March 21, 2005

BOOKS: Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 1930s, Ethan Mordden (2005)

Over the last several years, Mordden has been working on a history of Broadway's "Golden Age," which he defines as the 20s through the 70s, dedicating a volume to each decade; this is the final volume in the set. (There's also a similar volume covering the 80s, 90s, and early 00s, but it is not technically part of the "Golden Age" series.)

The volume at hand covers the 1930s, a decade which saw great stars begin their careers -- Merman, Hope, and Astaire on the stage; Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and the Gershwins off stage. It was a decade of great songs, even if they were generally contained in shows that weren't particularly interesting.

It was, Mordden tells us, the "least enterprising decade" of the Golden Age, with less innovation than had been seen in the 20s, and the musicals of the 1930s were less political than our memory of the era might suggest. The two significant innovations of the decade: the revolving stage, bringing new fluidity to the transitions between scenes, and the increasing importance of dance and the choreographer, as dance began to be not simply a diversion within the show, but an integral part of it.

As always, Mordden has done his research, and this book is as comprehensive as one can imagine, covering not only the great successes of history, but the classic disasters as well. He explains why shows work or fail, and his writing is crisp and witty. The entire Mordden series is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of American musical theater.

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