Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Best 'Broadway' Book in Decades


Since this is 11 January 2024, it's not much chop to say this is my 'Book of the Year' I'll just say ...


Miss McGinty and Miss Elvstrom


I just read a book. Cover to cover. 


I don't often do that, I read to research. Factual books, not fiction, are my pleasure. The last fictive book I read was Alan Simons's The Village of Little Pletzel on-the-Zump. The last new theatre book I read ... gulp ... the last 'Broadway' book I (re-) read was either Moss Hart's Act One or Don Dunne's The Making of No, No, Nanette. And, even then, I just re-read my favourite bits. But today, I read a whole book, from page 1 to fin.


Fact or fiction? Well, Mary and Ethel ... and Mikey who? is a bit of each. A hazardous exercise, putting wholly fictional characters into and even influencing more or less factual events. Often it is just clumsily done and silly. But not here.


The author blends (theatrical) historical events and people with the product of his delicious Broadway-Jewish imagination and humour in a wholly enchanting narrative which had me glued to the page throughout. There is an air of magic ... a ton of twinkle dust and plenty of whisky sour ... emanating from the pages.


I'm going to break the cardinal rule of book/theatre reviewing, a rule which nowadays seems to have gone into hibernation. (1) Tell the reader what the book is about and (2) Then, how well the author has pulled it off. Well, I've already told you that Stephen Cole has pulled off his audacious tale, technically and in the most attractive English, summa cum laude.


So, what is it all about? I'm only going to give an outline here. I don't want to spoil the book for what I'm sure will be the many thousands of readers to come.

A Broadway story. Mary and Ethel. Well, it's not going to be Mary McGinty and Ethel Elvstrom, is it? Mary Martin and Ethel Merman are the most enormous female monuments of the American musical theatre during its mid-20th century glory period. But, don't we already know all there is to know about them? I mean they've been written about so many times in the endless books of anecdotes (true or false) that have passed for Broadway literature in the last decades. But not like this!


When an author makes dead people speak in direct speech you are out of fact, and into fiction. You know, 'Shakespeare said to Oliver Cromwell ..'.


This book has loads of direct speech. But, not inappropriately so. Because the star of the book is the wholly fictional Mikey, a 25 year old, gay Jewish lad who with his sort-of spirit guide, a black maid (some of the time), Mary2, who turn up, whenever needed, in the various episodes of the lives, public and personal, of our two heroines. Between them, they make sure history happens ...  Mikey and Mary2 need to take on La Divina Commedia if they are looking for a follow-up.


Now, I'm about to make a shocking admission. I never saw either of these ladies on stage or in the flesh. But I've listened to every cast recording they ever made. And I'm afraid the stentorian tones of 'Mermsie' just don't appeal to me. Miss Martin at her best is decidedly more nuanced, but ...   Anyhow, just to say, I'm not a pushover for the pair. I'm not one, though I know I am probably minoritaire, who leaps at the mere murmur of the names of Mary and the Merm. But ....


I came out of this book feeling I knew more about them than I ever had before. I think I actually 'like' them. And I definitely like Mikey, even if he did pop his cork for Jerome Robbins. But the one I want to take home with me is Mary2. Every man's Méphisto, Fairy Godmother and will o' the wisp rolled into one.


I could go on and on ... but I think I shall gush if I do. And I'm not the gushing type. All I will say is ...


This book is going to sell itself to the Broadway royal brigade. But I hope it goes much, much further. It is a masterful compound of fact and fiction that just happens to be 'about' two ikons of the American musical theatre, presented in the happiest of fashions ...  all of which goes together to make this the best 'Broadway book' since ... er ... Bordman and Norton rolled into one.









Elden Buck said...

Anxious to read the book and play the Audible when they come out next Tuesday.

Unknown said...

Getting praise from such an astute and brilliant writer and historian and theatrical pro is heavenly.