Any number of musical theatre enthusiasts, back in the 1960s and 1970s, self-educated themselves by listening to original cast recordings, devouring the accompanying liner notes and relying on one book to explain it all to them: "Stanley Green's The World of Musical Comedy." Green's tome, in its early editions, took us step-by-step through Broadway's great songwriters and musicals, providing a firm foundation for a whole generation of Broadway fans. Green periodically updated the book, although the later editions are somewhat off-kilter.
The first two editions took us up to date, circa 1962. The later editions added younger writers and newer shows, like Sondheim, Kander, Strouse, Coleman, et al. These chapters seemed more like an addendum, though, than part of Green's half-century survey of the Broadway musical. What seems to be the most recent update — from 1980, issued in paperback in 1984, and still in print — graduates the four above-mentioned gentlemen to their own individual chapters, but includes some laughably-conceived sections like "Chapter 30: Sherman Edwards, Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, Gary Geld and Peter Udell, Stephen Schwartz." The celebrated composer of Pippin and Wicked might not have liked his placement, back in 1980; but "Ho! Ho! Ho!," as Ira Gershwin once wrote, "Who's got the last laugh now?"
Putting the later chapters aside, "The World of Musical Comedy" was invaluable at the time and remains a remarkably even-handed survey of the work of composers starting with Victor Herbert, George M. Cohan and Sigmund Romberg and ending with Bernstein, Styne and Loesser. Green, who died in 1990, wrote ten books, several of which I continue to use constantly. His "Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre" is seriously outdated, as it was published in 1976, but the information is so concise and comprehensive that I keep it above my desk.
One of Green's final books was "Broadway Musicals Show by Show," which came along in 1985. This was a considerably different sort of book; rather than offering his usually comprehensive information, Green selected a healthy assortment of hit musicals and, in a page or sometimes less, offered a data section including credits, the leading actors and the main songs; a short and usually breezy paragraph about the show; and a photo. This concept allowed an overview of Broadway, something of a stripped-down, highlights-only version of "The World of Musical Comedy." The format proved popular, so much so that the book has been updated every few years. Thus, we now have "Broadway Musicals Show by Show, Eighth Edition" [Applause].
Green's tome has been revised and updated by Cary Ginell, who was also aboard the Seventh Edition. Ginell has done a good job of matching the tone of Green's first two editions. The intervening ones — covering roughly 1988 through 2008 — are not quite so artful. One also wonders about decisions to include shows like the influential 1998 revival of Cabaret with photos of Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson but merely two lines about the destruction of Henry Miller's Theatre and the suggestion that the reader should look up Hal Prince's 1966 production.
The new "Broadway Musicals Show by Show" retains its value for readers who want a quick snapshot of more than 400 productions. The next time through, though, the publishers might want to go back and fix up some of the older entries, instead of merely adding on the new. They could also, reasonably, rethink some of the show choices. (I don't imagine that Stanley — who chose to omit the long-running and highly successful 1977 revue Beatlemania — would have seen fit to include the recent, lackluster Rain. And Rock of Ages gets two full pages, while something like the Pulitzer-winning Fiorello! gets a mere half.)
Theatre Communications Group continues to bring us important playscripts. This month's offerings include three important new plays by two important young writers. Annie Baker seems to turn out one provocative play after another. Last year's offering, The Flick, won itself a Pulitzer Prize for its 2013 production at Playwrights Horizons (which commissioned the piece). The Flick, one expects, will resurface in New York over the next season or so.
Also from Playwrights was Samuel D. Hunter's provocative The Whale, which featured Shuler Hensley in a remarkable performance. TCG combines this with an earlier Hunter play, A Bright New Boise, which premiered at the Wild Project in 2010. The playwright can celebrate the publication in style: He was this week awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, which will underwrite his activities over the next five years (to the tune of $625,000). Let it be recorded here that Alison Bechdel — who provided the source material for Fun Home, which is our favorite musical of the past few years and which will soon take up residence at Circle in the Square — was also on this year's MacArthur list.
David Thomson's updated and expanded "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition" [Knopf] is somewhat out of our line, but the publicist sent it over a few months ago — just for fun — and I haven't been able to put it down since I finally started browsing through it. Thomson covers what must be thousands of actors, directors, screen writers, producers and more. (But apparently only one composer: Bernard Herrmann! For which Thomson offers an encompassing apologia, which almost makes up for it.) What makes this fist-filling 1,100-page book so delectable is the author's informed manner. He doesn't write like some academic offering weighty analysis, or a critic offering incisive interpretation. He talks about each and every entrant casually but tellingly. We get a brief outline of each career, with relevant dates and movie titles; not all, just the credits needed to make the point. Grafted over this, though, is what we might call a religiously unpretentious and humorously impressionistic view of the subject. Each write-up is a choice nugget for us to consider, written in prose that keeps every page lively. Having sampled a couple of dozen entries at random, I can suggest that the entire book must be like this.
In trying to get a sense of the history of "The New Biographical Dictionary," I turned to Thomson's introduction. He started work in 1971 on the First Edition, which was published in 1975. His aim was to write his own personal book on cinema, not a scholarly textbook but one that would reflect his likes and dislikes. As he puts it, "I felt the most important actors in film history were Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, and Barbara Stanwyck. Such claims are closer to orthodox now, but they disturbed plenty of people in 1975 when the book was first published. Indeed, I discovered that both Grant and Mitchum were taken aback."
Thomson is my kind of writer, and I'm looking forward to innumerable sessions of insightful, delectable reading whenever I pick up "The New Biographical Dictionary" to see what he has to say about whoever it is I'm checking up on.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at [email protected].)