THE BOOK SHELF: New Biographies of "Marc Blitzstein" and "Thornton Wilder"

By Steven Suskin
November 4, 2012

The lives to two dramatists are in the spotlight in this month's books column: "Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World" by Howard Pollack and "Thornton Wilder: A Life" by Penelope Niven.



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Relatively overlooked among the ranks of influential composers of the American musical theatre is Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964). A serious, "long-hair" composer with conservatory training, he spent his first professional decade struggling in the concert world before more or less stumbling into the Broadway arena in 1937 with the unconventional, unusual and unique The Cradle Will Rock. He turned out only a handful of full musicals — the last coming in 1959 — but his influence was greater than the statistics suggest; while Leonard Bernstein would certainly have existed without Blitzstein's friendship and mentoring, Lenny was clearly influenced by Marc's life and work. Thus, musical-theatre writers inspired by West Side Story (or Candide, for that matter), knowingly or unknowingly, followed Blitzstein's path.

Blitzstein is most remembered for his 1954 English-language adaptation of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera. This piece — which premiered at a college music festival organized by Bernstein, as it happens — went on to have a record-breaking Off-Broadway run of 2,700 performances. (Despite being Off-Broadway, it won a Tony Award and don't ask me to explain why.) When you hear "Mack the Knife," it's Blitzstein's words you are hearing; while the Weill-Brecht "Moritat" was popular in Europe when it was written in 1928, it didn't become a chart-buster until Blitzstein replaced "Mackie Messer" with that snappy nickname.

As for me, his 1949 Regina — adapted from Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes — ranks high upon the musical theatre scale. If you are unfamiliar with it, do yourself a favor and search it out; after decades in the out-of-print bin, the excellent Columbia cast album is now available from Broadway Masterworks/Arkiv (read my 2010 On the Record column about the reissue). 

But Blitzstein, himself, has long been overlooked. This was somewhat rectified in 1989 by Eric A. Gordon's "Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein" [Oxford]. Now we have a second, equally strong biography, Howard Pollack's Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World [Oxford]. Gordon, I suppose you could say, concentrated more on the life; Pollack concentrates on the music.

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This is a meticulous look at things, yes, which at times seems overwhelmed by detail. (Pollack not only tells us everything he can learn about Blitzstein's many music teachers, from boyhood on; he tells us that the 19-year-old Blitzstein studied with a fellow who studied with a good friend of Brahms. Which doesn't really tell us much about Blitzstein, does it?) We seem to go through the creation of every piece of music Blitzstein wrote — music which, in the case of the early half of his career, none of us are likely ever to hear. Woven among this is the increasingly complicated saga of his life, his politics, and his exceedingly odd marriage to Eva Goldbeck (who died in 1936).

The biographer's layers of detail — which can approach the overwhelming level in sections about Blitzstein's European studies — suddenly pay off. The jumble of teachers and studies, experiments and failures, social activism and economic struggle combine to lead to the moment when suddenly out comes The Cradle Will Rock, full-grown. The 32-year-old Blitzstein — thus far an all-but-unknown new-music composer, perennially in the shadow of his friend Copland and his competitor Weill — is suddenly, albeit briefly, in the spotlight.

Pollack takes us on through the war years, the elusive struggle to write another enduring theatre-opera, the close relationship with Bernstein, the strained relationship with Weill (which even so resulted in the phenomenally successful Threepenny, following the latter's death in 1950), and finally Blitzstein's brutal murder in a deserted alley on the island of Martinique.

Pollack turns out to be an expert guide to Blitzstein. His jacket blurb tells us that he wrote a Gershwin biography, which I have never seen, in 2007. If "Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World," is any indication, I think I must search out a copy of "George Gershwin: His Life and Work."

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Cover art for "Thornton Wilder: A Life"
Back in 1972, when still a teenager, I wangled my way into my first black-tie Broadway gala. The opening of the Theater Hall of Fame, in what was then the brand new Uris Theatre, was capped with a grand buffet dinner at the sprawling restaurant downstairs (originally a Stouffer's, most recently Mars 2112). My plate loaded with high-class banquet food, I wandered through room after room until I spotted a six-person table with only one occupant, a large old man with bushy white eyebrows starting in on his food. I asked if the other seats were taken, he invited me to join him.

