What's New on the Rialto
Showstoppers!: The Surprising Backstage Stories of
Broadway's Most Remarkable Songs
By Gerald Nachman
Book Review by Stanford Friedman
Also see Stan's review of Ken Bloom's Show & Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes
Along the way there is also plenty of music and lyric appreciation. How did I not know that the melody of The Music Man's "Goodnight My Someone" is a slowed down "Seventy-Six Trombones?" How did I fail to appreciate Dorothy Fields's ear for meter: "I'd like those stumble bums to see for a fact/the kind of top-drawer, first rate chums I attract." Yes, visiting familiar scores is a pleasure, but be warned, you may find yourself vulnerable to a psychological effect which I am calling the Rodgers & Hart attack: Reading great lyrics sparks an addictive craving to hear the melody, which sends you racing to your original cast album collection (or to one of the many online recordings Nachman cites). Once sated, you will feel a warm sense of gratitude toward the author.
This is not to say that Nachman is especially concerned about being warm. He takes pleasure in pointing out that critics often fail to recognize a showstopper in their original reviews, even as he unearths their essential quotes (Hilton Als on Sondheim: "a romantic who attacks his own heart for needing to feel"). And, hilariously, he hates the movie version of nearly every show he discusses. It becomes something of an unintended running gag, from Hello, Dolly! ("all-around disappointment") to Bye Bye Birdie ("a misguided mess") to Annie ("dismal, charmless").
The writing throughout is compelling, if at times factually off target. Nachman seems to be in occasional need of a calendar, saying at one point, for instance, that Show Boat opened just eight years prior to South Pacific, not twenty-two. Also, I imagine Kelly Bishop might be upset to hear that she did not make the list of A Chorus Line alumni who are still remembered. The editing, meanwhile, is less than a singular sensation in the section on Damn Yankees where Nachman is so preoccupied making baseball puns, he uses the same sentence twice in one paragraph.
The many interviews are enlightening and add a humanizing touch to the proceedings. Standouts include 98-year-old Patricia Morison, who was the original lead in Kiss Me, Kate, and Chita Rivera reflecting on West Side Story. But with a few of the selections it seems like the tail is wagging the dog. Is "I Cain't Say No" really the only song in Oklahoma! worth dissecting, or is it highlighted because he pulled off an interview with the original Ado Annie, Celeste Holm? Similarly, did Faith Prince's availability lead Nachman to focus on "Adelaide's Lament" above all other tunes in Guys and Dolls? Place your bets.
Taken as a whole, there are several implicit lessons to be learned from the book's many explicit examples. We see the winding river of lyricism: the comedic patter of Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter that pivots to a more serious Hammerstein that segues to a somber Sondheim. We note that choreography can be as important as the song itself ("Shall We Dance?"), that many showstoppers were sung by less than perfect voices (Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, Zero Mostel, to name a few), and that sheer star power alone can be enough to transform a musical (Streisand in Funny Girl, Merman in, well, everything).
But, if for no other reason, buy this book for the excellent 18 page examination of Gypsy. Serving as the collection's centerpiece, Nachman is firing on all cylinders as he seamlessly weaves commentary from Sondheim, Styne, and Jerome Robbins in with his own criticism, takes a deep dive into the development of "Rose's Turn," spills the gossip on Merman, and ends with a bitter interview with Sandra Church who was so put off by originating the role of Gypsy, she never again appeared on stage.
Nachman's selection of shows, like the past century of Broadway itself, is not the multicultural grab bag that one might hope. Show Boat, and South Pacific are about as far off the Caucasian trail as he wanders. Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of Hamilton. Perhaps it premiered too close to deadline or maybe he is still waiting for tickets. Either way, too bad. But the most egregious absence is surely that of Dreamgirls with its devastating "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" easily one of the most important showstoppers of the 1980s. As Frank Rich wrote, "If the [Act I] curtain didn't fall, the audience would probably cheer Jennifer Holliday until dawn."
"Curtain," is literally the last word of the book, Nachman's theatrical way of bidding adieu. But, like Glenn Close come February or Bette Midler come March, I have a feeling he'll be back. With errors of omission and some factual missteps keeping Showstoppers! from fully hitting the heights, can a second edition not be waiting in the wings?
Showstoppers!: The Surprising Backstage Stories of Broadway's Most Remarkable Songs