Is it curtains for the song-and-dance show?; Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: musicals then and now by Mark Steyn, Faber & Faber, pounds 20
When Mark Steyn arrived at Heathrow to start his former career as The Independent's critic of musicals, he was stopped by an Immigration Officer and asked his business. When he told the man, the comment was, "So that's a job?!" Now, Steyn stands alone among contemporary commentators on the musical in authority, perception and wit. We are fortunate that he pops over from New Hampshire now and again to keep us up to date - even if his message is not optimistic.

In Broadway Babies Say Goodnight he has marshalled his treasure trove of information, insight and humour with skill, approaching his subject in 20-odd essays with evocative/ provocative titles (The Jews, The Cues, The Take Home Tune, The Fags, The Rock), discussing salient points in the evolution and, as Steyn would have it, the decline of the art. He has as little patience as I have with sensible Fiona Shaw's silly dictum, "I don't think musicals can ever be art."

He poses innumerable questions and answers most of them - the exception, neither posed nor answered, is what Alain Boublil actually contributes to the shows he "writes" with Claude-Michel Schonberg. Their history is littered with discarded British and American wordsmiths. But why should they complain? James Fenton, the original British lyric writer on Les Mis and "fired" by Cameron Mackintosh (his words), has made close on pounds 10 million for not having more than a few syllables left in Herbert Kretzmer's excellent final version. The only place Les Mis flopped was in Paris, where Boublil translated Kretzmer's graceful phrases back into French.

Steyn makes the good point that "the biggest hits of our time have been written by those who knew nothing of the world before Cats." When another of Boublil's lyric writers, Richard Maltby (Miss Saigon), discussed Dorothy Fields, Boublil said: "Now you aire tokking about zese names zat mean nothing to me." Surprisingly, the usually perspicacious Steyn adds, "He didn't mean it arrogantly." I beg leave to wonder.

Steyn measures the Broadway musical against the career of George Abbott, 107-and-a half when he died and still revising his Pajama Game. Abbott, "The personification of Broadway, was very un-Broadway. He wasn't Jewish or homosexual or East Coast or gushily theatrical. He didn't live in the past and he didn't bullshit. He dressed formally and his nickname was an anti-nickname - Mister Abbott. Many of the proteges were variously Jewish, homosexual, East Coast, gushy, nostalgic bullshitters; but even then they didn't seem that Broadway at first glance. To pluck a creative team at random, Jerome Robbins. Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green are revered today as Broadway Blue Chips; but in 1944 who'd have thought a ballet choreographer, a symphony conductor, and a couple of Greenwich Village satirists had a main stem musical in them? Mister Abbott did." It was On The Town.

Recently, reading Robert Low's life of W G Grace, I was struck by the short span of both the Great Game and the Great Musical. Cricket, when Grace started playing in the mid-1860s, was nothing like it is now. The form we know has had a life of about 100 years. Similarly, Steyn gives the Broadway musical a life of about 75 and is not sanguine about its ability to survive.

Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber threaten to withdraw from the field. Steyn finds Sondheim's work these days too demanding for its own good. With rare exceptions. he does not see the rock musical as a starter. Rent, the new white hope, "uses the stunted musical vocabulary of the rock era to serve the needs of drama... old-time musicals wanted to make us feel good: the new school wants to make us feel good about feeling bad."

The breadth of knowledge and the energy Mark Steyn brings to his book are irresistible - and he is the archest punster. Carrie, a disastrous musical about a schoolgirl traumatised by her first period, in a hi-tech white set, becomes, "The Black and White Menstrual Show". The suggestion that some incompetent musicals are as misunderstood as was L 'Apres Midi d'un Faune and will one day triumph is met with "Don't faune us, we'll faune you."

It is obligatory in a review such as this to point out a few questionable judgements, even errors. Why pick on Ronald Millar in Robert and Elizabeth for writing "While earth contains us two", which sings as "While earth contains a stew", and not Ira Gershwin who had to be told by his star that "I could wait for years" would sing as "I could wait four years - why not five or six?" Did Stravinsky really admire Gilbert & Sullivan or is Steyn swallowing the hoax article published in The New York Times on 22 October 1968?

More seriously, did he see the late Martin Smith's (Martin Luther) King musical: it was infinitely superior to Richard Blackford's disastrous King, for which he has some respect. He dismisses Smith as actor from the Birmingham soap opera, Crossroads, a show which he left perhaps a decade earlier for a distinguished West End career as a composer, arranger and leading singer-actor.

This is probably the best and certainly the most thought-provoking book on its subject. Besides, I know of no other which includes Adolph Green's comment when he heard that his composer/collaborator, Cy Coleman, was trying out the songs from their new show at a benefit for an Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. "There wasn't a dry Eye, Ear, Nose or Throat in the house!"

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