If you love musicals – and I’ve loved them my whole life – then have I got a book for you! Run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore, or better yet log onto your Amazon account, and check out SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman.
I’ve always enjoyed hearing about the back story of how theatrical works are put together. In this book, Gerald Nachman presents a fascinating, detailed, beautifully researched account of Broadway hit songs and the legions of people who made them happen.
For example, have you ever heard of a 1964 Broadway show called A Damned Exasperating Woman? Of course not. That’s because, after Jerry Herman wrote a song that Louis Armstrong liked so much he recorded and released it before the show in question opened. The song became such a hit it was decided that the show should be named for the song. Its title? Hello, Dolly! The new revival that just opened, starring Bette Midler, is breaking box office records right now, 53 years later, and while Louis Armstrong is long gone (and missed), we’re all still singing that song.
The back story of the music of Hello, Dolly! is just one of the dozens of fabulous behind-the-scenes-to-before-the-floodlights chapters in this book. Ever wonder about the differences between the partnerships of Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein? Curious about the real Annie Oakley, who inspired the Irving Berlin musical Annie, Get Your Gun, which was written with Ethel Merman in mind? Want to find out more about another Annie, the one who was adopted by Daddy Warbucks? Then this is the book for you.
The chapter that I personally found the most interesting is the one about the song “Wilkommen” in Cabaret. But let me back up here. I found the record one day when I was home sick from school as a kid, played the songs and adored them from that point on. I’ve always particularly loved “Wilkommen,” where the Emcee of a Weimar Berlin cabaret, played by Joel Grey, welcomes the guests in German, English and French. The song is at once a great show tune and a miniature language lesson in the bargain. But keep in mind, the first time I played the song, I heard it. I did not see it acted on a stage. I didn’t know Joel Grey came out on the stage wearing bizarre make-up. Until reading SHOWSTOPPERS!, I did not realize that the number, the first in the show, was staged to deliberately set a creepy tone for the audience and let them know what kind of theatrical evening they were in for. Those who missed seeing many of these classics performed live the first time around will surely welcome the chance to hear these stories. They’re certainly giving me a new appreciation of many of my old cast albums.
This book is a treat. Love Broadway? Go for it!