The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway
By William Goldman
New York: Limelight Editions, 1969. 432p. illus. index. $17.95. ISBN 0-87910-023-0.
During the 1967-1968 Broadway season, author, scriptwriter, and playwright Goldman spent "18 solid months seeing as many shows and talking to as many people as I could fit into the day.... I saw every Broadway production, many of them more than once, some of them five times." He traveled to the major tryout towns (Boston, New Haven, and Washington) to see previews. He commissioned a sociological study on theatregoers.
We should all have such jobs.
Anyway, this book was the result: as in-depth a look at Broadway as possible by a man who was both an insider and an outsider. The 1984 edition of the book (I have a 1994 reprint) features an introduction by Frank Rich, who points out the things that Goldman predicted correctly and what has been rendered obsolete. Chapters are arranged in rough chronological-creative order, opening with a combo chapter covering the reaction of the crowd at the close of Judy Garland's one-woman show, the rationale behind this book (and how inaccurate it probably is, since Goldman assumes many people lied to him), grosses and how people interpret them, how many (or few) people see Broadway shows, and the Buddy Hackett/Eddie Fisher show--which, as Goldman points out, "if the Garland closing was for the homosexuals, tonight it is for the Jews, which is as it should be."
Subsequent chapters continue this mix: evaluations of and production information (often juicy) about one or more shows, plus examinations of various facets of the Broadway theatre. I can't detail everything in every chapter, so here's an outline-rundown (all material in quotes is taken directly from Goldman's text):
- "Why Is Tonight Different from Any Other Night?"--The Unknown Soldier and His Wife, the chore of repeating a performance over and over, Robert Preston, Barry Nelson.
- "The First Week: Murphy's Law"--Song of the Grasshopper, Dr. Cook's Garden, Keep It In the Family, what constitutes the Broadway season, the Kiss of Death production ("the show that under no conceivable conditions can work"--here referencing Song of the Grasshopper).
- "We're Losing You, Darling"--Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, plays that are too damned intellectual.
- "Sex Comedy"--The Only Game in Town, Avanti!, A Minor Adjustment, The Ninety-Day Mistress, There's a Girl in My Soup, Happiness Is a Little Thing Called a Rolls Royce, match-the-plots-to-the-title, why these sex comedies failed.
- "The Approvers"--The Seven Decents of Myrtle, I Never Sang for My Father, Arthur Miller's The Price, Johnny No-Trump, critics and how they mostly suck and how they can make or break a show (he really hates Clive Barnes).
- "Producers"--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Soldiers, By George, Marlene Dietrich, Portrait of a Queen, Brief Lives, After the Rain, making money on flops, producers on the take, producing, the Snob Hit, the perception that English plays are better than American plays.
- "Alternatives to Broadway"--Scuba Duba, off-Broadway houses and their serious shows, repertory theatre, off-off-Broadway.
- "Critic's Darling"--Daphne in Cottage D, Sandy Dennis, critic's darlings ("Critic's darlings are always praised, overpoweringly, regardless of the caliber of their work.... They are also freaks.... [A]ll share this in common: extravagance of gesture.")
- "Jews"--How to Be a Jewish Mother, The Grand Music Hall of Israel, Ida Kaminska and the Jewish State Theatre of Poland, the importance of Jews to Broadway theatre (both audience and creators).
- "The Way We Live Now"--Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, Halfway Up the Tree, What Did We Do Wrong?, Gore Vidal's Weekend, how The Season was written, plays that deal with current issues (e.g., hippies, "negroes") but in a wimpy way.
- "It's Hard to Be Smart"--Henry, Sweet Henry, the expectations for a musical comedy, why musical comedies tend to fail (a list of 15 items).
- "The Dark Side of the Moon"--The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake, sadism on Broadway (pleasure in flop shows and disasters), a succession of notices about Stephanie Blake that indicate mounting troubles.
- "Your Goddamned Laughs: Stars"--More Stately Mansions ("the butt-numbing drama of the season"), what makes a star, star behavior, film stars on Broadway, genuine Broadway stars.
- "La Vida"--The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, the life of the play's star Peter Masterson (basically the life of a minor actor who gets a starring role in a flop).
- "The Enemy"--The Promise, casting a play, miscasting, how casting directors operate, a class in how to audition.
- "In Trouble on the Road"--Carl Reiner's Something Different, how a promising play can die on the road, trying to fix the play in Boston, Carl Reiner, the differences between the reactions in Boston and those in New York, the bad Times review.
- "Homosexuals"--Edward Albee's Everything in the Garden, the homosexual mystique, being "hinty," the gradual acceptance of homosexuals, Tiny Tim, homosexuals in the theatre, the importance of homosexuals to Broadway theatre (both audience and creators), the difficulties homosexuals have in writing about straight relationships, Tennessee Williams.
- "Theatre-Party Ladies"--How Now, Dow Jones, theatre-party ladies and how they make money and sell tickets, what theatre-party ladies think their clients will want to see, why they are a bad influence.
- "Crap Game"--Spofford, the crap game of critical reaction to the mediocre shows, "good" and "bad" theatres, location, Broadway businessmen, keeping theatres open.
- "Culture Hero"--The Little Foxes, Mike Nichols, star director behavior.
