THE BOOK SHELF: Bock & Harnick in "To Broadway, To Life!," a Divine "Sarah" and a Book of Hair

News   THE BOOK SHELF: Bock & Harnick in "To Broadway, To Life!," a Divine "Sarah" and a Book of Hair
 
We page through "To Broadway, To Life!: The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick"; "Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt"; and Eric Grode's "Hair: The Story of the Show that Defined a Generation."

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The songs of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are brim-filled with joy, humor, and life — three elements that are strangely missing from "To Broadway, To Life!: The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick" by Philip Lambert [Oxford]. This book, part of Oxford's Broadway Legacies Series, is the first full-length study of Bock & Harnick. Yes, it tells us far more about the pair than we knew before. But the writer's sustained focus on secondary dominants, diatonic #4s, and double-neighbor figures makes for heavy reading. Lambert explains and details every broken chord the composer ever conceived, finding earlier models, influences, and parallels. I am a strong partisan of the work of Mr. Bock, who died on Nov. 3, 2010, but my own personal theory was that his guiding method was simply to write music that to him sounded "right," or even better "just right." Analyze it, compute it, chart the intervals with a slide rule if you will; you'll end up with lots of musicological diagrams but little impression of the music.

Missing, I'm afraid, is any sense of fun. How did audiences feel about the shows? How does Mr. Lambert feel about the scores? Does he like the songs? Does he enjoy them? "To Broadway, To Life!" gives a scholarly view of things, and musical theorists will surely appreciate Bock's "pervasive presence of fifths progressions" and every last Mixolydian tone. But fans of the musicals of Bock & Harnick might well have trouble reading past Tenderloin.

Here's a discussion labeled "modal sources for some Fiddler melodies": "Mi shebberakh also shares important features — specifically, the first five steps, highlighted by the augmented second between steps 3 and 4 — with the Gypsy scale, or Hungarian minor, a tonal resource for some of the style hongrois in She Loves Me. Ahavah rabbah and Mi shebberakh are essentially different modal rotations of harmonic minor: Example 6.7a is the fifth rotation of F harmonic minor (F harmonic minor rotated to start on step 5), and 6.7b is the fourth rotation of G harmonic minor (H harmonic minor rotated to start on step 4.) Adonai malach (Example 6.7c) is a major scale with a flat-7, as in Mixolydian, plus flat-3 in the upper octave." This may very well be so. I expect, though, that the average fan — looking to learn what made the combination of Jerry and Sheldon so extra-special — will find it nearly incomprehensible.

Lambert gives us an informative sketch of the training and career paths of both Bock and Harnick, with a convincing explanation of Bock's route from lyricist Larry Holofcener to Sheldon Harnick (via George David Weiss). He also offers the rather surprising information that Bock alone was initially hired for the Fiorello! project, with Harnick added some months later after the job was turned down by others (including, specifically, Stephen Sondheim). Lambert acknowledges that this directly contradicts Hal Prince in "Contradictions," the latter's invaluable early book of memoirs: Prince states that Bock & Harnick were asked to write three songs on spec, giving them scenes to work on without telling them the show was about LaGuardia; "Politics and Poker" earned them the job, and understandably so. Who is correct, Prince or Lambert? Hard to say; the scholarly footnotes indicate that Lambert relied on various published sources but did not specifically ask Bock, Harnick or Prince. Or Sondheim. Those looking to "To Broadway, To Life" for biographical information about Bock and Harnick — and the majority of readers, I would guess, will be looking for biographical information — will be especially disappointed. Lambert mentions that Harnick conceived his imperishable "Boston Beguine" on the bus back from Boston, where his wife was appearing in the tryout of the 1951 musical Top Banana. What wife? Lambert doesn't say. Nor does he mention that Harnick's second wife — during the period when he was writing She Loves Me — left him to marry her psychoanalyst; the doc's own wife at the time responded by committing suicide, resulting in the husband being publicly drummed out of the New York psychoanalyst corps. Not a word about any of this. Elaine May turns up anecdotally on page 210, in conjunction with Cy Coleman's Sweet Charity. How can Lambert drop in a paragraph about Elaine May on Sweet Charity without mentioning that she was the second Mrs. Harnick? Some biography.

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Sarah Bernhardt, AKA The Divine Sarah, went on the Paris stage back in the days when Mister Lincoln's troops were battling Johnny Reb. Which is to say, this was a long time ago; she remained on the boards until shortly before her death in 1923, hobbling on her left leg following the amputation of her right in 1915 (when she was 71). Anyone who saw Bernhardt in her heyday — and anyone who can describe her acting style in terms that compare to the great actors of the 20th century — is long gone. Which makes the prospects for a current-day biography rather dry.

Or so I thought when I picked up "Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt" by Robert Gottlieb [Yale University Press]. But that hasn't fazed Mr. Gottlieb, who is better known for his long and lustrous editorial career at Simon and Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker. Here Gottlieb was, faced with minimal information on the one hand, conflicting information on the second hand, and Ms. Bernhardt's fictionalized memoirs on the third hand. What does he do? Charms and disarms us with his story, filling in "facts" from Bernhardt's writings and interviews while liberally raising his eyebrows as he goes along. It might not all be accurate, he seems to be saying — it almost can't all be accurate — but this is the way Sarah determined it should be told, and it's reasonably close enough.

