THE BOOK SHELF: New Books About Jerry Orbach, West Side Story and Cabaret

Special Features   THE BOOK SHELF: New Books About Jerry Orbach, West Side Story and Cabaret
 
We page through three new books centering on Broadway: "Jerry Orbach: Prince of the City"; "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination"; and "The Making of Cabaret, Second Edition."

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Jerry Orbach was a New York actor and a true New Yorker, born in 1935 in the Bronx. He was raised in a variety of places — Scranton, PA, Springfield, MA, Waukegan, IL — but by the age of 19 he was back in town, trodding the pavements looking for acting work. Within a few months he landed at the Theatre de Lys as a general cover in the acclaimed revival of The Threepenny Opera, eventually moving up to the role of Macheath. (Orbach, then 20, and the 57-year-old Lotte Lenya, singing about the time long gone by when they lived together in sin, must have been quite a performance.) There followed a long and celebrated career that allowed him to work and live, for the most part, in Manhattan.

In 1960 he created the role of El Gallo in The Fantasticks, introducing the immortal "Try to Remember"; in 1961 he moved up to Broadway for the David Merrick/Gower Champion Carnival; and he continued merrily on from there. Orbach capped his stage career with Bob Fosse's Chicago and the Merrick/Champion 42nd Street. Then, after a decades-long effort at establishing a screen career, the 57-year-old Orbach in 1992 suddenly found himself a major TV star via "Law & Order" — a job which continued for the rest of his life. Through most of which the actor fought prostate cancer, succumbing in 2004 after ten years of struggle.

Orbach was roundly liked and respected by his peers, his audiences, and the cop on the beat. What's more, he seems never to have said an unkind work, thought a harsh thought, or raised his voice when he smacked his thumb with a hammer. At least, that's the impression you get from "Jerry Orbach: Prince of the City" by John Anthony Gilvey [Applause]. The new book gives a good account of Orbach's career, and offers a reasonable picture of what made him so very personable.

There's nothing here, though, that a fellow wouldn't want his 96-year-old mother to read about. Unsurprising, in that Emily Orbach served as one of the author's primary sources. She is present in the very first paragraph of Chapter One, arriving in Manhattan as a waitress in 1932; and in the very last paragraph of the Epilogue, riding the Eighth Avenue bus in 2007. Ma Orbach is so very present throughout that Gilvey dedicates the book to her. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but one wonders if this biography is a little whitewashed, and how much. Certainly, there seems to be little friction between Orbach and his first wife; or between wife number one and wife number two. Or between Orbach and anyone.

Readers might vaguely recall a battle about money and eyeballs — yes, eyeballs — between Jerry's widow and at least one of his sons, fought out in the tabloids (and easily accessible via Internet search). Just how accurate these tabloid reports were, and whether this was amicably resolved, is beside the point. Can Gilvey give us a full and complete picture of the man without mentioning this public controversy, if only to dispute it? If the biographer chooses to ignore seemingly major and decidedly ugly episodes like this, one wonders what other uncomplimentary facets are excised from the portrait.

This was also a problem in Gilvey's prior book, "Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical." In that case the author at least alluded to Champion's various scandals, although in PG terms. Here, we clearly get that Jerry Orbach was a nice guy. But he comes across as a flawless saint, and I expect that Jerry would be just as fascinating — if not more fascinating — with a little realistic color.

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Also somewhat successful is "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination" by Misha Berson [Applause]. Berson, drama critic for the Seattle Times, has sought to "survey West Side Story from a variety of angles, in a kaleidoscopic appreciation" and to "suggest the ways, both obvious and subtle, this concentrated act of imagination has seized and inspired the national imagination."

Surveying the landmark musical from a variety of angles is one thing; weighing the effect of a musical on the spirit of the national imagination is another. This study of the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents-Robbins musical provides something of a step-by-step guide to the creation of the show.

I say something of a step-by-step guide because the strictures of time and recollection make Ms. Berson's job a little tricky. Plenty has been written about West Side, of course, including accounts by most of the main participants. The creators actually convened at a Dramatists Guild symposium in the fall of 1985 for a fascinating discussion of the creation of the show; not surprisingly, given the egos involved, they didn't necessarily agree with each other. (Berson's book would be much stronger had she arranged to include the transcript of the symposium as an appendix, rather than simply quoting from it.)

