Holiday Gifts That Keep Giving: Broadway in a Lavishly Illustrated Book
By Ellis Nassour
Broadway Musicals: From the Pages of The New York Times [Abrams; hardcover/coffee table format; 368 pages; color/B&W throughout; Index; SRP $50; also available from playbill.com] isn’t some new exploration of Broadway’s past and present but the Broadway written about by six leading Times’ critics: Brooks Atkinson, one of the most respected and most influential critics of his time; Howard Taubman; Clive Barnes; Walter Kerr, who had a huge fan base by the time he came into the Times fold; Frank Rich; and current chief critic Ben Brantley, who compiled the contributions.
"Over the last century," it’s stated, "the New York Times critics have offered the most authoritative and influential commentary on the Broadway musical." You may or may not agree with that. There’s no dismissing that the fact that the Times archives are vast and far-reaching; or, that 99% of the time, its life-or-death power is overreaching.
The articles begin in 1900s, quite easily one of the most entertaining sections of the book, when operetta composers ruled, and continues through the ’20s, ’30s, and right up to early 2011 and the opening of The Book of Mormon. From the golden age of the musical, when musicals as we came to know them segued from revues, there’s No, No, Nanette and one of the first, if not the first, dramatic musical Show Boat. Brantley introduces you to the divas, legendary directors, celebrated composers and lyricists, and choreographers through the eyes of the critics who reviewed them. There are reviews of 119 (why not 120?) of what Brantley believes to be the most important musicals and revivals through the decades.
Critics’ opinions are their opinion. You, the theaterlover, may have totally different ones. They’re supposed to be deeply steeped in knowledge, but they’re also prone to blunders. For instance, the renowned, so beloved Atkinson, in his rave of West Side Story, fails to name the lyricist, one Stephen Sondheim, at the beginning of a legendary career (compounding this omission, when he critiqued Gypsy, Atkinson found Sondheim’s lyrics "amusing"). He wasn’t alone. Years later, the much-admired Barnes found Kander and Ebb’s Chicago "unmemorable."
Many will be pleased with his selections and will surely find favorites (Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, On the Town, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me, Kate, Guys and Dolls, The King and I – and on to My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Gypsy, Hello, Dolly, Cabaret, Company, A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls); however, some devotees will also be disappointed that their favorite isn’t among those chosen. There are over 200 color and B&W photos (many full page), Hirschfeld, sketches, and an occasional poster.
As a collectible, Broadway Musicals: From the Pages of The New York Times is a worthy companion to The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century [St. Martin’s; 2001], in which Brantley relives unforgettable Broadway and off-Broadway moments of 100 "most important plays of the 20th Century" with opening night reviews.