THE BOOK SHELF: "Tales of a Broadway Flack" and Photos and Poems by the Harnicks in "The Outdoor Museum"

By Steven Suskin
September 16, 2012

This month's column looks at "Tales of a Broadway Flack," from old-time press agent Sol Jacobson; "The Outdoor Museum," a celebration of New York by Margery Gary Harnick and Sheldon Harnick; plus two manuals for actors and students of acting.



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Readers interested in Broadway of yesterday find a certain magic in memoirs by old-time press agents. These are filled with behind-the-scenes stories, naturally enough, but from a specific angle. The press agent doesn't necessarily know everything that went on; someone handling six shows simultaneously can't necessarily be expected to have a full picture of the artistic and business aspects of a particular venture. But a good press agent usually found himself or herself standing beside the producer at times of crisis. So this subset of theatrical literature — which includes such delightful tomes as Richard Maney's "Fanfare," Bernard Sobel's "Broadway Heartbeat" and Harvey Sabinson's "Darling, You Were Wonderful" — often brings new insights on old shows.

A new entry in the field has recently come along, Tales of a Broadway Flack: The Charmed Life of Press Agent Sol Jacobson by David A. Long [Infinity]. This is not quite in league with the aforementioned books, for various reasons; but it recreates a time, a place, and a world long gone.

Jacobson — like most Broadway press agents who managed to survive in the field for 40 years or more — cast a wide net. After learning the job on site at Jasper Deeter's Hedgerow Theatre outside Philadelphia, he moved into the Shubert press room in 1936. Then it was on to George Abbott's office in 1939, after which Jacobson went to work for the legendary Maney. In this period — prior to being drafted — Jacobson worked on such fare as the Rodgers and Hart musical Too Many Girls and handled the opening of such plays as the record-breaking Arsenic and Old Lace and the Pulitzer-winning The Skin of Our Teeth.

After service in the war, Jacobson returned to town and set up his own shop. His resume — which includes such titles as Summer and Smoke, The Teahouse of the August Moon, Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, Sweet Bird of Youth, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof — suggests the scope of the tales he has to tell.

The above-mentioned press agents books were written by men at the end of their careers but still in full command of their typewriters. Jacobson, who died in 2010 at the age of 97, dictated this book of frequently-told stories to his friend David A. Long in the course of his final year. Thus we are not getting a book from Jacobson, polished, edited and finished like one of his press releases. What's more, I have a suspicion that he relayed these stories in roughly chronological order and that he ran out of steam along the way; the sections dealing with his later career contain minor errors and mischaracterizations that don't seem to occur earlier in the book. So this is not, perhaps, a great piece of literature. But it does tell us stories of the people and the shows, and there is plenty here for people interested in this aspect of show business.

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Cover art for "The Outdoor Museum: Not Your Usual Images of New York"

The name Harnick on a new book instantly attracts our attention, needless to say. In this case, we have The Outdoor Museum: Not Your Usual Images of New York photographs by Margery Gray Harnick, poems by Sheldon Harnick [Beaufort]. Which is to say, this is a photographic picture gallery of New York, the idea being that the streets of the city are a virtual museum.

Margery Gray has been Mrs. Harnick since 1965; musical theatre fans, though, know her from an earlier life. She started as one of those "perfect young ladies" in the 1955 National Tour of Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend; made her Broadway debut in Greenwillow; had a catchy specialty ("The Picture of Happiness") in Tenderloin; finished the Broadway run of Fiorello! as Dora, the girl who loves a cop; and created the soubrette Bonnie in the hit 1962 Off-Broadway revival of Anything Goes. Her biggest role came in support of Vivien Leigh and Jean Pierre Aumont in the 1963 musical, Tovarich; anyone who saw her perform "Stuck With Each Other" is likely to remember it. Then she married Harnick, and Broadway's loss was Sheldon's gain.

Over the years we've heard tell of Mrs. Harnick's occasional exhibits as a painter; over those same years, Mr. Harnick has written lyrics for various musicals. Now they have joined forces, with Sheldon writing 11 poems which provide thematic sections for the hundred-odd photos. Which are often striking; Mrs. H. seems fascinated by reflections, be they in mirrors, glass, water or ice. All in all, this "Outdoor Museum" makes an interesting gallery.

Along with the photos by Margery and the poems by Sheldon, the book includes a CD of the latter reciting the poems. It also boasts a foreword by Mike Nichols and a jacket blurb from Elaine May. (Now, there's an interesting combination.) I suppose Ms. May won't mind our quoting from her blurb; after all, she wrote it and the authors printed it. She makes it a rule not to write blurbs for books, she tells us. "But as Sheldon Harnick said, it won't set a precedent because I'm the only person you were married to for three weeks." Ms. May goes on to say the book is remarkable, terrific and breathtaking.

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Cover art for "The Actor as Storyteller: An Introduction to Acting"

Limelight Editions has brought us two new books on acting. The Actor as Storyteller: An Introduction to Acting by Bruce Miller is a new, second edition of a book originally published in 1999. It is geared towards high school and college actors, as well as professionals. True Acting Tips: A Path to Aliveness, Freedom, Passion, and Vitality by Larry Silverberg is derived from Silverberg's "True Acting Tips" website. Acting tips is what Silverberg — an expert on the Sanford Meisner technique, and author of several books on the same — offers, more than 200 of them. Not being an actor, an acting student or an acting teacher, it is impractical for me to judge the effectiveness of these two items. Earlier books by Miller and Silverberg seem to have a following, which suggests pleased readers.

(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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