Mordden continues his decade-by-decade survey of the Broadway musical by moving backwards from the 1950s (Coming Up Roses, 1998) to the ‘40s.
The 1940s was, as the author points out immediately, a unique decade in musical theater history; for the first time, extensive documentation in the form of original cast albums exists for many shows; WWII alters theatergoing habits and casting possibilities; there are certified classics produced that are still performed today more or less intact; and the Rodgers and Hammerstein “revolution” shakes the genre to its foundations. Yet, as Mordden notes drily, at the outset of the decade the state of the art was dire, a compendium of bad jokes, stale books, and nice tunes. Then came Pal Joey and several other shows that challenged the status quo and led up to the earthquake of Oklahoma! As always, Mordden is vastly knowledgeable, witty, and incisive in his judgments. His best writing is as sexy and slangy as a Cole Porter lyric. Where Coming Up Roses seemed somehow subdued, backing away from his usual flash-and-filigreed style, the new volume dives in, sometimes over its head. But the book is never less than entertaining and, at its best, offers a dramatically different viewpoint from other, stodgier theater histories. Mordden is to be congratulated for such gems as his rescue of Cabin in the Sky from undeserved oblivion, and his frank and balanced analysis of much-picked-over classics like Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate. That he has something new to add to the mountain of verbiage dedicated to these shows is one indication of how good he really is.
Occasionally abrasive, sometimes overwritten but still an essential book on Broadway.