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The Footlights' Non-Glare | The Nation

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The Footlights' Non-Glare

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The flip side of Starr's perky optimism is what I think of as self-conscious slumming. In a homage to an earlier generation of Broadway tough guys, Geoffrey O'Brien's fictional tale The Times Square Story takes this approach. O'Brien, who has also written about noir novels, embraces the tawdry Square of the fifties in a hyped-up, occasionally poetic story that sends up B-movies and the myth of Broadway itself. Through a series of black-and-white photos and Dada text, The Times Square Story tells of a kid from a small town who comes to the big city, gets entangled in a wild, dangerous scheme and then vanishes. But although O'Brien may have come to praise this taut, flaring, postwar Broadway, his praise collapses into an excavation of an old, old story through layers of self-referential pop culture.

About the Author

Rachel Shteir
Rachel Shteir teaches drama at the Tisch School of the Arts and is writing a book on striptease.

In fact, to read the highly stylized and self-aware books that are coming out about Broadway these days is to get a sense of precisely what we've left far behind. In the old days, there was only one type of Broadway book: the Broadway memoir, which tells of individuals' triumph over obstacles. These rags-to-riches tales usually begin with the narrator's hard-luck childhood and generally end with his or her conquering the street where dreams never die. They reflect images and myths of abundance. At best--as in Gypsy Rose Lee's Gypsy or Moss Hart's Act One--these memoirs have great stories, heart-tugging emotions, feisty characters and dramatic catharses. They end as the narrator makes it, keeping you on the edge of your seat and setting you up for a possible sequel.

You could dismiss these memoirs as mawkish. And yet there is something tremendously engaging about the best of them. Not only do characters survive in the face of often tremendous odds, they rarely wallow in the complacently whiny, self-immolating spirit that often plagues contemporary memoirs. At least as he tells it, in his early, impoverished youth, Moss Hart bounced from one two-bit job to another, all the while supporting his immigrant parents. Through it all, he never gave up his dream of making it to Broadway. You know you're only seeing what Hart wants you to see, but because Hart turned his illusions about himself into a public reality, his story does not seem dishonest. At the same time, these memoirs, all pointed in the same direction--the Great White Way--tell the same story over and over, regardless of the narrator's ultimate fate or talents.

Still, the old-fashioned Broadway memoir has a rawness and innocent, old-fashioned egotism that is refreshing. Which is why Harvey and Myrna Frommer's It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way flops. Like O'Brien, the Frommers, who have already produced oral histories of the Catskills and Brooklyn, cast the discussion of Broadway in the fabulous past. Broadway is over but let's celebrate it, they seem to be saying. The book is divided into sections that describe the experience of being on Broadway during its heyday: the secret of creating a hit, the essence of New York showbiz, the "craft" of the theater. But it fails to distinguish between good shows and bad shows, good performers and bad performers. It is an overstuffed variety show more than a book.

Whereas It Happened on Broadway shows us Broadway as taxidermy, both Foster Hirsch's elegantly written The Boys From Syracuse and William McBrien's Cole Porter paint it as a catalyst that changes their subjects' lives. Granted access to previously unpublished sources, Hirsch describes how, for the Shuberts, Broadway was Rome with a casting couch. A very different Broadway emerges in McBrien's biography--it is the street where Porter's private erotic missives to his male lovers could also be the witty, romantic ballads that America came to adore. Happily, both biographers tread lightly on the impact of their subjects' often tortured personal lives on their work.

Not so D.A. Miller, author of Place for Us, an autobiographical memoir/critical study of the postwar American musical. Miller, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of several books, including a deconstruction of the Victorian novel, The Novel and the Police, writes that the most important thing about the musical is that it sent a secret message of affirmation to the pre-Stonewall gay man. Miller argues that these musicals "made him [the gay man] homosexual" by seducing him and other men in the audience to inhabit "the socially given idea of a woman's gender."

I sympathize with Miller's project, which, as he puts it, is to make the Broadway musical "an object of serious thought," if by serious thought he means the kind of attention that preserves the spirit of the play. However, in the fashion of contemporary academia, Miller ends up making not Broadway but himself an object of serious thought by inserting himself into the musical Gypsy, which he uses as his liberational ur-text. One of the last great infusions of energy into the American theater came from wildly inventive and irreverent gay figures like Jack Smith and Charles Ludlam, whose theater of the ridiculous gave Broadway's spectacular mingling of absurdity and sadness a downtown edge; if Miller were a poet or a playwright, a similar effect might have been achieved.

Whatever Broadway's fate, it deserves better chronicles than these. For at the end of the millennium, it is clear that Broadway has been deferring its own demise through a series of revivals. The question is, Why? Are these a result of the street's blocked desire to revive itself and its million stories? Maybe Broadway seems obsolete because we don't need those stories anymore. Or maybe, thanks to performance art, television and the Internet, we no longer need to go to Broadway to watch spectacles. Maybe the rags-to-riches myth no longer captures our experience. Maybe new American stories are happening elsewhere in ways that defy and belie that myth. Maybe somewhere in space or in the suburbs, another Broadway is waiting to be born.

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