And so we started talking. He wanted to know all about me, of which there wasn't that much to tell. All along, I kept wondering what this out-of-place fellow was doing at this celebrity fete.

He wasn't a famous old actor, obviously. I quickly paged through all the old-time pros who were still alive and presumably in attendance; Abbott, Rodgers, Logan, Balanchine, Robbins, Atkinson. This guy was none of the above. Besides, he looked out of place and uncomfortable, like he clearly felt he didn't belong. Maybe he was some celebrity's father or grandfather? But no; his family wouldn't leave him eating alone like that. And besides, he didn't look like he was anyone's father. If he was someone, wouldn't he be surrounded by other celebrities and hangers-on?

As we sat there sawing into our food — our plates indicated that we had the same culinary taste, at Least — he responded to one of my questions that he felt out of place but must have been invited (aha!, he's one of the 132 honorees!) because of a play he'd written back during the Depression.

That was enough to get me on the scent. It turned out that this interesting and friendly but run-down and ailing 75-year old — alone and ignored, despite his fame and three Pulitzer Prizes — was Thornton Wilder, sitting there eating roast beef with me.

Wilder was already then, and remains now, surprisingly obscure. Our Town is performed frequently, and annually assigned to high school classes across the nation. But his life remains an underexplored mystery; the last biography came in 1983. So who was Thornton Wilder (1897-1974), the award-winning novelist who within six short years came up with both Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth?

Penelope Niven does a masterful job of answering that question, over 800 or so pages, in Thornton Wilder: A Life [Harper]. Niven has a major advantage over prior biographers; Wilder's surviving sister Isabel kept a close hold on her brother's papers, work, and letters until her death in 1995. The story Niven tells is of a brilliant but intensely private soul.

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He was raised partially in China; his father, a struggling newspaperman, wangled the post of American Consul to Hong Kong and then Shanghai. This meant that Thornton was uprooted from Wisconsin at the age of eight, eventually winding up alone and stranded in a German-language boarding school in China (without friends or the ability to speak German). Thus was the pattern set, leaving him something of a permanent outsider. At one point, when he was 65 and world famous, Wilder packed up his car and drove off until he came upon a small town in middle-of-nowhere Arizona. There he lived hidden from the world for almost two years, writing away.

The author theorizes that Wilder was psychologically scarred from his earliest days by the knowledge that he was a twin, with his brother stillborn. Thornton and Theophilus, they were named. His final novel — finished just after our roast beef dinner — was "Theophilus North," with "North" drawn from "Thornton"; part memoir, it was framed as the autobiography of his absent brother. It all makes an intriguing story, with a brilliant but reserved and mightily uncomfortable hero.

Niven — who in the course of her research discovered that she was a distant relation of Thornton Niven Wilder — ends her account with a short trip the dying writer made to New York during Thanksgiving week, 1975. She tells us that he went to a couple of movies, spent time at the main branch of the New York Public Library, and had Thanksgiving dinner with Ruth Gordon (who had starred in his adaptations of A Doll's House and the play that became The Matchmaker). What Niven doesn't tell us — because it went undocumented — is what Wilder did on one of his final nights before going home to Connecticut to die. Which he did, a week later, on Dec. 7.

He went over to the Majestic Theatre, down 44th Street from the Harvard Club (where he was staying). He knocked on the stage door and asked for Leo Herbert, who had been the head propman on both The Matchmaker and its offspring, Hello, Dolly! Wilder painfully took a seat upstage by Herbert's workbox and sat whispering through the performance of Mack & Mabel, patiently waiting while Leo went off to do his cues. There were no earthshaking pronouncements that night. Wilder was clearly making his final goodbye to the world, as in the last act of Our Town. Leo concluded that he simply wanted to sit backstage in the dark, smelling the greasepaint and inhaling the theatre dust one more time before making the last, long journey from Manhattan to Hamden.

(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," now available in paperback, "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and The DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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