Playbill On-Line Book Review: 'Broadway, The Golden Years'

Playbill On-Line Book Review: 'Broadway, The Golden Years' "Broadway, The Golden Years" (Continuum Publishing) is really seven books in one. It traces a unique and fascinating facet of Broadway history — the rise of the great director-choreographers — through mini biographies of its six foremost practitioners, plus a roundup of who's working today.
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"Broadway, The Golden Years" (Continuum Publishing) is really seven books in one. It traces a unique and fascinating facet of Broadway history — the rise of the great director-choreographers — through mini biographies of its six foremost practitioners, plus a roundup of who's working today.

Yes, we've had full and prominent biographies and/or autobiographies of most of them; Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille; plus lesser works on Tommy Tune and the cypher that was Gower Champion. But this is the first major book to treat them all as parts of a continuum. "Broadway, The Golden Years" chronicles not just their individual artistic journeys but shows them as steps up the staircase of musical theatre development from the 1940s to the present, merging dance and drama.

Author Robert Emmet Long starts, properly, with Agnes de Mille, reminding us what a revolution Oklahoma! wrought in 1943. For the first time, dance was used throughout the show as a storytelling device, not just a diversion or a way to display the chorus girls like chocolates in a Valentine box.

But, subtitled "Jerome Robbins and the great choreographer directors," the book devotes nearly a third of its text to the career of Robbins, who made movement integral to shows like On the Town, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. In each case, characters were defined by how they moved, and even such unlikely plot turns as a subway ride, a gang fight and the gathering of peasants in a Russian village, became defined by how the participants moved. His choices startled and inspired all those to whom he passed his torch.

Author Long similarly defines his book's main players by their behavior. These imperious dictators of dance were artists with little or no formal management training, who ruled their productions through the power of their personalities and their ability to manipulate dancers' fervent awe of their talent. "Broadway, The Golden Years" tells how they spun flax into gold: turning their personalities into unique musical vocabularies, and using market pressures — for example, the economic need to have dancers who could also sing and act — to forge a new kind of Broadway musical. The epilogue, the freshest and most original section, looks at the heirs of the foregoing, Susan Stroman and Graciela Daniele, and mentions in passing Rob and Kathleen Marshall and Wayne Cilento. Though Long quotes a Playbill story in which Tommy Tune claimed he was the "last of the choreographer-directors," the author concludes, "it's too soon to write the choreographer director's obituary."

— By Robert Viagas