- "The Three Theatres"--Staircase, Before You Go, the three types of theatre in Broadway (Musical, Popular, and the Third Theatre, which "wants to tell us something that we don't want to know").
- "New Girl in Town"--The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Zoe Caldwell, pushing Zoe Caldwell, the difference in tastes between New Yorkers and tourists, Zoe Caldwell overkill.
- "The Muscle"--The Happy Time, Mata Hari, the Muscle (who is "chiefly responsible for what finally does or does not get on stage"--sometimes the star, sometimes the director, sometimes the writer, etc.), how the Muscle can trash a show.
- "Doing Our Thing"--A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, why Joe Egg works despite its unlikely subject matter, why it is peculiar to the stage and wouldn't work elsewhere.
- "Washing Garbage"--Golden Rainbow, a disaster in the making, troubles with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, changing an inappropriate part to fit Eydie Gorme, trashing the show.
- "Sunny Boy"--Plaza Suite, Neil Simon, critical and audience reaction to Plaza Suite, award given to Simon.
- "The Business"--Here's Where I Belong, The Guide, the costs of a musical, opening and closing a show.
- "Corruption in the Threatre"--Loot, ice (ticket corruption), ticket brokers.
- "The Hardest Month"--Mike Downstairs, Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968, Leda Had a Little Swan, The Exercise, junk theatre in April (my favorite line in the book: "I became obsessed with the thought that I was actually going to die right there in the Cort Theatre, dulled to death by Darden and Pollard").
- "And How Are Things in the Teachers' Room Tonight?"--The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, George Abbott.
- "Heartbreaker"--George M!, high expectations for a musical, why George M! was garbage.
- "Where Has All the Flower Gone?"--Darling of the Day, I'm Solomon, musical book trouble, the lack of great individuals working in the theatre today [1968, that is--note that Goldman says, "Jerry Herman is the most successful new figure of the sixties, and that's not cause for rejoicing"].
- "Brave New World"--Hair off- and on Broadway, how Hair was dishonest.
- "What Kind of Day Has It Been?"--a summing-up of the 1967-1968 season, the general mediocrity of the year's offerings, the differences between New York theatregoers and non-New York theatregoers, suggestions to improve things based on what audiences what (i.e., adding matinees on Friday), where's all the new producing talent?
This is one of my two favorite theatre-related books. (The other is Ken Mandelbaum's Not Since Carrie.) I remember that it was something of a chore to obtain a few years ago, since it was out-of-print; I can't even remember how I finally got it, but I'm extremely glad I did. Goldman is one of my three favorite authors anyway, so for him to write a work about the theatre is one of those made-in-heaven intersections as far as I'm concerned. (As an aside, yes, this is the William Goldman who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, and so forth. And he's brother to James Goldman, who wrote the book for Follies among other things.)
What makes this book so great?
- The style. I feel that Goldman is one of the most underappreciated prose stylists in America. You've seen the lines I quoted; the whole book sounds like that, at once casual and knowledgable, funny and dead-on in its descriptions. Goldman sounds like he's in the room reading the book to you. It's not an academic style, thank God. (In contrast, I just finished reading The Boys from Syracuse, about the rise and fall of the Shuberts, and while it was interesting, the author's rather dry tone sucked some of the life out of his fascinating subjects.)
- The expertise. Not only does Goldman have control of prose, but he also has control of his information. When he makes a pronouncement, you're inclined to trust it because he has established himself as an expert.
- The breadth of material. Aside from covering a ton of 1967-1968 productions, he also deals with just about every major element of Broadway and many of the significant theatrical personalities of the period.
- The honesty. Goldman's emotions and opinions are laid out on the page; he doesn't dick around with hinting, even in the "hinty" chapter. He loves the theatre and despairs for it.
Speaking of the "hinty" chapter, John Clum (Something for the Boys) considers Goldman a homophobe. Since I'm approaching the book from a different direction, so to speak, I may not be qualified to disagree with him. Still, for what it's worth, here's my observation: Goldman certainly perpetuates some stereotypes about gay men and the theatre, and he uses the group term "a flutter of fags"; but his main complaint is not that the various participants (writers, etc.) are gay, but that they're gay and making pronouncements about straight life in their plays. Note that he ends the chapter on homosexuals with this statement:
"All of which is why I think (hope) that one of the most important events of the Broadway season was the blockbuster success off-Broadway of Matt Crowley's terrific homosexual play, The Boys in the Band. It would be marvelous if this success started Broadway toward a sexual freedom it has never attained. After all, the homosexual is here, and he's not going anywhere. It might be nice to know, at last, what's really on his mind."
I would be delighted if interested parties would chime in on one or the other side of this issue!
Anything else? Hmm... I would've liked a few pictures in the book besides reproductions of Playbill billing pages. I bet the interviews in this book appear nowhere else; none are very long, but they're all candid and amusing. A partial list of interviewees includes George C. Scott, Hal Prince, Robert Preston, Neil Simon, and Joe Chaikin. Some individuals weren't interviewed so much as observed, such as George Abbott.
This book is essential for anyone interested in either Broadway history or the workings of Broadway. It's a damn good read, one of the few theatre books I own that I'll gladly read over and over again. It illuminates the nooks and crannies of Broadway behind and in front of the scenes, and it also extends knowledge of a great number of productions.
Review copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved
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