July 31, 2007

BOOKS: All That Glittered, Ethan Mordden (2007)

In a series of seven superb volumes, Mordden covered the history of the Broadway musical from the 1920s to the present. Here, he turns his attention to the non-musical theater, focusing on what he calls "the golden age," 1919 to 1959.

It is not, Mordden acknowledges, a comprehensive look at these decades; rather, he focuses on specific themes and personalities as he moves through the years. He's very good at tracing the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood as the movie industry developed in the 30s and 40s, for instance, and he's always aware of how theater reflects social trends in the outside world.

Mordden assumes a certain amount of theatrical knowledge, and will occasionally get a bit snarky when forced to footnote a reference that he thinks we should already know. He goes a bit overboard in his assumptions at times; not many authors would drop a casual reference to Chi Chi LaRue into a footnote and assume that readers would recognize the name.

But the writing is always crisp and witty, and Mordden has a gift for describing productions and performances so vividly that you feel you were there. I hope that this will be only the beginning of a series on the history of the Broadway play; there are nearly 50 years left to cover, and I'd love to see a decade-by-decade survey.

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