Broadway Babies Say Goodnight
Musicals Then and Now
by Mark Steyn

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Faber and Faber: London & Boston, 1997

346 pages

October 2012

The Musical — complex lady of the stage

Complexity is the primary impression I take away from reading or even re-reading Mark Steyn's analytical history, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now. Sure, all history gains complexity as we learn more details and how they tint the big picture, but as we keep studying, it displays more coherence at a higher level. Even actions that seem out of character, for instance among straightforward warriors on the battlefield beach in front of Troy, may be caused by Olympian gods and goddesses — seen or invisible or incognito — stage-managing the Trojan War. But suppose the Olympians-on-Broadway don't all speak Greek: some speak Finnish, or Sanskrit, or Esperanto? Or are obsessed with totem poles or kangaroos? Now suppose this team is working and brawling to create Troy: The Fightin' Musical with fresh songs and dancing goddesses, based on an old story that some haven't read and others don't care about. What do you get then?

An American musical play. It's a wonder this genre existed at all for the seventy-five or so years that Mark Steyn analyzes, let alone incubating some shows and songs and phrases which are great memorable hits that live on for generations. The musical is a complex, mixed art in which disparate elements must not only show up on the same stage at the same night, but blend and meld so that the whole is an entertainment greater than stray parts.

Writing for the musical stage

I'll slide into Broadway Babies Say Goodnight with Steyn's analysis of the writing aspects, which I had supposed I understood best:

There are three writing assignments on a musical: the music, the lyrics and the book (that's the story and dialogue). Most people would place them in that order of importance and difficulty, too:

1  music
2  lyrics
3  book

After all, there are plenty of playwrights and screenwriters around, so writing dialogue can't be that hard. Writing words that rhyme sounds a little more specialized. But, either way, you're dealing in language, which all of us use every day of our lives. Music, though, is either a God-given gift or, anyway, requires years of study at a conservatory.

But here's a curious fact. For most of musical theatre history, there have been far more good composers than good lyricists. And far more good lyricists than good book-writers. ... [The latter is] still a despised activity, even though 'book trouble' kills more musicals than anything else. Seventy-five years ago, we had great songs, but hadn't figured out a way to connect 'em up. A century ago we had great tunes but nothing to put on top of them except doggerel. To skim history via three landmark hits: The Merry Widow (1905) sells on Franz Lehár's lilting melodies; Anything Goes (1934) has Cole Porter's songs — music and lyrics; while South Pacific (1949) has the lot, memorable numbers sung by real people, embedded in a coherent plot — music, lyrics and book.

Steyn gives in capsule here the evolution of the musical form. He casts as far back on the American stage as plays of the 1860s, ancestors providing various strands that go into a musical —including lavishly struggling special effects like "flying", for why watch dancing girls when you have the First Flying Velocipede? He compares and contrasts our showgirl La Musical with her elder relatives: opera, whom we might think of as her Great Aunt Europa; and particularly with operetta, her Mitteleuropean Aunt Vienna. These lingered on as dowagers into the flourishing of the musical, and still do; but the musical brought us something new. The most important difference, if I understand Steyn rightly, is the writing. The best of opera and operetta, even those with skimpy plots and silly lyrics, shine on because of the great music: understanding the operatic language is not a requirement and may be a hindrance.

There's a lot more about writing with, and for, and to fit the music. Here's a bit about the enduring song, "Hello Ma Baby" (1899):

By 1900, there were some 150 telephone songs, but Ida Emerson and Joe Howard's is striking because of the union of music and words: the text seems an expression of the identity of the tune; it makes explicit what's implicit in the notes — a definition of songwriting. The Tin Pan Alley songs were tabloid stories in waltz time; the operetta numbers were lush tunes with waffle. Why does "Hello Ma Baby" seem more satisfying as a song? ... Lyricists, it seems, are far more sensitive to the character of a tune than composers are to the character of a lyric.

The writing in lyrics and dialogue, to work on stage, must mesh naturally with the staging. Steyn says, "try reading the script for a musical", and then he quotes the first lines of Oklahoma! (1943) —

... How'd you ever know it was the best opening number in the world? Until you see it. Musical theatre takes place in three dimensions. You're always looking at something — and, because of the way the senses work, you register what you're seeing before you register what you're hearing. Stephen Sondheim learned an important lesson on West Side Story [1957] when he handed in his lyric for "Maria". "Now what happens here?" asked Jerome Robbins.

"Well, you know, he is standing outside her house," said Sondheim, "and, you know, he senses that she's going to appear on the balcony."

"Yeah, but what's he doing?"

"Oh, he's standing there and singing a song."

"What is he doing?"

"Well, he sings, 'Maria, Maria, I just met a girl named Maria and suddenly that name will never be the same to me.'"

"And then what happens?"

"Then he sings ..."

"You mean he just stands looking at the audience?"

"Well, yes."

"Okay," said Robbins, "you stage it."

Wide-angle understanding & appreciation

The above section on writing for musicals is intended to suggest how much richness Mark Steyn provides throughout Broadway Babies Say Goodnight. Not only do we have Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, but Sigmund Romberg, P. G. Wodehouse, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields. We have a half-dozen pages analyzing Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow as well as discussions of musicals such as Show Boat, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Cats, and a myriad more. Creators and stars and flops, all in abundance: interviews, anecdotes, reminiscences, personal stories. — I name only a minute fraction of what I've enjoyed and learned about here.

Mark Stein's wit always is wide awake, and sharp-clawed as necessary, even as the musicals get dull and drowsy. Toward the end of this lovely book you get to the hibernating sloth, and by then the musicals' era has just about come to its end, too.

As the song goes, "Broadway babies say goodnight" when the dawn comes. It was quite a succession of nights on stage, now mostly gone under; and if today's dawn so far seems gray and chilly for genuinely popular music and musical staging, there are a lot of good things we may carry forward — as more than memories — into new days developing, should our imaginative competence so desire.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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