Ethan Mordden: When Broadway Went to Hollywood
Ethan Mordden is probably our leading commentator and historian of Broadway musical theater, as well as their somewhat more fraught Hollywood musical cousins. This is a really fun and enlightening book for anyone who is interested in the history of this unique modern American art form. Even if you don’t love musicals, the history of musical theater and its relationship to the movie business is integral to an understanding of twentieth century mass entertainment and popular culture.
The success of the now iconic musical movie, The Jazz Singer, which was among the first films to integrate synchronized music into a storyline in the late 1920s, spurred many of the best songwriters of the “Great White Way” to go west in search of riches. The list included George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Lorenz Hart, among many others, who like many New York based playwrights, were enticed by the huge amounts of money paid by Hollywood producers for established east coast talent.
But when Broadway writers and songwriters ran into the very different business and production methods of the movie business, it did not always work out for the best. Movie producers did not want to follow the same structure and outlook of the theatrical forms, and had to aim their products to a very different kind of audience than attended musical theatre in New York City, which Mordden very brilliantly identifies as segmented by the geography and cultural divides of twentieth century America.
There are so many interesting themes to this book. Mordden discusses the various struggles that Broadway songsters had with the Hollywood system, traces the history of the musical in theater and film, and critiques the best and worst productions of both coasts. Reading this book, we get to think about some really interesting questions – did Hollywood create opportunities for storytelling with music, or is film simply antithetical to the musical form? Are movie musicals and theatrical productions really compatible at all?
Mordden has great stories to tell about so many of the people involved in both theater and film, has probably seen more movies than anyone you will ever meet, and knows enough about music to really talk about it technically in a way the average reader will understand. He makes sense of a lot of complicated history and along the way, we get to learn some behind the scenes stories about the great musicals most readers of this book love to watch, and some of the truly terrible musical films that Hollywood has managed to create over the years.
Ethan Mordden started out in theater, as both composer and lyricist; he wrote musicals, but he is best known as a prose writer. Mordden’s fiction output includes several gay themed novels in his “Buddies” cycle, as well as some excellent historical fiction, including The Jewcatcher, and most recently One Day in France. He is also a prolific writer of non-fiction, including six volumes detailing the history of the Broadway musical from the 1920s through the 1970s, guides to orchestral music and operatic recordings, and a cultural history of the American 1920s entitled That Jazz! He has also published Demented, an examination of the phenomenon of the operatic diva, and a coffee-table book on the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. His Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya is a dual biography chronicling the romance and professional collaboration of these two icons, and in 2013 he published Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre. He has also written a number of books on film.
Having grown up in a family that lived some of the history in this book, talking to Ethan about the meeting of Broadway and Hollywood through musicals was tremendous fun for me. He is witty, charming and always entertaining. I think you will really enjoy listening to this conversation.