Monday, June 24, 2013

Ziegfeld on Broadway

As a biography, Ethan Mordden's Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business (2008) is nothing special. As a book about Broadway during the Flo Ziegfeld era, however, it is excellent. Mordden often has little to say about the man he is supposedly writing about, while offering detailed descriptions of virtually every show Ziegfeld ever brought to Broadway.

Mordden has written at least eight other books about Broadway, including The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen: The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical and All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959. His Ziegfeld is just another in the series.

Mordden could be described as a Broadway elitist. He seems to regard any other form of entertainment  as second class. About television, for example, he writes, "Television offers canned stardom, strictly for those who tailor their material to rules of the usual federal white breads." But he does know his stuff. It's amazing how much he knows about live performances from a century ago.

Ziegfeld followed a simple formula to become "the man who invented show business," which to Mordden means simply Broadway. He believed in beautiful girls, beautiful costumes and beautiful sets. He could also identify great talent. Despite lacking a sense of humor, according to Mordden, he made stars out of Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers and Fanny Brice, among other comics. He's the producer who first put Showboat on the stage.

The author's prose ranges from the ridiculous ("... he was collapsing under the weight of more lawsuits than can dance on the head of a pin") to the sublime (he describes the Ziegfeld Girl as "the upwardly mobile harlot"), but it's almost always fun.

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