Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It Happened on Broadway : An Oral History of the Great White Way

(Harcourt Brace 1998 Hardcover;  ISBN: 0151002800)

Back to the book page


With a new introduction from the authors

In this deliciously revealing oral history of Broadway from World War II through the early 1980s, more than 100 theater veterans — including Carol Channing, Hal Prince, Donna McKechnie, Hal Holbrook, Andrea McArdle, and Al Hirschfeld — deliver the behind-the-scenes story of the hits, the stars, the feuds, and the fiascoes. Along the way there are evocations of the great comedians and dramatic actors who had that indefinable magic that made them stand out above the rest. With verve, love, and passion, this book gives us the story of more than half a century of great theater — from the inside out.

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer met as undergraduates at New York University. The coauthors of five critically acclaimed oral histories, they are cultural historians with a focus on New York City. They are also professors in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Dartmouth College. They live in Lyme, New Hampshire.

What they have said about the book:

“There’s no people like show people to take you behind the scenes [of Broadway theater]. The Frommers haven’t written a history of Broadway. They’ve woven one from the recollections of an all-star cast of more than one hundred actors, directors, producers, designers, choreographers, publicists, authors, composers, and even critics.” —The San Francisco Examiner


“The remembrances that follow of Broadway debuts, of its richest era following WW II, of famous musicals and comedies, stars, hits and unexpected flops, and a string of laments over what ‘Broadway no longer’ is today move so seamlessly. . . . Interspersed with stage and backstage photos, caricatures, playbills and posters, the hundreds of magical, informative . . . never boring stories the Frommers have gathered demonstrate what it took to fill those seats.” —Publishers Weekly


“A fascinating look at Broadway from different perspectives, including interviews with actors, directors, producers, composers, lyricists, playwrights, stage managers, set designers, and critics. The authors have cast a wide net and drawn in voices from past and present.” —Library Journal


You can enter the world of Broadway pre-show by reading the fascinating retrospective "It Happened on Broadway An Oral History of the Great White Way" by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, showcasing wonderful tales of the 'fantasies, foibles and flops' of New York's Broadway Theatre through the years.



We spent about a year and a half interviewing our subjects. The vast majority were in person. Some who were out of state, ie John Raitt and Jerry Herman who were in California, were interviewed via telephone. We do not use questionnaires. This was our fourth work of oral history, and we teach the subject at Dartmouth.

Our entire approach rests on a spontaneous encounter. We strive to achieve rapport with our subjects and get them to relax and reminisce. We do prepare ourselves thoroughly on the subjects we want to cover, but we also allow the interview to go in new and unexpected directions if the conversation heads that way. We believe our genre is unique (to the best of our knowledge, that is): interactive oral history. This method is truly the product of the computer age. Had we relied on actually cutting and pasting paper, we would never have completed a single chapter.

What we do is transcribe our interviews and then decide on the overall subjects or themes we want to focus on and take parts of each interview, interweaving them with parts of others on the same subject. In essence, we strive to produce what reads like a conversation in a living room, but in actuality is a collection of pieces of interviews interwoven to deal with a particular subject. When we interviewed teams like Kander and Ebb, we understood how they felt when asked what comes first the words or the music. In truth, we can't say who does what. We work together, interview together.

On rare occasions, this is not possible -- for example, we had to split when Harvey interviewed Maury Yeston. He walked in alone and Maury took one look at him and shouted: 'Where's Myrna? How come I don't get both of you?'

We divide the transcriptions informally and then through discussion and trial and error put the book together -- together! We consulted various archival sources to get the kind of backstage and informal material we were after and which we think suits the purposes of this book. Most of the photographs came from Photofest in New York City. Others came from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, and individual photographers and people's private collections. Sardi's was generous enough to allow us to use a number of their world famous caricatures. Tony Walton was also generous in allowing us to use his artwork. Our previous books which have more of a personal album quality relied on individuals donating their personal photographs.


Bloomsbury Review

More than one hundred actors, directors, choreographers, producers, composers, lyricists, and playwrights have contributed to this deliciously enjoyable compilation of material. They all bring us some of the most interesting experiences and insights about the Broadway theater of recent years. One wonders how the Frommers managed to persuade so many luminaries to share their tales.
The first chapter "Broadway Calling," should be required reading for every theater student and aspiring actor. To hear Carol Channing, Jerry Herman, Betty Buckley, Manny Azenberg, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Al Hirschfeld and many more tell how they got started in their careers makes for superbly entertaining reading as well.

Much of the book is devoted to musicals, but there are also stories of the Theater Guild, from Eugene O'Neill and Bernard Shaw to William Inge and Sean O'Casey and the last week of Clifford Odets, and about the extraordinary talents of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando and Tallulah Bankhead. Celeste Holm tells how her Broadway career began in The Time of Your Life.

Gwen Verdon, Marge Champion, Donna McKechnie and others share stories about Agnes DeMille, Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Bob Fosse, and the creation of Chorus Line and Chicago.

The Frommers have combined these interviews into a rich, seamless, history that masterfully captures the essence of Broadway's last five decades in a most enjoyable fashion.