For example, the question of Bernhardt's 1859 audition — in her early teens — for the Conservatoire National, the government school of acting. (We say early teens because Gottlieb presents us with three likely birthdates; that's as close as he can get.) The untrained Bernhardt's audition was so startlingly good, she tells us in her 1907 autobiography "My Double Life," that she was picked out of hundreds of applicants and admitted on the spot. Fine. Gottlieb adds, though, that the duc de Morny — a powerful business leader and the illegitimate half-brother to Emperor Louis-Napoleon — called on the head of the conservatory prior to the audition and pointedly advised that Bernhardt be accepted. Sending Sarah to acting school seems to have been de Morny's idea in the first place, perhaps to get the girl off the hands of her mother (who was de Morny's mistress). This version of the story Gottlieb traces to — who else? — Bernhardt herself, speaking candidly but on the record to playwright Louis Verneuil, her grandson-in-law.

So we get two sides of the story, at least — which is how Bernhardt presumably wanted it. One can understand her insistence on factual embellishment. Arguably the most famous woman of the 18th century — the only competition being Queen Victoria, I guess — one can see why Bernhardt wouldn't want to spell out that she was the daughter of a courtesan, niece to a considerably more famous courtesan, and older sister to two prostitutes. (As best Gottlieb can determine, Bernhardt was groomed for — and following her first, unsuccessful professional acting stints, was briefly a practitioner of — the family trade.)

We go on to watch Bernhardt conquer France and — once she sees the sort of money she can earn — the world. Nine North American tours, back in the days when traveling was not quite so smooth and stress-free as today. On her final tour, in 1916, she played 99 cities over 14 months. Gottlieb gives us a stretch of the itinerary: Salem, Portland, Bridgeport, New Haven, Worcester, Springfield, Pittsfield, Albany, Port Huron, Saginaw, Flint, Lansing, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids. And this on one leg. But the United States was just another stop for Bernhardt, if probably the most lucrative one; she also played from Argentina to South Africa to Australia.

As I was thinking how long ago and forgotten all these doings are — the main portion of the tale takes place in the 1870-1890 era — I was pulled up short on page 181. Back in 1982, I worked with Eva Le Gallienne and spent hours between-shows sitting with her in her dressing room; she was stunned and pleased that anyone under 30 could — and cared to — converse about her early career. I asked about Eleonora Duse, not because I was especially interested but because I figured when would I ever have a chance to talk to an intimate of Duse? And here we have Bernhardt, in 1897, plotting against her one serious rival — Duse. (Sarah not only stole Duse's lover, Gabriele d'Annunzio; she stole one of the plays he wrote for Duse as well.) Which makes me, via that six degrees game, only two steps from Bernhardt! So maybe the Divine Sarah isn't all that ancient as I thought.

Mr. Gottlieb is not of the theatre, but he seems to have a clear understanding of the milieu. His wife, Maria Tucci, is a respected actress with a decades-long career; this presumably helped Gottlieb make sense of Bernhardt's world. More importantly, Gottlieb turns out to be a droll and entertaining writer; his nimble prose is just the trick for keeping this jumble of 19th century plays and players intriguing. There is one surprising lapse: the inclusion of an oft-told anecdote about P.T. Barnum cabling Bernhardt in 1915, after the amputation, which Gottlieb tells us is "apparently" so. Any fact-checker should have circled this one; it simply doesn't sound right to place Barnum in the World War I era. As it turns out, he died a quarter-century earlier.

But that is the merest quibble. Gottlieb's "Sarah" is an unlikely but vibrant backstage biography. Ancient, yes, but — for comparison's sake — far more alive and readable than the clunky present-day biography at the top of this column.

Hair — the latest revival — has come and gone, and now we have "Hair: The Story of the Show that Defined a Generation" by Eric Grode [Running Press]. Grode has taken the story of Hair — the creation, the Public Theater production, the Broadway production, and all that came after — and combined it with countless photos and numerous lyric sheets. Thus comes a veritable scrapbook of all things sprung from those bangled, tangled, spangled and spaghettied locks. (Gerry Ragni, one of the two lyricists and the originator of the role of Claude, indeed had spaghettied locks of the Medusa variety.) Grode spins an effective tale, doing an especially fine job of recreating the crucible that formed the piece. The personalities were outsized; lyricist/librettists Ragni and James Rado, composer Galt MacDermot, directors Gerald Freedman and Tom O'Horgan, producers Joseph Papp and Michael Butler. And mind you, Hair in its day was enormous — Broadway's biggest SRO hit at a time when the likes of Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof were still ruling the boards.

There is plenty of discussion of the 2009 revival, naturally enough; I suppose the publishers assumed it would still be running when the book came off the press. I personally am sorry to see that Grode all but ignores the 1977 Broadway revival of Hair. This was a close duplication, with the authors, O'Horgan, Butler and the original designers and choreographer in attendance. Some of whom by that point really couldn't abide each other, which caused myriad problems. But it seems strange not to at least mention that Hair returned to the Biltmore, its original Broadway home, with a cast including Loretta Devine, Cleavant Derricks, Ellen Foley, David Patrick Kelly, Annie Golden, Kristen Vygard, Charlaine Woodard, and Peter Gallagher.

And me, for seven performances; I was the company manager, but we had so many injuries that when I arrived at half-hour one Wednesday afternoon I was told that I had to go on. This is not a common occurrence along Broadway, but hey — you do what you must. I was not your standard Hair tribe member, to say the least, but every time I saw Gerry until he died in 1991 he told me that I was "the best Hubert ever." (Hubert is the hapless husband of the Tourist Lady, who sings "My Conviction.") Let me add, though, that I was likely the worst ever General Grant.

 (Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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