"BROADWAY MUSICALS: From the Pages of The New York Times," by Ben Brantley, Abrams Books, $50, 368 pages (nf)
It’s dreaming the impossible dream to be seated in a Broadway theater with The New York Times' Ben Brantley whispering critical analysis in your ear, but “Broadway Musicals” comes close to that wish fulfillment.
Brantley, a revered and influential theater critic, has assembled 119 reviews into a single volume with “From the Pages of The New York Times” as its subtitle, and it’s a treasure trove for devoted fans of musical theater.
Despite an acknowledgment that “for much of its young life, this shifting hybrid genre had trouble getting even a little respect,” the collection shows a deep admiration, if not a love affair, for this enjoyable American-born and -bred art from Brantley and his six Times colleagues, Brooks Atkinson, Howard Taubman, Clive Barnes, Walter Kerr and Frank Rich. (Atkinson and Kerr were so influential that they had theaters named in their honor.)
It’s not a history book, but the book divides the reviews into seven chronological sections, beginning with the early 1900s to a review published in 2011 — from “The Merry Widow,” “No, No, Nanette” and the landmark “Show Boat” to the “new century” of “The Producers,” “Wicked” and “American Idiot.” Brantley gives context to each era through his written introduction of each chapter.
He calls the 1950s “the last consistently fertile decade for what we now think of as the classic American musical, the model that Rodgers and Hammerstein perfected,” and during the ’80s and ’90s he declares “for depth of imagination in exploring the possibilities of the musical, there was still no one to match Stephen Sondheim.”
However, ironically enough, the Times’ 1957 review gushed over the premiere production of “West Side Story” but failed to mention the groundbreaking show’s lyricist: Sondheim, in his first Broadway outing. Worse still, the writer didn’t even mention that anyone wrote the lyrics.
The 10-by-12-inch book is lavishly illustrated with large photos, many of which haven’t been seen since they were first published.
“Broadway Musicals” is a companion to Brantley’s out-of-print “The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century,” published in 2001, which includes reviews of his choice of 100 significant plays.
Brantley writes that the Times’ reviewers have “teased, chastised, fretted over, smiled upon and (on occasion) worshiped” musical theater. Many aficionados of musicals share in that endeavor, but the commentaries from these writers are more authoritative and show greater perspective. And, as the saying goes, they can make or break a show.