On that occasion in 1985, they were at least talking at the same time. Berson quotes liberally from the creators, but Bernstein's account of the creation of the show — in the form of a diary written after-the-fact — was written long ago; it's unclear when, but it seems to be back in the 1960s. Sondheim is quoted, in great part, from his 2010 book "Finishing the Hat." Their comments are mixed together, combining halves of sentences — if you will — recollected 50 years apart.

And then there's Mr. Laurents, who was famously contradictory about everything. As the years rolled by, and as Laurents directed revivals of both West Side Story and Gypsy, he tended to downplay the contributions of Robbins; by the time he wrote his two autobiographical volumes in 2000 and 2009, Robbins (and Bernstein) were gone and he could claim full credit for everything. This is only human nature, or at any rate Laurentian nature, and it was his perfect right to say whatever he wished. But using large swaths of the Laurents books in a kaleidoscopic appreciation of what happened in 1957 is problematic. Berson brings Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents and Robbins back into the room together, but they are talking from different worlds (and different centuries, even).

Another aspect of this problem comes with comments from Carol Lawrence, who originated the role of Maria. These are derived not from interviews, in which Ms. Berson could ask her own questions and respond to Lawrence's statements, but from the 1990 autobiography "The Backstage Story." Lawrence, whose career was at something of a standstill, seems to have had some scores to settle. Which is fine, in itself; but this doesn't necessarily give an accurate account of what happened in rehearsal 30 years before. With at least five key participants still available today for first-hand accounts, the person Berson interviews is Martin Charnin, who played one of the minor Jets. And who talks mostly about Martin Charnin.

That said, "Something's Coming, Something Good" presents a fairly evenhanded picture of the creation of West Side Story. Berson frequently interrupts the text with sidebars, which are informative and help put things in perspective. Her critical opinions and analysis often seem not to be her own, but borrowed from other writers; this is not a minus, as the opinions put forward are generally sound. What's more, the author goes out of her way to give proper credit; in several spots she specifically praises Nigel Simeone's 2009 study "Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story", which not only shows Berson's appreciation but her good taste. But "Something's Coming, Something Good" is not especially compelling, and doesn't bring new information or insight.

The shortcomings of the West Side Story book were put into instant focus when I picked up the next tome on the pile, "The Making of Cabaret, Second Edition" by Keith Garebian [Oxford]. Garebian tells the story of an important — if lesser — musical in a manner that is both compelling and page-turning. Yes, Garebian must weave together his story from varied accounts and sources stretching over 45 years; but he does so in a manner that gives us the big, overall picture instead of a fragmented one. An earlier version of this book was published in 1999 in Canada. I have not seen that volume, but the author in his preface explains that this Second Edition is quite different. He has incorporated relevant comments from several books published in the last decade, and he has now had the opportunity to delve through the comprehensive archives of the Hal Prince, Fred Ebb and Boris Aronson Collections at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. "This has allowed me to excise much of the extraneous biographical background on the major contributors in order to concentrate more sharply on aesthetic and sociocultural issues that did not receive much discussion in the first edition," he says; judging by the results, I expect this Second Edition is significantly different than the First. Garebian also seems this time round to have had the active participation of John Kander, which is a prime asset.

Without going into a round of specifics, one can simply look at Jean Rosenthal. Never heard of Jean Rosenthal? Well, she in some ways created the position of the modern Broadway lighting designer, beginning with Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre back in 1935. After several decades with City Ballet and Martha Graham, Rosenthal's innovative work for Robbins in West Side Story solidified the importance of creative lighting design to stage musicals. This was followed by a string including The Sound of Music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof.

Berson's book gives us three short paragraphs — 250 words — about Rosenthal and her ground-breaking work on West Side. Garebian gives us almost three pages on Rosenthal and her work on Cabaret. This is not merely filler material, mind you; director Prince — inspired by a production he saw at the Taganka Theatre in Moscow — commissioned Rosenthal to come up with a new-to-Broadway wall of lights which proved to be one of the most dazzling elements of Cabaret. Garebian similarly describes the contributions of set designer Boris Aronson and costume designer Patricia Zipprodt, explaining not only who they were but how they contributed to enhance Cabaret. The West Side book does little more than mention designers Oliver Smith and Irene Sharaff before moving on.

"The Making of Cabaret" is graced with a cover shot of Alan Cumming as the Emcee, which doesn't make much sense as Cumming was only one year old during the making of Cabaret. But that's the only complaint I have, and a purely cosmetic one.

(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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