Covered this month are the 1960's installment in Ethan Mordden’s decade-by-decade history of Broadway tuners, and the libretto to the stage adaptation of The Full Monty.
"Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s" by Ethan Mordden (Palgrave Macmillan)
Ethan Mordden has been working his way through the history of twentieth century stage musicals, decade by decade, in a series of entertaining, well researched and sparklingly opinionated books. He reaches a peak with his latest volume, a tart inquiry into the musicals of the 1960's. Originally published in 2001, it’s now available in paperback.
The task of surveying the sixties was all the more challenging because the decade was so jagged. As 1960 dawned, Broadway was nearing the end of its classical age, the Rodgers and Hammerstein period, but the audience and economics still hearkened back to the forties and fifties. But by the end of 1969, cultural and political ferment had finally reached West 44th Street. Rock music had come to dominate the musical world, experimentation had begun to bubble up from Off-Broadway, alienation had hardened and splintered audiences, and the way had been paved for the sensibilities of the rest of the century.
Mordden chooses 1960's Camelot as the final significant show in the R&H mode, and asserts controversially, that Broadway was in a holding pattern, in limbo, artistically, from then until 1966 when Cabaret came along. A lot of significant shows opened in those "limbo" years: Hello, Dolly; Man of La Mancha; and Fiddler on the Roof. But Mordden chooses Cabaret as the signature musical of the decade. As Stephen Sondheim would say in a different context, it combined all these different trends. Mordden supports his contention with a detailed analysis of the show, lots of backstage stories, links to subsequent shows and comparison to the even longer-running 1998 revival. He spends comparatively little time analyzing why shows succeeded, but lingers lovingly over the decade's many flops — many undeserved in Mordden's eyes. One of the most useful parts of this book is his detailed descriptions of how various songs and scenes looked and sounded in these long-lost turkeys — and why they did or didn’t work. He gives the impression of having seen everything, been everywhere and having listened at every keyhole. He opens more than a few old closets and entertainingly rattles the skeletons therein.
Another great plus is Mordden’s technical knowledge of the music itself, a knowledge often lacking in mainstream critics’ evaluation of musicals.
But his forte remains his fearlessly opinionated attitude. One minute he’ll snarl at critic Clive Barnes for advocating "that jackass’s ideal, the rock musical," and the next minute he'll raise eyebrows asserting, "There were no rock musicals, in fact, including Hair. Hair’s songs were, yes, late sixties pop." He chides Comden and Green for misrhyming "ville" with "Bastille" and calls Lindsay & Crouse "insufferable hacks." He even reaches into the future to whack the Tony nominating committee: "Now hear this: plays without vocal scores are not musicals. Swan Lake is not a musical. Contact is not a musical. Anyone who thinks otherwise is an illiterate idiot."
Rarely a page goes by without a fresh insight or bon mot. Example: "One could propose the rise of the concept musical in the theorem [Allegro + Love Life = Cabaret]." He compares Camelot to "Lord of the Rings." He offers a handy-dandy chart explaining the difference between a Musical Comedy and a Musical Play. He bestows amusing names on stock songs types ("The Irritation Song," "The Wondering Ballet") and stock characters ("The Ridiculous Person").
Open a New Window offers fresh perspectives on a period many remember and lived through, and have been reading about and watching in revival ever since.
Who Will Buy: Fans of musical theatre everywhere. Industry folk who want to see if their names are in it.
It’s really hard to write a funny stage musical that also boasts an original musical sound. Yazbek and McNally did both in their 2000 adaptation of "The Full Monty," about a group of unemployed Buffalo steelworkers (changed from the north Britain location of the film) whose economic and spiritual desperation leads them to become male strippers.
McNally’s book exhibits a flair for working-class speech patterns, worries, and concerns — not only with beer and football, but with parenthood, economics and the very notion of what constitutes masculinity.
Compared with the lushness of his writing in Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman, his dialogue here is wry and compact. One character tries to overcome his friend's reluctance to accept the radical idea of going completely naked ("the full monty") in front of his friends and neighbors:
They laughed at Columbus. They laughed at the Wright Brothers.
And now they’re gonna laugh at us.
Another pleasure of this book is that you can read McNally’s expressive stage directions, which of course you don't get on stage. Nudity in the Broadway version of the show was barely a flash (except when the lighting malfunctioned, accidentally or not, late in the run). Here’s how McNally wrote it: "When the moment of truth comes, they do not shirk from it, They turn their backs to us and drop their g-strings. The audience is going crazy. The men turn around. They are grinning from ear to ear. Black out."
When the original movie was released in the late 1990's and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film, it seemed a natural for a musical, and as director Jack O'Brien explains in an interesting preface, resulted in a crush of offers from composers to write it. O'Brien relates the process by which they chose relative neophyte Yazbek.
His music draws on 1970's pop and Broadway, and his lyrics are often self mocking in a way that matches McNally's sensibility. A high point in the song, "Big-ass Rock," a parody of Carole King’s "You've Got a Friend," in which two guys try to save a third from suicide in a backwards way: They offer to help him. The humor lies in the character's relief and delight that he does have friends in the world — even if they're planning innovative ways to help him kill himself:
I turned around and suddenly
I'm not alone, it ain’t just me
I'm like a player on the team—
I'm part of the gang…
A member of the club.
Ooh, let's get a club!
And then there's Dave's song, "You Rule My World" in which he tenderly croons,
Look at you. You're lying there.
I feel your milky skin, caress your silky hair.
For all these years you've been with me,
I tilt my chin and what I see is
The gag, of course, is that he's singing this to his big fat beer belly.
There are many tender moments, too. In "Breeze Off the River," a stressed out father is watching his son sleep, and realizes he'll do anything for the boy:
Sometimes I feel like I live in a shadow
And shadow's all I see,
Then you jump straight up and you grab the moon
And you make it shine on me.
The Full Monty had the misfortune to open in the same season as The Producers, which overshadowed it, shut it out of the Tony Awards, and thereby presumably shortened its run to just under two years. Those with long memories, however, will recall how enthusiastically it was received at the time, as the rebirth of musical comedy. Having seen the published libretto of The Producers, readers now have a chance to compare both and judge for themselves.
Who Will Buy: Full Monty fans. Yazbek and McNally fans. People who are considering seeing the show on tour or in a regional production, and are curious about how R-rated it gets. Readers curious how a 21st century libretto is written. Auditioners looking for contemporary musical-comedy scenes and songs.