but I understand costs involved), and an index.
Offstage Observations: Inside Tales of the Not-So-Legitimate Theatre