On Stage in America

Joy Ride: The Lives of the Theatricals
by John Lahr
Bloomsbury, 2015, 592 pages, $60

A Song for the Season
by Mark Steyn
Stockade, 2015, 288 pages, US$28

On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide
by Ethan Mordden
Oxford, 2015, 216 pages, $41.95


If ever a person was to breathe new life into the long history of theatre, the former critic John Lahr is the one to do it. His compilation of reviews, profiles and one-on-ones is the right mix of historical and histrionic. For the ex-editor of the New Yorker, the “joy ride” is, along with the personalities he covers, his own. Setting the mood and pace from the start, he begins:

In my half century of theatergoing, I’ve seen grown-ups stand on their seats to cheer, keel over into the aisle after a punch line, throw coats onto a horseshoe stage for the parading star to step on, stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths to keep from laughing, and even briefly lose consciousness and collapse between seats.

Lahr’s analyses of key figures in the American and English theatre tradition are informative and entertaining. For example, while Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a familiar text, Lahr reveals that Miller removed himself from his wife and children, temporarily relocated to Connecticut, and built a log cabin in order to work on the play, writing the first act in a day on a desk fashioned out of an old door. Lahr’s personalised style is inclusive, and draws the audience in.

Along with the Anglo-American journey, Lahr brings to the forefront the racial struggles of the African-American community with his chapter on the playwright August Wilson. This is an aspect rarely considered in discussions of the history of theatre. The preservation of Ebonics in Wilson’s vernacular is impressive, and helps maintain a culture crucial to the development of American theatre.

Lahr’s outline of director, playwright and “Shakespeare swami” John Barton provides a glimpse into the world of acting. Dropping a few names of Barton’s stars-to-be pupils (Kevin Kline, Helen Hunt, Sam Waterston, Stephen Spinella), Lahr reveals the complexities of performance training. The detailed portrayal of the actor’s journey, under Barton’s guidance, reveals the academic nature of an actor’s craft—which, to the layperson, is unexpected.

However, Lahr’s reviews lack the warmth of his profiles, and when placed next to his brushes with stardom, they become anticlimactic. While substance and attention to detail are engaging, the tone is not. Regardless, some of his reviews maintain the liveliness of his character profiles. The review of Jonathan Kent’s 1995 production of Hamlet, starring Ralph Fiennes, is particularly impressive. By first presenting an outline of England’s 1965 and 1980 productions of the tragedy, Lahr paints the expected Shakespearean context and style. This lends Kent’s contrasting production further weight as a stand-alone piece.

In addition, Lahr captures the theatrical landscape of 1990s British theatre with his description of Kent’s star player:

Ralph Fiennes has pitched his drop-dead matinee-idol profile and the modesty of his sensitive soul into a postmodern Hamlet whose refusal to risk interpretation reflects Britain’s current bland and winded times.

Blunt words, but an example of Lahr’s honesty. However, his analysis remains diplomatic. His description of Fiennes is balanced, and he gives credit where credit is due: “Fiennes radiates an elegance of spirit that rivets the audience with its sense of unspoken mystery. His performance is a stylish event, much more the ‘mould of form’ than the ‘glass of fashion’.”

Above all, what stands out is Lahr’s passionate message of a “theatrical religion”, which makes the text unique. “Theatre is an artisanal artistry in a technological age. Everything about it goes against the grain of our distracted, fast-moving cultural moment,” Lahr writes. His willingness to pay such a dividend to those artists who rally against the norm has created a thoroughly entertaining read, full of the joy and wonder Lahr has experienced throughout his long and rich history with the theatre.

Joy Ride is, overall, riveting. Lahr’s colourful, unapologetic commentary is an effective means of conveying a surreal world without alienating the reader. He strikes a balance between fact and personal taste.

Mark Steyn’s anecdotal theatrical songbook is wry, but maintains its charm. He analyses the history behind the songs dearest to him with a unique brand of humour. The pattern for each snippet is the same: a brief description of the cultural context of the song, a recount of the lyrics, finished with a cynical yet poignant moral statement. However, this cynicism is balanced with a fondness of tone in each final paragraph.

