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What's New on the Rialto

Ethan Mordden's
"All That Jazz: The Life and Times of the Musical Chicago "

Book Review by Ken Bloom

Also see our recent interview with Kevin Winkler about his book Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical

There's a plethora of books devoted to a single musical. Some are extended Wikipedia articles with no original ideas or insights. Their authors are reporters with no wit and a sere writing style. Then there are the fun-to-read books by authors so pleased with themselves for the reporting of all the shenanigans both on stage and off. These are so juicy you practically need a bib when reading them.

In a place high above the others is the author Ethan Mordden. He digs deep. He sees all the angles. And even though you can tell he's thought hard about every aspect of his story, he's eminently readable. And he has opinions. And the great thing about those pronouncements is that it's all right to disagree. He backs them up and you still respect his taste despite your own ideas. In many cases you actually end up agreeing with him, gladly willing to lower your own defenses. Oh, and there's a lot of juice too.

In his book All That Jazz: The Life and Times of the Musical Chicago, Mordden starts with a history of the city of Chicago to set the stage on just why the original play by Maurine Dallas Watkins is set there and not New York, for example. And, thinking about Chicago and its gangsters and corruption, it certainly overshadows New York in dirty dealings. The play and the place fit perfectly. So, Mordden's stage is set from the first settlers, the American Indians to the pioneers and on to Chicago the city's eminence of pig butcher to the world and butcher of people too in legendary events like the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. The history of the town is a perfect set-up for scenes that are sometimes comic, sometimes melodramatic, and sometimes have the stench of the slaughterhouse.

As Mordden states, "This book is about more than Chicago: it tells how the musical developed the characterological and thematic methodology to observe and comment on American life." This history is also useful to set the milieu of Chicago as well as the characters in the play. And each succeeding layer of the story from play to films to musical to film of the musical exemplifies exactly how each iteration influenced the next and how each related to its time.

Chicago's evolution from stage to screen to stage to screen is both a timeless story of human nature while also reflective of the time in which it's produced. And so Mordden's storytelling builds as if it's actually a building devoted to this one story with a new floor built every decade or so. The street level has the rawness of a saloon or flophouse where crime is unchecked and morality practically non-existent. Each floor keeps the basics of the original, but as the building rises each succeeding floor becomes more and more refined and spiffed up and shiny with the top floor a sort of Rainbow Room with splash and color but still echoing the lack of morality upon which the building originally stands. A revolving dance floor in which the crime and graft are presented with the glorious trappings of show business.

Honestly, many of you who pick up this book will jump right to the chapter on Chicago the musical. But you'd be doing yourself a disservice, for the events leading up to the musical and beyond are rich in history and anecdote. And that's the chief accomplishment of this book. Some writers give you the trees, that is the facts alone, whereas others just give you the forest, the big picture without the specificity. But Mordden writes it all from the broad overview to the most minute specifics, joining them all together seamlessly with his particular insights and his sly wit. Like all good authors his writing tells a story but also reveals himself, and a few hours in his company through the pages of this book is a particular delight.

Knowing Mordden and knowing his history chronicling musical theatre, you'd be right if you surmised that along the book's 227 pages (plus a selective discography and an index) other musicals are examined to illustrate both the development of musical theatre as it relates to Chicago but also how musical theatre reflects its time. Along the way you'll read about such shows as The Beggar's Opera, Show Boat, I'd Rather Be Right, Allegro and many others all the way up to and including Hamilton.

Now, didn't I tell you not to just skip to page 137 and read the chapter on the Broadway musical of Chicago? Well, in spite of what I'm going to tell you now, I implore you to read the book from the absolute beginning. Though you will be tempted when I tell you that Mordden is quite thorough in describing the plot of the musical. In fact, he goes number to number in his appraisal. And the great thing about that is you can put on the cast recording and play through song by song as he relates what's happening on the stage. Exciting, no? But don't go and just read that chapter!

Mordden runs through the current revival of Chicago and the film version, continuing to expand the story of Chicago into the story of musical theatre's relationship to the social and political life of this country. And it's a valid comparison that helps us understand how this one play has followed almost 100 years of showmanship and brinksmanship and always remains relevant. It's an impressive conclusion to a fascinating story.

All That Jazz: The Life and Times of the Musical Chicago by Ethan Mordden
227 Pages
Oxford University Press
Publishing date: April 2, 2018
List Price: $29.95
ISBN: 978-0190651794