BWW Interview: Laurence Maslon Opens Up About His Third Edition of BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL
Emmy Award-nominated writer Laurence Maslon is the co-author of the musical theater tome 'Broadway: The American Musical'. The third edition of the fascinating, comprehensive history of one of our country's greatest art forms has just recently been published (the first edition of the book was initially published in 2004 as a companion piece to the successful PBS series of the same name) and has been updated to include The Book of Mormon, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Hadestown, and more!
Not only is Laurence Maslon a lauded writer, he is also the host and producer of the NPR radio series 'Broadway to Main Street', and an arts professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, as well as associate chair of the Graduate Acting Program.
There are few people who possess the amount knowledge that Laurence Maslon has about the rich history of the American musical. I was lucky enough to have the chance to speak with him about researching this beloved art form, current trends in musical theater, the evolution of the american musical over time and much more!
This is the third edition of 'Broadway: The American Musical', what do you think it is about the American musical that makes people want to dig deeper and continue to learn about it?
I think it's two things. I think the musical keeps evolving and obviously has become, between the second and third edition, cool again. Between things like 'Glee' and 'High School Musical', and of course 'Hamilton' and 'Dear Evan Hansen', it's not the fringe thing that maybe it was at the beginning of the 21st century. I think there's, in general, more interest because it's reached out to a new generation in different ways. And I also think, frankly, the 'Broadway the American Musical' PBS series, which came out in 2004, sort of led to a whole new way of looking at musicals that was more scholarly and trying to braid the stuff that happens on Broadway more with events in American history and American culture. So, I'll take a little bit of credit for that! But I think that there's just more serious investigation about what the American musical has meant to our culture in the last 20 years.
I would love to hear about your research process for this book.
We really started back in 1999 when Michael Kantor came up with this idea for the six-part [PBS] series. So while he was working on the series, while we were writing it, we knew, or certainly at least we hoped, that we would get a companion book, because things like Ken Burns' 'The Civil War' and 'Jazz' all had these, and it was pretty much par for the course. So, while the show was only six hours, we knew we had the opportunity in the book to really flesh out stuff. And obviously in a book you can't hear it. You can't see the performers, but you can investigate it in a different way and that's why the original hardcover in 2004 was able to use all of that research we did over 5/6 years, but also expand on it, and lyrics and archival material, and profiles of people who didn't even make it into the series. So it was a very exciting project to work on because our publisher gave us a lot of resources. But we also were already scanning literally thousands of photographs and getting rights for thousands of quotes and interviews. Michael, I think, interviewed over a hundred people, so I wouldn't say all you had to do was put the book together because it was very complicated, but at least the raw material was there. I've also hosted a radio show on NPR for the last 9 years called 'Broadway to Main Street'. So I see everything [on Broadway]. This book goes all the way up to Hadestown winning the Tony. And you want to be current, you want to, in this world, attract readers on stuff that's up to date. On the other hand, history sometimes takes a long time to work its way out. So, you don't know what's going to be a lasting show. Something like 'Merrily We Roll Along' in 1981 ran for two weeks. 16 performances. But now it's a famous show. So if I were writing that book in 1981 I'd say, "Well, this was a big flop." But it turned out to have an afterlife. So even in this current edition of the book I was struck by all these shows that felt like they were about young people. 'The Prom' and 'Be More Chill' seemed to have a lot of synergy between them, there were a lot of similarities, they overlapped audiences, but by the time the book came out they'd both closed. But obviously, 'Dear Evan Hansen' isn't going to close any time soon, so there you are.
What do you think the biggest change in the musical as an art form has been over the last twenty or so years?
I think the two main things are, there's much more of a niche market. For a century there was something called a 'Broadway Sound.' But now the music of Broadway is much more splintered and is much more like cable programming. There are Hip Hop musicals and there are Latin musicals and there are Jukebox musicals and there are good old fashioned musicals like 'The Prom', but I think it caters more to the musical tastes of people who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s. And the other aspect is, I think it's become an entertainment choice for young people. And I don't mean kids in the sense that, I think millions of kids got to see 'Cats' or 'The Lion King' or 'Mary Poppins' as their first show when they were between the ages of 6 and 8. The opportunities for audiences, say between 13 and 17, are immense, and didn't exist really. And so, it's kind of a Venn diagram because obviously 'Dear Evan Hansen' and 'The Prom' and 'Mean Girls' and 'Be More Chill' are pitched so much to that audience that I can't picture anyone over 21 being interested in those shows. But also 'Hamilton', I have an 11 year old son, and he knows all the stuff to 'Hamilton' the way I knew all the lyrics to 'Fiddler on the Roof' and '1776'. It's just a big, big change in terms of building an audience that didn't exist previously.
What direction can you see the American musical moving into?
If I knew that I'd have a house in the Cayman Islands! But, I think the fact that an audience of adolescents and teens are enjoying it means that they'll get older, and they'll produce shows. They'll grow up and want to be producers, so I kind of think the old school way of doing a show... I mean if you look at a wonderful show, but it's 50 years old, like 'Sweet Charity' or 'Man of La Mancha', I think there are going to be fewer of those shows because simply the format of them will seem old fashioned. The language will be old fashioned. And as we saw with 'Oklahoma!' and 'Carousel' and 'My Fair Lady' in the last two seasons, I think the sexual and gender politics of some of these older shows are going to make it difficult for them to thrive, so people will have to find a new vocabulary for how to even do a musical.
What show would you say has made the biggest impact on your life?
Two shows, '1776', which is the first show I saw, not in 1776 but in 1969, and 'On the Twentieth Century', which I saw out of town for the first time in Boston in 1978 in the middle of a snow storm. And I sat up in the mezzanine and the people in front of me turned around during intermission and said, "Could you please stop enjoying it so much, you're ruining it for the rest of us."
Can you see yourself continuing to write further editions of this book? Is there another topic under the umbrella of American musical theater history that you would like to branch out and do a book on?
I had a book that came out a year ago called 'Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America', which is the history of how music from Broadway was recorded and how people listened to it and where they listened to it. So that was sort of a big chunk of my thinking. I think the great thing about being able to reinvestigate the Broadway [The American Musical] book is, the third edition has an additional 23 pages, that's a lot of words actually. Could it be its own book? Maybe. But the fact that it's sort of reaching backwards and speaking to other shows, the fact that I'm writing about the revival of 'Oklahoma!' but on page 141 is the original 'Oklahoma!' in the same book, the fact that I talk about these shows for young people and I talk about 'Babes in Arms' as a precursor in 1937, or 'Bye Bye Birdie' from 1960, they're in the book. You don't have to go to another book and look at them, it's all part of a bigger story.
Buy the book HERE
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity