“No gags, no girls, no chance of success.” – A producer after seeing Oklahoma!
The Sound of Musicals. By Ruth Leon. Oberon Masters Series/Oberon, 128 pp., $20.95.
By Janice Harayda
Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it must have been when the phrase “Broadway musical” meant Oklahoma! and not “jukebox tunes strung on a plot with clothespins.”
In this collection of brief and graceful essays, the longtime theater critic Ruth Leon celebrates 10 20th-century shows that left an enduring mark on their art form: three that “almost everybody agrees” are the best musicals of all time — Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and West Side Story — and seven others: Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Oklahoma!, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George. Her essays resemble after-theater conversations at Sardi’s with a charming host who exudes an infectious admiration for her subject. They brim with anecdotes about show-business people like the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir inspired Gypsy and who “rode around in a maroon and gray Rolls Royce with her initials in gold on the door.”
Leon focuses on original productions and avoids delving into the interpretations of musicals mooted in revivals and movie versions. She doesn’t quite convey why critics regard Sondheim so highly when many people find it hard to sing any of his songs except “Send in the Clowns.” And while she says she has selected titans that “changed the way we think about musical theater,” she ignores the seismic effects rock musicals like Hair, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, the ancestors of all those jukebox productions like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.
But Leon excels at describing the themes of her chosen shows, or what they are “about” on a deeper level than that of plot. “Guys and Dolls is an inverted morality tale, growing out of Damon Runyon’s close-up knowledge of the streets of New York, and a fable with a point – that good and evil certainly exist, but not necessarily in the places we have learned to look,” she writes. Oklahoma! “appears to be about whether Curly or Jud is going to take Laurey to the picnic,” but that’s just the story line of the show: “What it’s really about is what it means to be American, what the poet Carl Sandburg called ‘the smell of new-mown hay on barn-dance floors.’” Leon’s willingness to grapple with such themes is an increasingly rare virtue as theater reviews become ever-more plot driven. This book may be an appreciation great musicals, but it is also a model of good theater criticism – an art form as endangered as the Broadway musical.
Best line: The producer Mike Todd reportedly said, when he saw Oklahoma! before it opened in New York: “No gags, no girls, no chance.” The musical ran for more than five years on Broadway, won a special Pulitzer Prize, and became for its day “the gold standard, the show by which all others would be judged.”
Worst line: “Across 400 years Shakespeare continues an ongoing dialogue with those who perform his plays and can tell them, if they will listen, exactly what he wants from them.” True, but that “continues” makes the “ongoing” redundant.
Published: 2010 (Oberon Books hardcover edition).
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© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.