The Broadway musical is an American invention. Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre, just out from Applause Theater & Cinema Books, profiles 28 artists who helped transform its toe-tapping zip into legendary status. Musicals like "West Side Story," "Guys & Dolls" and "Gypsy" are iconic and enduring; many creators are equally famous. Leonard Bernstein, Rogers & Hammerstein and George Gershwin are household names. Others, like Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, who wrote the music and lyrics for "The Wizard of Oz," also demand our attention.
True, genius is a heady word, but to author Herbert Keyser, it's deserved. Musicals, can produce songs and characters that captivate each generation anew. "Let's Fall in Love," "Send In The Clowns" and "Mack the Knife" are classic songs in the theatrical pantheon - and standards at nightclubs worldwide.
The trick here is the anthology form, collectively meeting the players of an elite company. It's a quick-hit look at Tin Pan Alley, pre- and post-war America, and the fertile cross-pollination between Broadway and Hollywood. And a worthy tribute.
Musicals are a microcosm of our larger culture. History isn't just politics and warfare -- it's also played out on The Great White Way. "South Pacific" attacked racism; "Of Thee I Sing" lampooned pompous politicians. "My Fair Lady" addressed class pretensions. Even "Gypsy" gave us Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother seething with ambition. Composers and lyricists champion the essence of humanity -- the tenderness and torment -- in their music.
Toss in the glitter, the glamour and the gossip and we get a back stage view of a golden age. Geniuses also explores the indiscretions -- from Bernstein's gay affairs to Alan Jay Lerner's infidelities and drug use to Jule Styne's gambling. Despite domestic turmoil, insane schedules and often profligate lifestyles, Keyser's troubled troupe wrote hundreds of memorable songs and productions.
Keyser, who calls their stories "inspirational, poignant and at times tragic," marries a love of research with a desire to diagnose what drives artists. Plus, it's a lively pop-culture education. Remember: most were untrained and many, like Irving Berlin, came from impoverished backgrounds. Musical theater's giants double as a template for American moxie; failure is as prominent as success. One recurring note: all crafted a musical genre that continues to astound.
So does Linda Eder, a veteran of the concert stage, who returns to Town Hall Oct. 17 as part of the Broadway Cabaret Festival, running Oct. 16-18. Eder, a Drama Desk winner for Jekyll & Hyde, is also promoting her new CD Soundtrack. With signature songs like "Vienna" and "Someone Like You," Eder's upcoming concert treats audiences to new renditions of popular classics, as well as original material from Soundtrack, delivered in her inimitable style.
"Aside from doing a tribute album to Judy Garland, I hadn't had a themed record," Eder says. "For Soundtrack, we did most of the music in a jazzy pop version, which really worked for me." The 12 tracks on the Verve label, out Oct. 13, span the last 50 years in cinema. Eder and her band reworked the arrangements, from "Charade," the 1963 Gary Grant/Audrey Hepburn film, and the theme song from "Valley of the Dolls" to "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and "Against All Odds," a Phil Collins classic.
Eder, who has recorded five separate cast and pre-cast Broadway albums, in addition to her solo work, is a crowd-pleaser. She's performed nationwide from The Greek Theater in LA to New York's Radio City Music Hall. She's also enjoyed four sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. For more info: www.the-townhall-nyc.org.