One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s
Ethan Mordden’s One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s is the most recent entry in Mordden’s multivolume history of the Broadway musical in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, One More Kiss does not live up to the ambitious nature of the project. While the book contains some amusing anecdotes and some good musical analyses, Mordden’s study lacks any historical context, and many of his insights will mean little to casual readers. Additionally, Mordden’s political views are so conservative that they are likely to offend many readers.
Mordden begins the study with a relatively clear thesis: that between economic challenges and the change in American music that shifted attention away from Broadway, the Broadway theater in the 1970s went through a period of rapid decline that marked the end of the Broadway musical as a major part of American culture. In an imaginative move, he therefore titles the book’s introduction “Conclusion.” However, Mordden quickly drops this argument and proceeds instead to divide 1970s musicals into rather obscure categories, including dreary musicals, concept musicals, dark musicals, and “don’t” musicals. He devotes at least a few sentences to each of the musicals in these categories, explaining why they belong there; but these categories do not do much for the book’s coherence. Following the “Conclusion,” One More Kiss becomes basically a list of the 1970s Broadway musicals with some critical observations on each of them.
Those critical observations are generally intended for a limited audience, well-versed in several different fields. These include music theory: one of the best things about One More Kiss is Mordden’s willingness to discuss music theory in some detail. He shows no hesitation, for instance, in throwing in a discussion of the meter of A Little Night Music, explaining that the association of the piece with waltzes does not necessarily correlate to the music itself, which is often in 6/8 time rather than 3/4 time [p. 102]. This sort of musical theory is both welcome and necessary to understanding the history of the Broadway musical, but it does limit the book’s audience to those who have enough musical background to follow Mordden’s arguments.
In addition to assuming his readers have a certain amount of musical knowledge, Mordden assumes that they are very familiar with Broadway performers from the 1970s. Some of these, like Christopher Plummer, Marilu Henner, and Ann Reinking, will probably be familiar to many readers. Other performers are less familiar and Mordden’s discussions of them may confuse some readers. In discussing the 1973 musical adaptation of the 1958 film Gigi, for instance, Mordden writes, “Who is to play the Maurice Chevalier role [from the film]? Alfred Drake? [Are they] resetting Gigi in Baghdad?” [p. 122]. Even if readers have heard of Drake, who had a career on Broadway spanning from the 1930s through the 1970s, many will no doubt be baffled when trying to comprehend Mordden’s attempt at humor in this passage, unless they are aware of Drake’s performance in Kismet, a 1953 Broadway musical that was set in Baghdad. Mordden provides no explanation of the joke for readers who do not already know that Drake starred in Kismet.
Mordden’s limited audience may be one reason he is willing to adopt a highly conversational and informal style, one that can occasionally be somewhat grating. Frequently, as in the passage just cited, Mordden states things indirectly, posing rhetorical questions to the reader rather than writing declarative sentences. Additionally, he uses the personal pronoun “we” throughout the book. At other points, his conversational style goes further: in introducing the selection of twelve black-and-white photographs by Martha Swope in the middle of the book, Mordden begins, “Boys and girls, I am so excited!”.
Despite these writing choices, not all of which serve the study well, there are some very nice anecdotes in One More Kiss. For instance, at the premiere of a little-known musical entitled Dude, Mordden writes that “a coagulating solution” turned the dirt that covered the stage “to mud,” and, when the dancing began, the performers “soiled those [audience members] in the front rows” [p. 13]. My personal favorite anecdote in the entire book takes place far from Broadway, when Mordden provides the story of twelve-tone composer Pierre Boulez, who in 1967 claimed that “artists had more freedom in Castro’s Cuba than in Europe” [p. 20]. Following the events of September 11, 2001, a footnote informs the reader, a record of Boulez’s remark “was [still] sitting in an active file, and […] Boulez was arrested in Bern.” Mordden continues, in a rather cruel attempt at humor: “Unfortunately [the seventy-eight-year-old Boulez] was later released” [p. 20].
If Mordden includes some amusing anecdotes in One More Kiss, he also includes some highly inaccurate historical observations. At one point, he describes conservative comic strip writer Harold Gray, for instance (who wrote the comic strip Annie) as “not class conscious. He judged individuals on how they treated other people, not on who their grandparents were” [p. 224]. It hardly needs to be stated that class in America has relatively little to do with one’s grandparents. Class consciousness, however, is a relatively minor point for Mordden’s study; his discussion of African-American culture is both more important to the study and more surprisingly flawed. Mordden at one point refers to a “formula of angels and devils fighting for control of human souls” that is, he says, a frequent theme in African-American musicals. He then goes on to claim that this formula apparently has a “source deep in the minstrel show and antebellum plantation culture. For all we know, it may date back to prehistoric African myth” [p. 73]. Statements like these are highly misleading. In these few lines, Mordden has managed to conflate blackface minstrelsy (which was overwhelmingly a pastime of white working-class Americans living in cities) and antebellum slave culture, and traced both back to “prehistoric” Africa. To make matters even worse, Mordden presents no evidence whatsoever for this claim, and gives the interested reader no opportunity to judge the veracity of the claim, since the book has neither references nor a bibliography.
Mordden also provides a highly politicized study that often does a disservice to his subject matter. In discussing the work of Bertolt Brecht, for instance, Mordden attacks The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny as a “savage indictment of democracy” [p. 158]. Anyone vaguely familiar with this 1930 opera and with Brecht’s politics would have no trouble discerning that Brecht meant it as an attack on capitalism, not democracy. Mordden’s belief that the two systems are identical may be an accurate representation of Mordden’s political views, but it remains a highly unfair presentation of Brecht’s work. At least equally disturbing are Mordden’s attacks on both the civil rights movement and the black power movement in One More Kiss. At one point, Mordden addresses a musical that is clearly heavily influenced by the black power movement, Melvin Van Peebles’s Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death (1971). Rather than offering a serious analysis of the musical and discussing its historical context, Mordden dismisses it in five sentences as “an enraged racist mishmash” funded by “white-guilt foundation money” [p. 72]. Again, Mordden presents no evidence to back up these rather controversial claims. At another point in the book, Mordden attacks Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), an attempt to view American history through the lens of race, as “one of the most self-evident of the bad idea musicals.” Mordden goes on:
This conservatism severely limits the value of One More Kiss. The civil rights movement was arguably one of the most important historical developments of the twenty-five years preceding the opening of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Mordden’s complaint that Bernstein and Lerner wrote a musical influenced by this movement is absurd.
To make these statements even more frustrating, Mordden provides them instead of more serious context, such as a detailed look at the actual historical situation of New York City in the 1970s. This was a critical moment in the city’s history; the 1970s were the era when the New York Daily News thus summed up President Gerald Ford’s attitude towards New York City: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” It was the era when the words “New York” were virtually synonymous with crime and poverty in the minds of many Americans. Yet Mordden gives no sense of the economic and social turmoil that the city experienced during this era, instead choosing to treat Broadway, which after all relies on an audience coming into New York City for its ticket sales, as though it is an institution that is completely separate from the city, and indeed the world, in which it exists.
are serious flaws that place heavy limits on the value of Mordden’s
work. Those who attended Broadway musicals during the 1970s may
well find some enjoyment in Mordden’s willingness to revisit
Broadway during that era—and Mordden’s discussion of
the music has occasional moments of interest. But anyone looking
for in-depth historical insight or a greater understanding of the
Broadway theater in the 1970s will find neither in this study, and
readers should be warned of Mordden’s radically conservative
political stance before reading the book.