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It Happened on Broadway

An Oral History of the Great White Way

By Elyse Sommer

Publication and Ordering Information
A Behind-the-Scenes Look At How It Happened On Broadway Happened

A month or so after taking over the editorial helm of The New Yorker, David Remnik told TV host Charlie Rose that he saw the magazine's audience as three-time readers: "First they thumb through the whole issue, stopping to look at the cartoons and to read some of the short and most current items as those in "Talk of the Town. Then they read some of the longer pieces. And, finally, they make a commitment in time for the still unread article or story."

Readers of It Happened On Broadway are likely to approach this handsomely illustrated and designed new oral history of Broadway before and after World War II the same way. First, they'll thumb through the book and stop, as in a gallery, to read the captions under the many illustrations. Then they'll probably check out the Table of Contents, making a full stop at "Who's Who In the Cast" which gives capsule bios of the approximately 100 theater pros whose reminiscenses serve as the main meal of this text. Bit by bit, they'll go back to read the 11 chapters which are organized chronologically and thematically. Even those who will plunge straight ahead, reading every word from the "Overture" to the "Curtain Call" will return to some favorite section or anecdotes.

While theater aficionados and readers of show biz memoirs may find themselves treading some familiar ground, the presentation gives this book an overall uniqueness. Besides the seamless cut-and-paste editing, the diversity of the interviewees provides a welcome breath of fresh air.

While it's always fun to hear from easily recognized stars, I found the inclusion of people not ordinarily included in show business books -- designers, publicists and, yes, critics -- particularly enlightening. In this age of computers it's fascinating to hear former Broadway press agent Harvey Sabinson's reminiscences on how this business used to work. As he tells it the press agents would congregate at the Blue Ribbon Restaurant on 44th (something like the Edison Hotel Coffee Shop a.k.a. The Polish Cafe). Another press agent, Merle Debuskey. reminisces about the many "outlets" for quotes and stories. .. 11 or12 weekly magazines with The New York Times alone employing six theater reporters in addition to publishing seven columns devoted to the theater. (Sabinson's accounts of how he would visit those editors withoutsecurity guards reminded me of my fresh out of college career as a literary agent, when I would combine delivering my own scripts with getting to know various book and magazine editors). Shirley Herz, who's still in the business, recounts how publicists would go along on pre-Broadway tours of a show without knowing when they'd get back.

As a critic I was interested to hear former Daily News critic Douglas Watt explain how critics' nights came about. It seems that when the Times hired Stanley Kaufman they bought him tickets for pre-opening night performance so he could have more time to write a review. Producer David Merrick upon hearing about such a pre-opening ticket purchase cancelled the performance claiming that "there was a rat in the generator." He also gave people their money back so that Kaufman had to go to opening night. Those old night-of-the-opening reviews meant that as soon as the curtain was lowered the critics went "dashing up the aisle, almost knocking some elderly couple over in the rush to the typewriter to write a review in thirty or forty minutes." Despite Merrick's effort to stop critics' from coming to previews, the Kaufman incident marked the beginning of press previews. While Watt admits that the old method was tough and "often woke you up at three in the morning thinking of an adjective you should have used" he also feels "having time to mull it over you could never display the same enthusiasm as fully.

Chapter 4, "That Sense of Truth" should be of particular interest to drama lovers. Actress Kim Hunter, the original Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, recalls a party Irene Selznik hosted for Tennessee Williams and the cast, and to which Thornton Wilder than teaching atYale was invited. "Wilder explained his own process at great length and as .a long and carefully measured process" How did Tennessee respond? " Well, I get a couple of people together, and I get them talking. And eventually I seea point I want to make, and I make it. And if there's a joke along the way, I make it too."

I was particularly interested in Langner's reminiscences about William Saroyan's The Time Of Our Lives as I was about to go to a rare revival of that play (our review). While the play doesn't hold up as well as another bar room drama, The Iceman Cometh, it's worth remembering that it did serve as a launching pad for the careers of Gene Kelly and Celeste Holm, both of whom had small parts.

Musical theater fans will also find much to ponder. Maury Yeston, for example, points out how many Broadway composers have an immediate relative who is a cantor. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill all had fathers who were cantors (as did Yeston). Then there's Celeste Holm's account of her tryout "ordeal " for Oklahoma which included tripping and falling flat on her face. According to the the Frommers' interview with Phillip Langner of the Theater Guild the much quoted "No legs. No sex. No chance" generally attributed to producer Mike Todd began as a telegram. The wire containing those words was sent to New York by gossip columnist Walter Winchell's right-hand woman after seeing Oklahoma in New Haven.

