'Music and girls are the soul of musical comedy,' one critic wrote, early in the 1940s. But this was the age that wanted more than melody and kickline form its musical shows. The form had been running on empty for too long, as a formula for the assembly of spare parts-star comics, generic loves songs, rumba dancers, Ethel Merman. If Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn't existed, Broadway would have had to invent them; and Oklahoma! and Carousel came along just in time to announce the New Formula for Writing Musicals: Don't have a formula. Instead, start with strong characters and atmosphere: Oklahoma!'s murderous romantic triangle set against a frontier society that has to learn what democracy is in order to deserve it; or Carousel's dysfunctional family seen in the context of class and gender war. With the vitality and occasionally outrageous humour that Ethan Mordden's readers take for granted, the author ranges through the decade's classics-Pal Joey, Lady in the Dark, On the Town, Annie Get Your Gun, Finian's Rainbow, Brigadoon, Kiss Me, Kate, South Pacific.
He also covers illuminating trivia-the spy thriller The Lady Comes Across, whose star got so into her role that she suffered paranoid hallucinations and had to be hospitalized; the smutty Follow the Girls, damned as 'burlesque with a playbill' yet closing as the longest-run musical in Broadway history; Lute Song, in which Mary Martin and Nancy Reagan were Chinese; and the first 'concept' musicals, Allegro and Love Life. Amid the fun, something revolutionary occurs. The 1920s created the musical and the 1930s gave it politics. In the 1940s, it found its soul.
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US Kirkus Review »
Mordden continues his decade-by-decade survey of the Broadway musical by moving backwards from the 1950s (Coming Up Roses, 1998) to the '40s. The 1940s was, as the author points out immediately, a unique decade in musical theater history; for the first time, extensive documentation in the form of original cast alburas exists for many shows; WWII alters theatergoing habits and casting possibilities; there ate certified classics produced that are still performed today more or less intact; and the Rodgers and Hammerstein "revolution" shakes the gente to its foundations. Yet, as Mordden notes drily, at the outset of the decade the state of the art was dire, a compendium of bad jokes, stale books, and nice tunes. Then carne Pal Joey and several other shows that challenged the status quo and led up to the earthquake of Oklahoma! As always, Mordden is vastly knowledgeable, witty, and incisive in his judgments. His best writing is as sexy and slangy as a Cole Porter lyric. Where Coming Up Roses seemed somehow subdued, backing away from his usual flash-and-filigreed style, the new volume dives in, sometimes over its head. But the book is never less than entertaining and, at its best, offers a dramatically different viewpoint from other, stodgier theater histories. Mordden is to be congratulated for such gems as his rescue of Cabin in the Sky from undeserved oblivion, and his frank and balanced analysis of much-picked-over classics like Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate. That he has something new to add to the mountain of verbiage dedicated to these shows is one indication of how good he really is. Occasionally abrasive, sometimes overwritten but still an essential book on Broadway. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Ethan Mordden
Ethan Mordden is one of America's foremost authorities on the American musical and the author of Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s and Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, both from OUP. He lives in New York City.