THE BOOK SHELF: Gerald Schoenfeld's "Mr. Broadway," Plus Two Books on Irving Berlin
By Steven Suskin
This month's column looks at "Mr. Broadway," Gerald Schoenfeld's memoir about life as a Shubert, plus two books about Irving Berlin: "The Irving Berlin Reader" and "Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater."
There's no business like show business, as the song goes, and we get a fascinating discussion of that particular field in Gerald Schoenfeld's Mr. Broadway: The Inside Story of the Shuberts, the Shows, and the Stars [Applause]. Now, people looking solely for stories of shows and stars might be less than overwhelmed by what's here. Shubert theatres housed more than half of the important plays and musicals since 1949, when Schoenfeld first stepped into the law office of William Klein. (Klein had been a permanent Shubert fixture since the evening in 1905 when he and Sam Shubert were in a train crash near Harrisburg, taking the latter's life). The shows which Schoenfeld discusses, though, are not the great hits booked into the theatres during his 60 years of service but the ones that he and Bernie Jacobs personally coproduced under the Shubert Organization mantel. A worthy subgroup, starting with Amadeus, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Cats, but not the sort of titles you'd get in a memoir by Hal Prince or David Merrick. (Schoenfeld does talk at length about two unsuccessful shows he poured his heart — and Shubert resources — into, the musicals Amour and Passing Strange.)
Neither are the stars the thing. Hugh Jackman provides a loving foreword — he seemed to look upon Gerry as a father figure — and there's an introduction from Alec Baldwin as well. Schoenfeld describes his battles with Liza with a Z — The Act is one of those disastrous Shubert-produced musicals — Al Pacino, Kathleen Turner and others.
Also on hand are folks like Bennett, Fosse and Nunn. His big chapter on leading ladies, is called "Dancing with Divas: Mae, Maria and Joan," and I defy any Broadway-watcher to identify 'em without lots of head-scratching.
But Schoenfeld was not, really, a producer (in the common use of the term). He was a Shubert, or as much of a Shubert as anyone other than the original boys from Syracuse. We have long known the highlights and lowlights of the clan's 100-plus year reign on Broadway. Schoenfeld — who died in 2008, at the age of 84 — occasionally referred to himself as the man who saved the Shuberts. His memoir reveals just how he did save the Shuberts and their theatres from extinction, and on more than one occasion. We follow a string of severe calamities, with the enemies including competitors, the government, and — most viciously — other Shuberts. Schoenfeld (and, beginning in 1957, Bernard B. Jacobs) navigated the dangers with a combination of caution, craft, and luck; as you follow the ins and outs, you see that Gerry really did save the Shuberts from at least three potentially fatal blows. (I have always known him as Gerry; the book, posthumously and impressively finished by Schoenfeld's widow Pat, calls him Jerry. Which looks wrong to me on every page.)
Here are the Shuberts — the two real ones, plus a couple of heirs — drawn in a more lifelike manner than elsewhere. Schoenfeld didn't actually know Lee — he sat in on a meeting with him, once — but he implemented Lee's demands for four years as he was starting out. He did have a much closer relationship with J.J. (Jake), who was even more impossible than Lee. As Jake went senile, the reigns were taken over by Jake's son John, who seems the most decent of the group (although it was discovered that he had a second wife hidden away, with two children.) John was far preferable to J.J.'s hated nephew Milton, who inherited Lee's estate and promptly sued J.J. in a case that took 12 years and 85 court hearings. Worst of all was Larry (Lawrence Shubert Lawrence), who was content to drink away the family business. When they finally got rid of the latter, Schoenfeld and Jacobs got tangled up with a hustler named Irving Goldman who almost got them all in jail. It wasn't until 1972 that the pair took control, and helped usher in a new era on Broadway.
If this sounds like a delectable roller coaster of a saga, it is. And let us be clear that Schoenfeld is not simply concerned with praising Schoenfeld. Time and again he criticizes his own decisions, blaming himself for at least some of the problems with the government's anti-trust case and noting that he, himself, urged the board to make the near-fatal appointments of Lawrence Shubert Lawrence and Irving Goldman. Anyone interested in show business of the Broadway variety — with the emphasis on business as opposed to glittery stars — is going to find "Mr. Broadway" of page-turning interest.
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Books compiled from a lifetime's-worth of press stories, anecdotes and memoirs range from wonderfully illuminating to a mass of oft-told tales more fanciful than actual. The Irving Berlin Reader by Benjamin Sears [Oxford] does the job well. Berlin was one of those make-up-your-story-as-you-go-along guys, sort of inevitable given his early years of severe poverty in Russia and on the lower East Side. Sears — the singer who with pianist Brad Connor is a fixture on the Boston cabaret scene — has selected 40-odd pieces which give us a good picture of the reclusive (and I suppose it is apt to say, miserable) man who more or less defined pop music for about a third of the 20th century.
The early accounts from journalists and collaborators are the best, as these poor souls were unaware that they were writing about a legendary icon. There are numerous sections pulled from autobiographies by equally legendary peers and coworkers (Rodgers, Astaire, Merman and more) plus some newer analyses. A typical comment unearthed by Sears: "it's easier to be Larry Hart or Cole Porter than Irving Berlin." The sentiment might seem oblique — this was Jule Styne talking, after all — but it is right on the mark.
Irving was a private man, certainly, by nature and prerogative. "The Irving Berlin Reader" doesn't assault and attack him, as one of his major biographers did. It just gives us several shades of Irving, and a sense of who he was behind the self-imposed public mask, at least in the early years.
Clashing deadlines afforded only a brief examination of a related tome, Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater by Jeffrey Magee [Oxford]. This book seeks to make a case for Berlin's "immeasurable influence on the American stage." Not having read it in full, I can't comment on the hypothesis; seems to me, though, that Berlin's seven full book musicals were behind (rather than ahead of) the times. Even Annie Get Your Gun, his only durable and revivable show, was seen as old-fashioned and a bit creaky — albeit with an amazing collection of songs — when it opened in 1946 in the wake of Oklahoma!, One Touch of Venus, On the Town and Carousel. Berlin's revue work through 1924 helped shake things up, but this was before the age of the immeasurably influential Gershwin, Rodgers, Sondheim et al.
I took the time to look at the discussion of two of Berlin's big musicals. Louisiana Purchase, the 1940 satiric attack on the populist governor and senator Huey Long (who died in 1935), has what I consider to be Berlin's most (and only) swinging score. What we get here are three unenlightened pages which don't provide much more than background and synopsis. Magee does tell us that the show was revived on Broadway "in the 1990s"; if he'd bothered to look for an actual date, he'd have discovered that Louisiana Purchase wasn't revived on Broadway in the 1990s or ever.
I next turned to his discussion of Miss Liberty, the 1949 musical that was so surefire that Berlin, his librettist, and his director decided to produce it themselves. Why share all those profits with a producer? The show was a top-heavy clunker, the dire reception suggesting that the great American public was soon to place the long-uncontested king of pop music out to pasture. Only I couldn't find a discussion of Miss Liberty; none at all. Magee obviously knows it exists — he includes one of its songs in a list of Berlin's contrapuntal duets — but the fifth of Berlin's seven major musicals is simply skipped. Magee does, however, give us four full pages about a proposed revue that never seems to have gotten beyond a memo of ideas.
It is best to reserve judgment of "Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater" until I have had time for a full reading, but while reviewing the first Berlin book I thought it proper to try to include the second. Maybe I just happened on the wrong 20 pages in my browsing; but that's what I read, and that's what I thought.
(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 DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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