With so many observations from people united in their love of the theater, you'll have to find your own favorites. There are too many to list -- besides, it's more fun to check them out for yourself.

The above comments were written based on a bound galley sent to me by the publisher. Now that I've seen the finished book, I can conclude this review by adding that the final product is indeed handsome. The paper is of excellent quality. The photos are in a wonderful sepia and the index is helpful and complete. (Want to check out references to two musical revivals opening on Broadway this season, Little Me and On The Town? -- a quick look at the index will point you to the right pages. It all adds up to a book handsome enough to decorate the coffee table, and solid enough to add to any theater enthusiast's permanent library.

Publication and Ordering Information

An Oral History of the Great White Way
By Myrna Katz Frommer/Harvey Frommer
Harcourt Brace, Hard cover, 320 pages (includes index and photographs)
Official Publication Date: 11/05/98
Reviewed 10/31/98 by Elyse Sommer (available at $10 less than the $35 cover price). from the CurtainUp/Amazon Book Store

Previous Frommer Oral Histories, still available:
It Happened in Brooklyn : An Oral History of Growing Up in the Borough in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Harvest paperback (1995).
It Happened in the Catskills : An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents, and Others Who Lived It, Paperback.
Growing Up Jewish In America, Hardcover.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look At How It Happened On Broadway Happened

As we read through the pre-publication galleys of this book, we were curious to know more about the authors' process than the introduction (or as they call it, the Overture) provided. So we did an e-mail interviewing. Our questions to the Frommers and their answers follow.

E.S., CurtainUp:How did the idea came about?
The Authors: It came to Harvey while watching the Tony Awards on television a few years ago.

E.S., CurtainUp: Over how long a time period did these interview range?
The Authors: We spent about a year and a half interviewing our subjects.

E.S., CurtainUp: Were most of the interviews conducted in person, by phone, mail?
The Authors: The vast majority were in person. Some--generally those with people who were out of state, (for example, John Raitt and Jerry Herman were in California), were interviewed via telephone.

All the people we met, many of them great names in American theater, were not only fascinating personalities with great memories but delightful, warm and generous people. They gave us our own collection of special memories: dining with Tony Walton at Sardi's and Elaine Stritch in her favorite little Upper East Side restaurant, having coffee with Mary Rodgers in her apartment overlooking Central Park and tea with Kitty Carlisle Hart in her elegant flat overlooking Madison Avenue. We experienced first-hand the warmth and energy of Charles Durning, the power of Patricia Neal, the verve and charm of Donna McKechnie, the vitality of Lee Roy Reams, the erudition of Robert Whitehead,the sensitivity of Kim Hunter, and the buoyancy of Leslie Uggams -- to name but a few.

E.S., CurtainUp: Did you use a questionnaire or a set list of questions?
The Authors: We do not use questionnaires. This is our fourth work of oral history, (see link to two others this reviewer has read and enjoyed) and we teach the subject at Dartmouth. Our entire approach rests on a spontaneous encounter. We strive to achieve rapport with our subjects and get them to relax and reminisce. We do prepare ourselves thoroughly on the subjects we want to cover, but we also allow the interview to go in new and unexpected directions if the conversation heads that way. It is this approach that gives what we call our genre of interactive oral history its uniqueness.

E.S., CurtainUp: Since the people you interviewed are quoted throughout the book could you explain how you cut and pasted the interview material to fit the book's various chapters?
The Authors: This method is truly the product of the computer age. Had we relied on actually cutting and pasting paper, we would never have completed a single chapter. What we do is transcribe our interviews and then decide on the overall subjects or themes we want to focus on and take parts of each interview, interweaving them with parts of others on the same subject. In essence, we strive to produce what reads like a conversation in a living room, but in actuality is a collection of pieces of interviews interwoven to deal with a particular subject.

E.S., CurtainUp: How did the collaboration work? Did you divide up the interviews, writing, etc.?
The Authors: This is a question we are always asked and when we interviewed teams like Kander and Ebb, we understood how they felt when asked what comes first the words or the music. In truth, we can't say who does what. We work together, interview together. On rare occasions, this is not possible -- for example, we had to split when Harvey interviewed Maury Yeston. He walked in alone and Maury took one look at him and shouted: "Where's Myrna? How come I don't get both of you?" We divide the transcriptions informally and then through discussion and trial and error put the book together -- together!

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© Elyse Sommer, October 1998