A rich and entertaining biography of Broadway’s first auteur.
Ever the witty and erudite raconteur, Mordden (All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919–1959, 2007, etc.) transports readers to the time when Times Square was just an intersection of streets. Shortly after Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. arrived in the 1890s, the new subway system made 42nd Street and Broadway a hub, bringing riders to what was becoming Theaterland. Ziegfeld hit the right place at the right time, but as Mordden wisely points out, the man knew exactly what to do as the stars were aligning. Ziegfeld had already honed his taste and producing skills in Chicago; he knew what he liked and what the public wanted. Besides making deals and (sometimes) writing checks, he put his stamp on what he staged. Ziegfeld spotlighted charismatic stars, signing Anna Held, Marilyn Miller, Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, etc., and put them to work in lavishly designed revues, eventually known as the Ziegfeld Follies. For material and style, Ziegfeld drew on classic and popular entertainment forms—Goethe and sex, Mordden says—creating a Broadway template that prevails today, as anyone who sees the current New York revivals of the brassy Gypsy and the lyrical South Pacific will observe. Near the end of the ’20s, Ziegfeld set collaborators to work on an emerging form, the musical that wed songs to a strong, central narrative. The result was Show Boat, a cornerstone in American musical theater. Mordden gives ample attention to Ziegfeld’s personal life—in particular, his marriage to actress Billie Burke and his liaisons with the “American girls” he glorified on stage—but the main focus is the theater. The author’s descriptions are enlivening, his profiles sharp, his tone casual and elegant. He may never have met a diversion he didn’t like (the original route of the IRT; notes on kooch dancing) or a zinger he couldn’t resist (a description of Anna Held’s pelt-laden photo-op attire looked “like the interior of an Indian hunting lodge”).
As diverse and diverting as a night at the Follies.