by Mark N. Grant
Illustrated. 352 pp. Boston:
Northeastern Press. $40.00.

THE HAPPIEST CORPSE I’VE EVER SEEN: The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical
by Ethan Mordden
Illustrated. 316 pp. New York:
Palgrave MacMillan. $26.95.

by James Gavin

[written for the
New York Times Book Review but never published, 2004]

Every new generation is forced to eat the sour grapes of the one that came before it. Bright-eyed youngsters hear the grousing as soon as they take their first adult steps. The great city that thrills them is a crumbled shell of its former self; whatever exciting field they’ve entered is falling apart. Musical comedy oldtimers have been pronouncing that form dead at least since the turn of the century, when Victor Herbert, the composer of such Viennese-style Broadway operettas as
Naughty Marietta, declared George M. Cohan’s rousing, patriotic shows “vaudeville musical atrocities.” Anything to lessen the sting of out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new.

I don’t think the crowds who cheer
Chicago and The Lion King, or the college kids who see Rent again and again thanks to its $20 same-day ticket lottery, would feel they were attending a wake. But one can’t deny a lot of the gripes about an form that is now best known for its vulgar Las Vegas-type tourist extravaganzas, amplified like rock concerts. Many of the new “showtunes” are faceless power ballads that seem whorishly written with Celine Dion in mind. As in most of the arts, greed is the culprit that keeps things aimed at the lowest and largest common denominator. What do you do to stem the dumbing-down of a whole country? When escapist fluff like Hairspray and The Producers can win Tony Awards for Best Score, Broadway clearly ain’t what it used to be.

Two book-length obituaries have just appeared. In
The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, the composer and critic Mark N. Grant mourns a time when the Broadway musical united the greatest choreographers, directors, writers, and singing actors in a blazing symbol of American creativity. Today, he writes, we’re in “an age of McMusicals: corporately franchised stage happenings that are actually music videos packaged for theater.” It’s a time when “the spectacle replaces the text,” when “indiscriminate loud sound assaults the very essence of live theater”; when “subliterate” lyric writing has replaced the nimble “dance partnering” that once gracefully joined words to music.

His meticulous and generally compassionate tone is far from the machete-swinging of Ethan Mordden, who for almost three decades has turned out books on Broadway, old movies, and opera, as well as gay fiction, with numbing frequency, averaging about one a year. Borrowing a phrase from the title song of
Cabaret, he now gives us The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, the sixth in his chronological survey of the stage musical. To him, the modern theater is overrun with “inarticulate idiots specializing in worthless forms,” and he’s here to tell the whole bunch of them what they did wrong.

Grant has strong opinions too, and some may make you cringe. He names 1927-1966 as the musical’s golden age, and Rodgers & Hammerstein its royal standard; such esteemed successors as Kander & Ebb, Charles Strouse, and Cy Coleman are crass and soulless, he feels. Bob Fosse, whose serpentine choreography pumped sex into a wholesome art form, “brought the hollow revue style to the Broadway book show with the pretense that it bestowed vision on narrative material.” He speaks of rock music like a nun discussing abortion. “Why don’t they write the way they used to?” he wonders, echoing Grandma’s lament for the days of Glenn Miller.

What gives him such authority is his wide-ranging expertise. The author of
Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music in America, Grant is a serious scholar of composing, vocal technique, and theater, but not the kind who forgets that a book about show business is supposed to be entertaining. In blunt, energetic writing with no pretenses, he traces the evolution of choreography, libretto and lyric writing, composing styles, toe-tapping “Broadway rhythm,” and sound design back a hundred years, when musical comedy, operetta, and opera were all overlapping pop entertainment. Grant freshly evaluates the masters, while paying shrewd attention to such near-forgotten intellectuals as composer Marc Blitzstein and lyricist-librettist John Latouche, whose careers thrived in the ‘40s and ‘50s. His thoughts on Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls “the last highbrow and the last maverick," are among the smartest I’ve read.

I wish his vision weren’t so stubbornly anchored in the past that he shuns such younger lions as Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon, who are doing serious, intelligent work. His blanket rejection of rock is also rather crotchety. But his conclusion makes sense: the theater, he says, has to “rediscover a way to seize the public imagination without wanting to mirror whatever is going on in the nation’s popular music culture. Is it too late for this to happen?”

Little hope is offered in Ethan Mordden’s book, which gathers his random thoughts on almost every musical produced in New York since the late ‘70s. If you’ve ever witnessed dueling show queens at Sunday brunch, slashing each other’s opinions and getting all huffy, you’ll recognize his style. Mordden writes about “relentlessly atrocious” or “decisively horrible” shows, “titanic” performances, “incorrigibly dumbo” numbers. The Boy from Oz, Peter Allen, was “a yammerer who couldn’t rhyme”;
Mamma Mia, the smash salute to the Swedish pop quartet ABBA, a “piece of stupid junk." Even detractors of that lightweight show may start to feel protective of it. “The New Stupidity” is so crippling, Mordden says, that “intelligent people have given up battling it.” But have Sondheim, Adam Guettel, Julie Taymor, Sam Mendes, Audra MacDonald, James Lapine, George Wolf, and William Finn, to name a few theatrical heroes of today, been hiding in bed with their heads under the covers?

Mordden confronts The New Stupidity with observations such as this: “
The Producers takes place in 1959, yet already it is crazy, or let’s say stylized, or maybe piquant: but not naturalistic.” His technical comments about music are painfully inept. “A constant use of seconds, fourths, and major sevenths in the harmony builds an evocative score,” he writes senselessly of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Otherwise it’s mostly mud-slinging. “Stupid people like stupid things,” he declares of the things he doesn’t like.

That brand of bitchery is a theatrical tradition, of course; if nothing else, it indicates passion for the field. But amid all the whining, let us not forget the number of actors, musicians, and crew members kept employed by those crowdpleasing shows, which sustain an industry that, in turn, occasionally yields a prestige success like
Caroline, or Change, Floyd Collins, or Hedwig and the Angry Inch. One way or another, intelligent musicals like these keep getting on, thanks to writers with integrity and producers who’ll risk losing money for a noble cause. As long as this continues, the form isn’t truly dead. As for Mordden, theater artists who brave his book may derive pleasant fantasies from one question he poses: “Where’s my revolver?”