The Footlights’ Non-Glare

The Footlights’ Non-Glare

At lunch with a colleague who is devoted to the theater, the discussion turned to Broadway and she mentioned she had seen the revival of On the Town, the buoyant 1944 Comden and Gre


At lunch with a colleague who is devoted to the theater, the discussion turned to Broadway and she mentioned she had seen the revival of On the Town, the buoyant 1944 Comden and Green musical, before it closed in January. When I asked her if she liked it, she sighed and said that as she stood on the sidewalk late at night after the show, the emotion she experienced most was exhaustion: “I’m so tired of Broadway making me feel,” she said, as if she not only regretted that but was angry about her own regret.

To me the statement describes Broadway’s excessive style and explains its own anachronism. At its inception at the turn of the century, Broadway reminded us of all that we were not in daily life. The street was a mythic destination, which was both glamorous and sentimental. It stood as a place to get to. But at the end of this millennium, my colleague’s exhaustion suggests how far we’ve come. After all, at a time when postmodern irony permeates so many moments of our public and cultural lives, Broadway remains stubbornly about big, bold, unironic emotions. Hollywood notwithstanding, no other place in America has been so commemorated for the titanic heft of its feelings–from the ebullient streetscapes of Alfred Eisenstadt and Berenice Abbott to Kaufman and Hart’s sweet backstage plays to Vincente Minnelli’s glittery movie musicals about “putting on a show.” Broadway has been portrayed as being bigger than we are. But now Broadway is in a bind: If it plays catch-up to the rest of the culture by, for example, presenting musical theater and theater that is postmodern or multicultural, it alienates those who seek the comfort of old Broadway. If, on the other hand, Broadway looks backwards, it risks becoming a museum piece or theme park. It is this double-bind that obscures what has always been essential about Broadway beyond the nostalgia and the hype–that its very existence has in the past provided a model for another kind of life.

The fact that Broadway has lost much of its original magnetism is hardly news. You could say that the street has flirted with its own extinction from the moment it was born. The phrase “the fabulous invalid,” which refers to the tottering Broadway play, is at least fifty years old. And some of our most serious theater could not withstand the street’s commercial pressures. (Consider the Group Theater, the left-leaning repertory company of the Depression era, which fell apart there.) But a boom in theatergoing, which is fueled by the fact that the Deuce is safe for tourists for the first time in years, has made the Great White Way’s creakiness more noticeable. Many observers look to the “Disneyfication” of 42nd Street and Times Square and the large British presence to explain both the squeaky-clean homogenized flavor of the neighborhood and the insistent feeling that Broadway is dead. But this is too simple. After all, Disney brought good and bad: both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King; the renovation of the New Amsterdam Theatre and the Disney Store. Likewise, without the West End, we might not have Broadway at all. No, what lurks behind our weariness with Broadway is a more American discontent–call it failure to suspend disbelief in the Broadway myth.

Maybe this failure explains why the giant revolving turntable used in the newly opened production of Death of a Salesman seems like a perfect metaphor for the street. Indeed, the seeming revival of interest in the so-called Great American Play brings us right around to the antithetical emotion of sentimental, toothless nostalgia for the same. Even the best of this season’s revivals–Salesman, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and an early play by Tennessee Williams–are simultaneous hails and farewells to the genre they seek to revive. Ditto the crop of new American musicals like Parade and Fosse. Recent smash hits that also expanded the parameters of their genres (Rent, Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk and Angels in America) have not really had successors. All of which highlights the fact that at no other time has the idea of Broadway as a “place to get to” been so beside the point.

One thing that people talk about when they talk about the fabled Broadway is the distinctive lure of the Great White Way. There is hardly a mid-twentieth-century memoir or Bildungsroman or play in which some character does not dream about the blinking lights of the biggest street in New York City. Of course, when I say Broadway, I am talking not only about the street that vertically bisects Manhattan but about the theater district, which in 1900 stretched from 13th to 45th Streets. Around 1904, the first electric streetlamps made lit-up Broadway the first modern thoroughfare in the city. It was only then that the theater district’s center began to creep uptown, pushed along by Adolph Ochs moving the New York Times into what was then known as Longacre Square.

Broadway’s lights were immediately appropriated for commercial purposes, but they had a mysterious quality as well, turning the street into a vast, densely secretive bazaar and also becoming a point of civic pride. In 1906 the otherwise undistinguished melodrama The Red Mill was a smash in part because it advertised with a “spectacular,” a moving electric sign. In the Jazz Age, the Great White Way attracted reverent pilgrims like the French novelist Paul Morand, who serenely described Broadway as “a glowing Summer afternoon all night.”

Still, Broadway was about more than lights. It was about what I think of as Broadway style–a combination of chutzpah and guile. When George M. Cohan burst onto the scene in 1905 and sang “Give My Regards to Broadway,” he was a nobody, but he sang as if he had made it. The tactic worked and he became famous. From then on, Broadway welcomed noisy sentimentality and glamorous clothes; swaggering flag-waving and elegant nightlife; brash showmen and sophisticated tunes. The street became America’s theatrical show window–a department store where success, fame, even happiness, were sold.

