The Real Kings of Broadway

Thanksgiving is celebrated all over the US but most Americans start out their day in New York City. Virtually, that is.  Long before the turkey comes out of the oven, Americans are in front of their TVs, staring at Macy’s famous parade.  Some watch it for the tradition, some tune in for the bands, and lots of kids can’t wait for the balloons but I watch the parade to see Broadway.  Before the main event kicks off, actors perform excerpts from currently running shows.  The stars seem like the kings of Broadway.

But are they?  Actors are the most visible part of theatre but how much power do they really wield in Times Square?  Very few, it seems.  Behind them are the financial and creative engineers behind every show: the writers, directors and composers but even they can be hired and fired.  Behind them are those that can make a show work and invest the money needed for the show to open: the legendary Broadway Producers.  Do you think Producers are the ultimate in show-biz power?  According to Michael Riedel, there’s still one group that’s higher.

No matter how good it is, no show can open on Broadway, unless it’s booked into a theater and the cadre of people who own and run the theaters on Broadway should really be considered the ultimate power-players in their field.  Riedel’s book, Razzle Dazzle is an amazing account of these show-business moguls and the impact they’ve had on our culture.

Enter, the Schubert Brothers, Sam, Lee, and Jacob, who ran theaters in upstate New York before 1900. With the change of the century, they moved to NYC and bought or built theaters across the country and filled them with shows people wanted to see. More than 100 years later, if you look at the current list of Broadway theaters, the Schubert organization owns 17 of the 41 buildings. Book good shows into those theaters and watch the money flow into the box-office; even if the biggest profits are “ice”.

Ice are the profits that come from reselling tickets.  The box-office employee sells blocks of these for a bribe.  Then employees of the theatre or the production company sell the tickets they get as an employment perk and pocket the difference.  The ticket scalpers resell what they got for hugely inflated prices and keep the unearned, untaxed income.  The people who invest funds and talent into the show don’t make a dime from this revenue based on their work and the audience dwindles because of the high cost of tickets.  A 1960’s investigation began to curtail some of the Ice, but it’s still a huge problem: this year the creator of the hit musical, Hamilton, begged the legislature to pass a law stopping computer software “bots” from continuing the practice.

Riedel

The Schubert and the Niederlander (who own 7 theaters) organizations helped create decades of show-biz legends as they saw their business rise, fall and rise again.  There are the good stories, like how Chorus Line brought people back to the theater when NYC itself was bankrupt and there are bad tales, like Dorothy Loudon threatening a kid. (” If you make one move on any of my laugh lines, you will not live to see the curtain call.”)

Gossipy, gregarious, and suckers for razzle-dazzle, we’re all suckers for Broadway and why not?  It’s the New York out-of-towners all want to know and as American as Pumpkin Pie and Thanksgiving.

The Intellectual Heavyweight of Stage Musicals

I love stage musicals.  We were raised on a collection of cast albums from classic Broadway shows and my sister and I learned every song by heart.  We’ve  continued the tradition, to the present and both of us admire this form that combines the best aspects of art and entertainment. While we both love being entertained (who doesn’t?) it is the experimental side of this form that really draws me, how directors and playwrights and composers alter or recombine the elements of a musical to tell a new story or get the audience to view an known one from a new perspective.  That’s probably why I admire Stephen Sondheim’s work so much and why I’m glad Meryle Secrest’s biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life is a discerning review of his life and accomplishments.  This composer of cerebral entertainment  deserves an intelligent biography, even if he makes a living in show business.

Some would believe Mr. Sondheim was pre-ordained for a life in theatre, given his New York background, a talent for music and the teacher-student relationship he developed with Oscar Hammerstein II. Ms. Secrest’s well-researched biography suggests otherwise.  Rather than developing a relationship with Mr. Hammerstein because of his interest in music, it appears that the opposite is true: a lonely boy is welcomed by the lyricist’s family as a friend of their son and the boy begins writing music to please the surrogate father who provides the kindness and stability lacking in his own home. Young Stephen benefits both from his exposure to a stable, loving family and from lessons with one of the great experimentalists in the American musical form.
This drive to expand and improve the format of the stage musical by taking artistic risks and the willingness to risk commercial failure were passed from mentor to student; Mr. Sondheim’s built a career on these concepts.  From non-linear storytelling (Company, Sunday in the Park with George) and songs that muddle the barriers between show tunes and opera (Pacific Overtures, Passion) to subjects previously considered unsuitable for the musical stage (Assassins, Company), Sondheim has pushed musical boundaries and redefined the genre but often at great cost.  Follies was misunderstood for years and the failures of Some Can Whistle and Merrily We Role Along cost the composer more than income.  The musical is a combination of high and low art and by appealing to the audience’s intelligence, Mr. Sondheim has often overestimated it.  Yet he remains the surest link between the “great” book musicals of the mid-twentieth century (his first shows were West Side Story, Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum) and the experimentation that continues today.  And, as he was mentored, Mr. Sondheim reaches out to the generation of composers who grew up listening to his music.  The late Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, had the benefit of Sondheim’s teaching and referenced his teacher by name in the score.

Ms. Secrest follows the story of Mr. Sondheim’s life with great sensitivity, creating a portrait that is knowledgeable and intimate without being gossipy.  An analysis is applied to Mr. Sondheim’s works through 1999 (covering most of the shows and revues except Bounce (aka Road Show) tracing the autobiographical elements in the composer’s life.  The result is a biography that highlights Sondheim without glorifying the man or glossing over his flaws. The only problem is, of course, the book is too short.  Mr. Sondheim continues to work and as long as that is true, this book ends prematurely.

It’s true that Stephen Sondheim has passed the age when most men have put aside their labors.  But, as the book points out, Mr. Sondheim is not most men.  He was a wunderkind, achieving goals before 30 that most of us never attain and he’s come back from failure too many times to count.  So, don’t count him or his biographer out until the fat lady sings.  As long as they both breathe, they may continue to work showing us new ways to think and understand what we see.  Because of this, we are blessed.