Mr. Broadway: The Inside Story of the Shuberts, the Shows, and the Stars
By Gerald Schoenfeld. Applause Books, Milwaukee, 2012, 304 pp., $27.99 cloth.
A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart
By Gary Marmorstein. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012. 544 pp., $30 cloth.
For a dramatist, biography can be alluring but perilous. Although people of note come ready-made with complex histories, not to mention built-in audience appeal, distilling something as sprawling and messy as a life into a coherent dramatic arc is no easy task. What’s more, even someone who has achieved remarkable things against formidable opponents may not himself be a stageworthy character.
It’s interesting, then, to see the same pleasures and pitfalls of biographical drama in new books about two disparate theatrical titans: lyricist Lorenz (Larry) Hart and producer Gerald (Jerry) Schoenfeld. Although each occupied a different theatrical sphere in either half of the 20th century, each also rose to the top of his field and left behind an indelible legacy. Both crossed paths (and often swords) with nearly every other theatrical heavy-hitter of their respective eras. Their lives seem like foolproof fodder for smashing reads, but the results, in both these cases, are surprisingly mixed.
Schoenfeld, who finished his memoir a month before dying at age 84 in 2008, chaired the Shubert Organization from the early 1970s into the 21st century, and is widely credited with saving the company—and to a significant extent, Broadway itself—from a slow and ugly death. A middle-class kid from a non-theatrical family, Schoenfeld helped the Shuberts defend an antitrust case in his first law job. J.J. Shubert was sufficiently impressed with Schoenfeld that he hired him as personal counsel. “I don’t want any old men handling our affairs,” 79-year-old J.J. is quoted as telling young Schoenfeld, unaware that Schoenfeld would rescue the company from the mismanagement of the younger Shubert heirs.
Schoenfeld quickly discovered that the Shubert family could hardly be less pleasant if it included Medea, Iago and the Tyrones of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He spends the first third of his memoir recounting the dynasty’s implosion through his regular-Joe eyes: Tyrannical J.J. works Schoenfeld to the bone while making paranoid, anti-Semitic insinuations about his loyalty; J.J.’s son John leads a double life, resulting in credit card receipts from two Mrs. Shuberts. J.J. and John’s successor, Lawrence Shubert Lawrence Jr., drinks from morn to midnight, surrounded by simpering yes-men, while the business crumbles. Lawrence’s wingman, Howard Teichmann, gets the Shuberts behind a boondoggle playwriting fellowship
that nets 1,500 scripts and zero productions. Meanwhile, Schoenfeld fends off a barrage of criminal investigations by a Javert-like state attorney general determined, not without justification, to take the Shuberts down.
Episodes like these make for entertaining yarns, punctuated by Schoenfeld’s modest refrain of “How did I get here?” Yet given the scale of the characters and the stakes, the tale doesn’t quite reach the heights one might expect. J.J.’s arbitrary tirades soon become repetitive, and though the legal battles are bitter, the principles in play are often esoteric (kickbacks from ticket brokers that seem trivial in the age of StubHub), and inspire a sense of moral outrage against neither the state nor the defendants.
After 1972, when Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs take over, a new and compelling story begins, as Schoenfeld details his prescient efforts to revitalize Broadway theatre and the derelict Times Square of old, for which he harbors not a drop of nostalgia. Some of the book’s best material follows Schoenfeld’s sustained effort to clean up Midtown, which involved decades of squeaky-wheel insistence through every New York administration from Lindsay’s to Giuliani’s. Another impressive constant is Schoenfeld’s sharp eye for good theatre, from the record-breaking 1975 Broadway transfer of A Chorus Line to the genre-bending 2008 rock musical Passing Strange.
Much of the book’s second act recounts conflicts with temperamental theatre folk, some ending amicably (Jerome Robbins, George C. Scott), others not (Bob Fosse, Patrick Stewart). The stories are juicy enough, but even with millions of dollars on the line, these squabbles feel more like tiffs; if anything, they reveal how strangely petty stars can be. Stewart’s unauthorized curtain speech after The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, for instance, in which the star passive-aggressively accused Schoenfeld of not supporting the show, reads more like a scene from “Glee” than from real-life Broadway.