From the Jazz Age to the fifties, Broadway, drawing its energy from the immigrant ghettos and from a thousand tiny towns in the Midwest, sent up Victorian morals, stood for a new three-ring paradise and bespangled other spheres of popular culture along the way, nurturing musical and theatrical geniuses like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Moss Hart and Ethel Merman. Broadway jazzed the English language by introducing a piquant slang that rearranged grammar and produced an encyclopedia of new words and expressions. Broadway further popularized ragtime; it created the American musical; it presented a giddying number of erotic new dances and a brash style of physical comedy that made sex funny. On Broadway, an American acting style blossomed and the Theater Guild–America’s first successful art theater–was established; later, many serious playwrights, including O’Neill, Miller and Williams, did their best work there. Broadway also championed the modern woman at least some of the time and, like vaudeville and variety, placed in the same theater citizens from an array of social spheres, which would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. But around the time rock and roll began to flower, Broadway stumbled. For one thing, the American musical became obsolete. Young audiences stopped listening; television and Hollywood drained the street of its actors and composers. Times Square began to deteriorate. Over a half-century, the price of the American musical has skyrocketed, making it unaffordable for many people. Nor was there agreement–as there once was–as to what a good play should be.

I’m not trying to romanticize the old Broadway, which, after all, could be prejudiced, snobbish or cruel. The black vaudevillian Bert Williams, until his death, continued to sing in blackface, although he yearned to act in serious plays. For women, the way you looked meant a meal ticket or none; thus Fannie Brice had her nose fixed. The hierarchical rigidity of Broadway meant that for every entertainer who succeeded a fistful of others failed. And also if Broadway–like Freud and Fitzgerald–captured a sexy modern spirit that defied much that preceded it, from the first a commercial hardness trailed that spirit as surely as moonshine followed Prohibition. It is no accident that both the impresario and his kissing cousin, the press agent, emerged from the street.

For all that, people came to Broadway from nowhere and did what they could to make it. Which brings me to the Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky and his troubles. Last August, about two months after former superagent Michael Ovitz bought Drabinsky’s financially troubled production company, Livent, it emerged that Drabinsky–who engineered Ragtime, Showboat and Kiss of the Spider Woman–appeared to have juggled his books to inflate earnings. Drabinsky was suspended by Livent’s board for irregularities. And yet several high-minded observers responded to the scandal-in-the-making as if no one in the theater had ever been accused of lying, cheating or stealing before. They were shocked, shocked, terribly shocked. But what is most surprising is how much shock Drabinsky’s deeds elicited.

After all, not so long ago, shady business practices and outrageous cons were as common on Broadway as long-legged chorus girls. The street was ruled by larger-than-life showmen–P.T. Barnum, Flo Ziegfeld, the Shubert Brothers–who made Drabinsky look like a Boy Scout. By our standards, these pugnacious entrepreneurs were everymen of the con–a far cry from the smooth MBAs who rule Broadway today. But whatever these old-timers did in private, they created the classics of the American theater, which also occasionally transcended their genre. Ziegfeld produced Showboat, the 1932 version of which starred Paul Robeson; Lee Shubert backed Americana, a political satire featuring Yip Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

It is often said that the problem with Broadway is that these czars of the stage have been replaced by number crunchers. There is something to that, although the old guys produced a lot of bottom-line schlock too. But I think Broadway’s diminished role has more to do with the fact that we have so many other places to escape to.

Of course, another reason we no longer think of Broadway as a mythical destination is that the physical space that it inhabits is vanishing. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is possible to imagine a time when Broadway will mean Times Square alone. This process has been accelerating since the Jazz Age, when the theater district extended from 23rd Street to Columbus Circle; then, there were about seventy or eighty theaters and almost 300 openings a year. Today, there is one theater on Broadway itself, and the district reaches a measly thirteen blocks–from 41st to 54th Streets. Only about thirty-six theaters remain and there are about thirty openings a season.

The most widely publicized attempt to reverse–or at least slow down–this process is the Times Square Redevelopment Project, which in the eighties was described as “saving” 42nd Street from the pornographic empires that had sprung up there. Initially, Phillip Johnson was supposed to do the architecture, but his plan for the main buildings–four impersonal black skyscrapers–failed to please preservationists intent on maintaining the Square as a site for cultural tourism. After an enormous battle, Johnson’s towers were scrapped and replaced with a plan that aimed for a chaotic–but controlled–agora. This is usually presented as a victory for Old Broadway.

But it is not. Examine the photo portraits stretching along a drywall on 42nd Street behind which construction is under way, and you will find that the hundreds of poster-sized photographs showing New Yorkers from the famous to the obscure are studies in self-conscious detachment. The diverse captions explaining what each person is doing in Times Square are a Michelin guide to possibility. But there is no sense of urgency, of the idea that arriving on Broadway means that here you might trade in your old life for a new one.

Instead, there is advertising. One of the leading spirits of the Times Square Redevelopment is Tama Starr, the president of Artkraft Strauss, a major New York sign-making company for over a century. In Signs and Wonders: The Spectacular Marketing of America, which Starr co-wrote with journalist Edward Hayman, she talks in the style of an old impresario about how great signs are: The LED sign “makes you feel good by making you feel smart”; “A commercial landscape…is an expression of the way people think things ought to be”; “products deliver quality and satisfaction.” But there is something disingenuous about all this pro-sign talk, especially since the dazzling spectaculars hung in Times Square in the forties had a price. Many buildings along the big blocks on Broadway could no longer rent office space because their windows were covered by spectaculars. Today, soaring rents have made it impossible for all but the deepest pockets to land in Times Square.

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.

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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