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The Magic Theater

November 16, 1997|STEVEN BACH | Steven Bach is the author of "Final Cut" and "Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend." His biography of Moss Hart will be published next year by Alfred A. Knopf

The death of the American musical has been predicted so often, for so long, that it is startling to read it has already occurred. Or so Denny Martin Flinn informs us in "Musical! A Grand Tour." "A great art form has passed," he writes, and then ends his long history of the musical--from Aristophanes (literally) to Stephen Sondheim--with a melodramatic one-word curtain: "BLACKOUT."

The lights went out on the musical-as-we-knew-it, Flinn tells us, on April 21, 1977, at the Alvin Theater on West 52nd Street. The occasion was the premiere of "Annie," a so-so musical based on a comic strip, whose highlights included FDR's Depression-lifting epiphany, sung by Annie, that (get this) "Tomorrow is only a day away."

"Annie"--in Flinn's book--killed off the musical by winning Tonys and profits, no matter how weak it was. Flinn is right to remind us that when "bad work substitutes for good, the end is surely near," but it seems as mean-spirited as orphanage-warden Miss Hannigan not to note that the red-haired moppet cheered up audiences on Broadway for 2,377 performances, ran for 3 1/2 years in London and is only now winding up a Broadway revival a full 20 years after her deadly debut there. Still, it is worth suggesting--and Flinn is not alone in doing so--that what Little Orphan Annie couldn't kill off, maybe the Brits could.

The Broadway musical's day on the town may, indeed, be done. Musicals don't originate on Broadway now as often as they do in London, Los Angeles, Toronto and rehearsal halls equally far afield. The shift in origin has more to do with economics than with anything else but has brought shifts in creativity and sensibility with it. It is instructive that "Ragtime," which has yet to open on Broadway, is already being widely touted and performed with the stately grandeur of a classic.

For those who cherish the bright and sassy vernacular show that for decades typified the American musical no one but Americans could do, there has been a terrible falling off, symbolized perhaps by the crash of that chandelier in the schlocky "Phantom of the Opera."

Chief suspect, of course, is Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, when not confusing Eva Peron with Judy Garland in what Flinn calls "fascism as show-biz," has smothered the beat of Broadway beneath Puccini-flavored treacle in fake fur or on roller skates. That one of Lord Lloyd Webber's shows has just become the longest-running musical in Broadway history is--to a fan of Porter, Rodgers, Berlin and Gershwin (I plead guilty)--merely proof that even T.S. Eliot can be turned into kitty litter.

Flinn, a former dancer and choreographer who appeared in "A Chorus Line," has written about his experience in "What They Did For Love." I have not, as far as I know, seen him dance, but he is doubtless more graceful en pointe than on paper. His book is oddly structured and under-edited, but it is punched up with insider savvy. He is good about stagecraft and dance and choreography, disdains Hal Prince, worships Michael Bennett and is scathing about Edwin Lester and the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. His chronicle will supplant none of the works of his betters--Cecil Smith, Stanley Green, Gerald Bordman and Lehman Engel come to mind--and his errors are mostly harmless. (For some reason, he thinks Noel Coward's "Cavalcade" was a flop musical, though it was a huge hit as a patriotic pageant--with songs--and won the Best Picture Oscar when filmed by Fox in 1933.)

Whatever its shortcomings, "Musical! A Grand Tour" is not the least of the current crop of books about the musical theater, a distinction that goes to the outpourings of another dancer-choreographer who has produced (on tape, one suspects) a nonbook for the nonreader.

Tommy Tune gives us "Footnotes," which is subtitled (in lower case, which pretty much says it all) "a memoir." "Footnotes" is as slender as its author, chatty and ever so madcap, a virtual catalog of gypsy cliches about the business there's no business like.

Tune reminds us that he first tapped into public awareness in 1973 as an openly gay character in "Seesaw," for which he won the first of his many Tony Awards, and if he isn't out, he isn't anything. His outness is out there on every page, with breezy accounts of his deflowerings (gay and otherwise) and subsequent carnal adventures. The virtue of his vices is provided by his touching nods to the devastation AIDS has wrought on both the musical and his personal life.

On the self-help side, "Footnotes" contains a recipe for facials borrowed from Mae West via Andy Warhol that is, well, "organic." Because I doubt this newspaper will let me print it, I merely alert you to seek out or avoid Page 92. Tune's confessional mode further reveals that a psychic once told him he was an alien, a showstopper he passes on to us adding that, "deep down somewhere it has a ring of truth." Indeed.

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