Through it all, Schoenfeld remains admirably sane, which goes a long way toward explaining his survival and success. It also makes him a less interesting character. In tense passages, Schoenfeld plays the lawyer, presenting a rational case for his actions and painting the opposition in a dispassionately negative light. Other times, he’s like a friendly guide leading us through a museum of loonies, or a chummy dinner companion sharing war stories. In the best showbiz memoirs—Moss Hart’s Act One, Robert Evans’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People—the author’s vivid personality matches the energy of the unfolding tale. In his life, Schoenfeld was nothing if not an active protagonist, but in his life story, he’s more of a narrator.
As protagonists go, Larry Hart should be a gold mine. Brilliant, ambitious, mercurial, free-spending, alcoholic, closeted, probably bipolar, and more than a little bedeviled by his dwarfish stature, Hart had a rise and a fall that seem inevitable in retrospect. He had a colorful home life (his father, a Tammany Hall insider, was often in court or in jail), and a perfect foil in the dashing, meticulous yet hot-tempered Richard Rodgers. Together, Rodgers and Hart rose to the top echelons of Depression-era Broadway with such standards as “My Funny Valentine,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Yet at 48, Hart succumbed to depression and heavy drinking. Composer Frederick Loewe literally found Hart in a gutter on Eighth Avenue just before he died.
It sounds like a roller coaster of a story about a fascinating and conflicted character, and Marmorstein’s book is nothing if not an impeccably researched account. Anyone looking for information about Hart, from his childhood address to accurate driving and subway directions to his grave, can’t ignore this volume. Marmorstein’s prose is deft and lively, fueled by an obvious passion for his subject, who deserves better than being known as Rodgers’s “other” collaborator.
Yet Marmorstein’s attention to detail yields less a story about Hart himself than a painstakingly comprehensive play-by-play of his career that rivals a legal allocution. We learn, for example, the exact royalty payments for the film of On Your Toes, down to a third of a percentage point. Marmorstein also taxes the reader’s short-term memory with a relentless torrent of names, creating the effect of a long expository monologue referencing dozens of offstage characters. At the opening of each
new musical, Marmorstein drags us through an exhaustively detailed plot synopsis—plots that were often frivolous, forgettable and, more to the point, rarely written by Hart.
Marmorstein also guides us through Hart’s lyrics, smartly relating them to both Hart’s developing craft and underlying insecurities. He makes a convincing case that Hart helped steer theatre lyrics from the stilted grandiloquence of European operetta into the American vernacular, and indeed, Hart’s luminous wit and craft are evident from early in his career. On the other hand, some lyrics Marmorstein quotes illustrate Stephen Sondheim’s charge (in Finishing the Hat) that Hart sacrificed meaning and syntax for rhyme, like the semantically dubious “Love doesn’t make much sense / But his technique’s immense,” or the epidemiologically challenged “They sing of springtime in each cadenza / It’s just a season for catching influenza.”
Meanwhile, the development of Hart’s character comes out in dribs and drabs, often through relatively opaque reporting. For instance, his drinking comes up often; its immediate consequences not so much. Marmorstein also highlights Hart’s nocturnal excursions, perhaps to seek out romantic liaisons, but can only speculate about where he actually went. To an extent, this is understandable; Hart had few close friends, and the man who knew him best has been dead more than 30 years.
Whatever the reasons, Hart’s final downward spiral arrives abruptly, and only as an incremental worsening of his habitual vices. After Hart’s death, Alan Jay Lerner said, “Somewhere along the line there obviously did come a time when the joy of his professional success became drowned in the lost misery of his handicapped life.” You’ll learn a lot about the success from A Ship Without a Sail, but the core of the misery remains right where Hart wanted it: offstage.
Justin Warner, a librettist and lyricist in New York City, is currently writing musicals about Ed Wood and
Alexander Graham Bell.
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