Whether finishing with a tip of the hat to a particular lyric, or good wishes for a happy holiday, Steyn balances the joyousness of a two-century-old musical tradition with detailed cultural critique. The variety of songs and artists, from poking fun at faux-Irish Americans and their barely Celtic ballads, to the touching portrayal of the tortured Lorenz Hart, remains engaging throughout.

As part of that variety, Steyn includes a detailed analysis of “Jingle Bells”, revealing the song actually has a named author, James Lord Pierpont:

That merry jingle you hear this time of year isn’t sleigh bells but cash registers ringing up Christmas albums from country to rap, almost all of which contain some version or other of James Pierpont’s 150-year-old hit.

Steyn’s anecdotal work also has a sombre side, such as his account of the development of Ruth Lowe’s “I’ll Never Smile Again”, released in 1940 and sung by Frank Sinatra. Steyn recounts that in 1936, Ruth Lowe found herself in Ina Ray Hutton’s all-girl band, the Melodears, after a pianist fell sick. In 1938 she fell in love with the music publicist Harold Cohen. They were together for a year, until Cohen died from kidney failure during a routine operation. His death inspired the song:

One day she was talking things out with her sister, and she said she’d never smile again without Harold. And, even in her grief, the song plugger in her realized she’d stumbled on a hit title.

Adding Sinatra’s personal experience contributes a certain weight. In Sinatra’s words:

We were rehearsing on a Saturday afternoon … and Tommy asked Joe Bushkin to play the song. I noticed that everybody was suddenly very quiet, the whole orchestra sat quietly while he played it. There was a feeling of a kind of eeriness that took place, as though we all knew that this would be a big, big hit, and that it was a lovely song.

Steyn’s knack for pairing exactly the right quote with the perfect blend of his own experience is an engaging mix, effectively combining history and personal opinion.

Few composers of the twentieth century have commanded as much recognition as Stephen Sondheim. Hailed by many as the “father” of modern musical theatre, his works have a particular uniqueness. Nevertheless, as Ethan Mordden reveals, the Sondheim canon boasts as many flops as hits.

Mordden seeks to capture the man himself with factual recollection, first-hand accounts and nuanced analysis of his work. However, the biographical opening chapters are surprisingly dry. Mordden’s tone and pace are buoyant, but the step-by-step outline of Sondheim’s formative years requires more colour than this structural technique provides.

However, Mordden’s discussion of Sondheim’s works is riveting. He provides a sound analysis of the musical and lyrical aspects of the shows, and reveals life behind the scenes. His anecdotes of the composer Jerome Robbins are notable. Robbins’s self-obsession, egomania and unwillingness to compromise are perfectly summed up in the recollection of him famously asking, “Everything’s coming up Rose’s what?”

The attention paid to the Shakespearean core of West Side Story is engaging and effective. By discussing the musical in conjunction with Romeo and Juliet, Mordden provides a grounding for those unfamiliar with the show, while catering for the Sondheim enthusiast. Similarly with Sweeney Todd, where Mordden outlines the socio-political context of the piece, including the nineteenth-century story the show is based on.

Mordden’s discussion one of Sondheim’s greatest flops is as significant as that of his hits. Anyone Can Whistle, while described with quiet tolerance, is conveyed as a loveable disaster. As Mordden states, it is the Saturday Night Live of musicals, and despite the inclusion of “novelty stars” such as Angela Lansbury, it was not successful. However, he does not discuss the flop with any vitriol. He reminds the reader of the good as well as the bad, and conveys the lack of success with regret, rather than glee:

The show did have a point of view. Arthur Laurents, the author of Whistle’s script … never wrote about nothing. Still, he failed to anchor Whistle clearly. Its villains are cartoons while the heroine is shaded nicely but the hero is a mystery. He is smart and magnetic if nothing else, but he is nothing else.

Mordden’s reluctance to condemn while insisting on truth provides a balanced treatment of all the texts. His characterisation of Sondheim and his contemporaries in addition to his musicals is intelligent and entertaining. Despite the slow start to the book, Ethan Mordden paints a fascinating, detailed picture of Sondheim and his works.

Daisy Cousens is studying musical theatre

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