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Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre: The Composers and Lyricists

Read this Web-Exclusive Book Review by Wendy Smith.

Jule Styne was a compulsive gambler who "borrowed" $50,000 from his brand-new bride. (It made their first year of marriage "difficult," she allowed with commendable restraint.)

Richard Rodgers, an unrepentant womanizer, wrote his pregnant wife a letter from an ocean liner bound for England saying that he missed her terribly—and that he was sure she'd understand if he slept with someone else on the boat.

Johnny Mercer, a courtly Georgia gentleman when sober, was a vicious drunk. His taunts once drove on-again, off-again love interest Judy Garland to slash her wrists.

Frank Loesser had a volcanic temper.

Stephen Sondheim hated his mother.

Alan Lerner abused drugs.

He may consider them "geniuses," but Herbert Keyser devotes plenty of attention to the less-praiseworthy traits of the people whose seductive melodies and scintillating words made the American musical our national art form. Perhaps that's because many of the 28 brief portraits assembled in this extensively illustrated volume began as performances for Crystal Cruises, in the course of which guest lecturer Keyser would sing a few songs and tell a few stories about the people who wrote them. Bad behavior is always more fun to hear (and read) about than unblemished rectitude, and the author, who flirted seriously with show business before entering medical school in the mid-1950s, obviously still likes to please an audience.

Don't expect penetrating insights into the creative process in Keyser's agreeable book, which makes pleasant browsing for uncritical aficionados of Broadway and Hollywood. (Despite its title, the text spends a good deal of time in Tinseltown, where even successful theater composers such as Jerome Kern were happy to earn a steady paycheck during the Depression.) Each chapter follows roughly the same format:

The genius is born, usually around the turn of the 20th century (Andrew Lloyd Webber is the only one with a birth date after 1940) and frequently in poverty in New York City, though Hoagy Carmichael hailed from Indiana, and Cole Porter was filthy rich before writing a note. He (lyricists Dorothy Fields and Betty Comden are the only women profiled) is more likely to get his education in the streets or Tin Pan Alley than at college (Howard Dietz and Cole Porter are the anomalous Ivy Leaguers). He has some flops and a lot of hits; the paragraphs parade along, listing in sequence his best-known songs, plus cute anecdotes about how some of them were written. The genius in question pals around with other famous show folk; Golden Age Broadway and Hollywood were sociable places, and composers frequently worked with multiple lyricists (and vice versa). The genius gets married and divorced (often over and over again, as in the case of Alan Lerner); he works less but gleans more honors; he dies. Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, Jerry Herman, John Kander, and Charles Strouse are the sole survivors.

This is a perfectly serviceable way to cover a lot of ground in not much space. Few chapters are longer than ten pages, and each one of them features generously sized photos along with sidebars listing the subjects' principal theater credits. (The sidebars omit the titles of movies or individual songs, which proves to be particularly regrettable in a case like that of Fats Waller, who is far better known today for his hit tunes than for his four obscure stage shows.)

Primary research and polished prose are in scant supply as well. The notes on individual chapters credit no more than two, but usually only one biography or memoir as source material. As for the writing, though Keyser thanks his wife and son, as well as several editors, for fact checking and line editing, they missed more than a few howlers. Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, for example, "had been attempting to write successful pop songs, but that had alluded [sic] them for several years." And Harry Warren wrote the score for a film called Sun Valley Serenade that "is still shown on a continuous basis, without interruption, at the Sun Valley Lodge." The aside is for the benefit of those confused about the meaning of "continuous," I suppose.

In other words, Proust it ain't. But, in fairness, who needs Proust when you've got Porter? Keyser's genuine affection for his geniuses—warts and all—has a sweet appeal, and his breezy tour of their career highlights will send readers straight to their CDs, or MP3s, or online music links to listen to "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " or "Night and Day" one more time.

Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of The American Scholar, which has published her profiles of Stephen Sondheim and producer John Hammond, as well as her essay on Elvis Costello's music/talk program "Spectacle." In 2009 she was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

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