There Is No Business Like Show Business and No History Like the History of It

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

There is an immortal song in the play Annie Get Your Gun called “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”  This year, the theater world seems intent on proving that with a long stream of plays and musicals about iconic figures in the history of entertainment.  Whether you like to dance to the music of 60s’ rock group the Shirelles, love the classic operatic singing of Maria Callas, want racial history, sexual history or any kind of history of entertainment and its stars, it is all on stage somewhere in America.

In early July, Master Class, the story of 1970s European opera superstar Maria Callas, probably better known for her romantic affair with the wealthy Aristotle Onassis, opened to strong reviews at the Samuel Freidman Theater on Broadway.  Later, the Theater at St. Clements in New York premiered a new musical about 1920s blues singing great Bessie Smith.  The Second Stage Theater had By the Way, Vera Stark, about the racial history of movies in the 1930s. The 2010 Tony winner, Memphis, getting ready for a national tour, is about the history of country music and race in Tennessee in the early 1950s.  The New Jersey Repertory Theater, in Long Branch, N.J. debuted a play about 1930s and ‘40s actress Marlene Dietrich last winter and staged one about actress Judy Holliday this summer.  Lucky Guy, about the history of music in Nashville, opened last month.  Baby It’s You is the 1960s story of the Shirelles singing group.  The long running hit musical Jersey Boys focuses on the life of ‘60s singing icon Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  The Shaggs, which also just opened, is the 1970s story of a dad’s efforts to turn his talentless daughters into music superstars.  Million Dollar Quartet, about the early days of rock and roll, was very successful on Broadway. Rain was a Broadway tribute to the Beatles.  The Goodspeed Opera House, in East Haddam, Connecticut, just opened a revival of the classic Showboat, the story of music and race on a Mississippi showboat in the middle of the nineteenth century that debuted in the 1920s.  The off-Broadway Vineyard Theater had Picked about contemporary Hollywood.  Reefer Madness, about the 1936 cult marijuana movie, is at the Roy Arias Theater in Times Square, Talking Pictures, about the transfer from silent to sound movies, is at St. Jean’s Playhouse. One of the Fringe Festival plays in New York this month was about John Lennon, another was about Bette Davis and another about TV’s Kojak star Telly Savalas (“Who loves ya, baby?”).  All of that is not enough for you on the history of show business? It was just announced that a new musical on the history of Motown, focused on the life of its founder, Berry Gordy, is in the works.  Still not enough?  In January, End of the Rainbow, the story of the last years of Judy Garland’s life, opens at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and then moves to Broadway in April.

There are trends in the theater, as there are in films and on television. Why, all of a sudden, are there so many cop shows on television?  Boxing pictures in the movies?

We can ask, too, why so many plays, nearly a dozen, about the history of show business?

Escapism.  Americans have always taken refuge in legitimate theaters and movie houses in economic hard times.  We did so during the Great Depression and are doing so once again in our current economic downturn.  We leave our tough lives for a few hours and revel in the fantasy world of Hollywood, its films and its stars on stage.  We must go back to the real world, but that short trip gave us the lift we needed.  The show biz history plays not only take us to another world, but back in time to another world, Hollywood in the past, for a double escape.

Fascination with the lives of the stars.  Pick any show biz star:  Mary Pickford, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Elvis Presley.  Millions loved them and still do.  Americans have always been entranced with the lives of stars of the silver screen, stage and, later, television.  We need to know everything about them, good and bad.  Hollywood history plays take us behind the scenes to do just that.

One producer chuckled.  “Nothing sells tickets like dead celebrities,” she said.

Music nostalgia.  Never in history has any one generation, the baby boomers, retained such a yearning for the music of their youth. The baby boomer generation today is the single largest generation in U.S. history. It scoffs at Lady Gaga and Kanye West and reminisces fondly about the Four Seasons, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, the Shirelles, the Supremes, the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Never was a combination of Hollywood history musicals and the boomers made so perfectly for each other.

The never ending screening of old movies on television.  I have 76 movie channels on my television set. It seems like there is an episode of I Love Lucy and an Elvis movie playing on one of them every minute of the day.  The movies are a reminder to us all of the history of Hollywood and today plays are serving that love of the past in show business.

There are many producers who shake their heads from left to right in disagreement.  They see show business history plays as just a fluke and nothing more.

Evans Haile is one.  He is the artistic director of the Cape Playhouse, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, one of the country’s historic old theaters.  Haile is not terribly interested in show business history plays.

“There are a lot of one-person plays about celebrities, but they don’t work. Most full plays don’t work, either.  To be successful, an entertainment history show has to be really well-written.  Many show biz history plays have failed.  You can’t succeed with just a lot of good music.  You need a good story.”

He thinks, too, that the ‘escapist’ value of show biz plays is exaggerated today.  “Escapism entertainment worked in the Depression because there was no television.   Today people can stay home and watch television for free.  They don’t have to go out to a theater or movie house.  Today things are very different than in the 1930s, so you can’t say show biz history is successful because of a desire for escapism.”

Even so, Haile opened his season with An Evening with Lucille Ball, a tribute to the show biz legend put together by her daughter, Luci Arnaz.  “It did well, and I enjoyed it, but we only did it because Luci Arnaz has performed here often.  If she was not the driving force behind it, we would not have staged it,” he said.

Still, show biz history plays continue to debut. Next week in New York, it is Follies, the musical about the women of  an old Ziegfeld Follies type vaudeville show. This winter is the premier of February House, a play about Gypsy Rose Lee.

Its seems that, for now, on stage, there really is no business like show business.

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