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Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Green (World of Musical Comedy, Encyclopedia of the Musical Film, etc.) is more a researcher than a writer or critic. So, while these brief studies of the Broadway careers of ten bygone musical/revue greats may lack style and insight, they do provide thorough documentation--with valuable reconstructions of (and excerpts from) legendary sketches, shticks, and numbers. Each chapter begins with an uninspired mini-essay on the clown's onstage personality and trademarks, then provides a paragraph or two of biographical background, and quickly proceeds to a show-by-show record--with quotes from reviews--of the Broadway career only. (You'll get no more than a sentence here about W. C. Fields' films or Jimmy Durante's TV stardom, for instance.) Aside from the inevitable discussion of Bert Lahr's fabled, much-annotated insecurities, the performers' personal lives remain virtually unexplored territory. There's little or no attempt to put the period comedy (circa 1925-50, for the most part) into any social, cultural, or theater-history context. Still, theater buffs will appreciate Green's detailed (if flatly written) evocations of un-recoverable Broadway highlights: the Yiddish-accented sketches and opera-singer parodies of plaintive Willie Howard (including ""Pay the Two Dollars""); the circus specialties, absurdist monologues, and Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions of Joe Cook; the wacky inventions and virtual one-man shows of Ed Wynn, ""the theatre's most disarming and amiable busybody""; Bobby Clark's classical clowning; plus the more familiar antics of Fanny Brice, Beatrice Lillie, Durante, Fields, and Lahr. Don't expect fresh perspectives here, then--and be prepared for repetitious clichÉs (""the audience howled""). But as a nostalgic source of song-lyrics, sketch excerpts (from both revues and musical-comedy books), stage ""business,"" and other theater-history material (much of it still hilarious), this is a solid reference--complete with a 40-page appendix of full stage credits for each star.