Barnes and Noble

In a book brimming with wonderful Broadway anecdotes and stories that have over time been transformed into legends, a host of Broadway insiders are allowed to tell their own stories in their own words. The authors, a husband-and-wife team specializing in oral history, have turned on their tape recorders and gotten out of the way; the result is a fascinating look at the action behind all the glitter.




"For theater lovers, this holiday brings books that should satisfy even the pickiest soul. My favorite is a gossipy portrait of Broadway, both its people and shows, over the past 60 years - "It Happened on Broadway, an Oral History of the Great White Way," by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer (Harcourt Brace, $35). The Frommers, who specialize in oral cultural history and have written similar books on Brooklyn and the Catskills, interviewed more than 100 people, producers, directors, designers, choreographers, star and their mates and children, even critics.

Charles Durning talks about auditioning for Joseph Papp; Carol Channing and Betty Buckley about how they got that first break; Robert Whitehead about producing "Medea" - twice. You can read about premieres of shows from "Oklahoma" to "Death of a Salesman" and how Neil Simon fixed "Broadway Bound" in rehearsals by creating a monologue for Linda Lavin that stopped the show. It's fun to browse in (lots of nice pictures), but addictive as a bag of potato chips."




"Our next song will be another by Rodgers and Hammerstein, to illustrate a new book by Myrna and Harvey Frommer, It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way. The Frommers interviewed over a hundred living composers, actors, producers, and others directly involved in Broadway from near the beginning until the present, and cut and pasted them to form a fascinating, informative, and coherent narrative. The section on The King and I, for example, combines the memories of a dozen people. One story is that Yul Brynner, who played King Mongkut, and Gertrude Lawrence, who played Anna, were having trouble realizing the characters. Brynner concluded: "We have to play it as potential lovers. Otherwise the play is just about two cultures$F7 and who cares?" That insight is what makes the final song the dramatic resolution of the show. Here are Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, the original stars of The King and I. (Shall We Dance?)"


PLAYBILL MAGAZINE - national edition:

"The Drama Book Store hosted book-signing for Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer's It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way. Like table-hopping at Sardis is the way one wag described this deliciously anecdotal tone from Harcourt Brace and Company--and that ís not far off the mark. In attendance was a number of the interviewed--actress Jane Summerhays, composer Charles Strouse, song-and-dance man Lee Roy Reams, publicist Susan L. Schulman, critic Howard Kissel, conductor-arranger Luther Henderson and even the owners of the Drama Book Store themselves, Arthur and Rozanne Seelen--and the authors read selections from the book. Mrs. Frommer regaled the group with Flora Roberts remembrances of just starting out in the business, reading plays for producer Kermit Bloomgarden and unearthing one she not only recommended he produce but gave him $500 of her own money to do it: Arthur Millerís Death of a Salesman. (A theatre-party agent of course, suggested a sunny alternate title: Life of a Salesman.) . . .Poignant postscript: Roberts, who was the only agent Stephen Sondheim ever had and something of a legend herself, passed away nine days later at the age of 77."



"If you love Broadway shows.... We recommend It Happened on Broadway : An Oral History of the Great White Way by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer "This work chronicles the decline and fall of Broadway from the perspective of actors, writers, producers, and directors who reigned supreme when Broadway was synonymous with everything glamorous about showbiz and who later struggled to keep the tinsel shiny as TV, movies, and rock music changed popular taste and stole Broadway's audiences."



"Every show has its share of war stories. One tends to hear a lot of them in the restaurant after the show or at the cast party; the juicier ones live on through the teller's next show (or shows). Quite often what makes the story interesting is not the tale itself but the teller. 
It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer is chock-full of war stories. What makes these stories different than the usual tales told out of school is that they are tales of Broadway's heyday. They paint a colorful portrait of the theatrical life in the Big Apple through stories told by the usual suspects, the performers, writers and producers, as well as choreographers, designers, agents, and critics. 
Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld gets in his two cents; tales are told by the president and the owner of Sardi's. Sometimes the change from one thread of stories to another is subtle enough that I found myself backtracking to find out where the change happened, exactly. We are told about the larger-than-life personalities that moved and shaped the Great White Way, many times by personalities equally as vigorous, from reminiscences about the creation and effect of Oklahoma! to the shows that were unexpected hits to designing costumes for The King and I to working with Fosse (and later Michael Bennett). 
The result is a feeling of having been there for the premieres of the classics and the backstage battles, or at least the feeling of having a conversation (probably over drinks at Sardi's) with the cast of Sondheim's Follies (with "I'm Still Here" playing in the background). One feels the joys they express at their star turns or the monuments they worked with, as well as the wistful sighs at the passing of the time when theatre on Broadway flourished beyond the multi-million-dollar spectacles so prevalent of late."


By LIZ SMITH, July 6, 1998

"Coming this fall will be a book titled "It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way." The authors - Myrna and Harvey Frommer already penned two tomes - "It Happened in the Catskills" and "It Happened in Brooklyn." This new oral history has them talking to more than a hundred theater luminaries from Carol Channing to Robert Whitehead to Gwen Verdon. They take readers through 60 years of mesmerizing history from all the hits to all the flops."


By ROBERT SIMPSON, preview from PLAYBILL ONLINE, May 22, 1998 

Oral History It Happened on Broadway Due in Bookstores This Fall 

"Authors (and husband and wife) Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer have spent the past two years talking to more than 100 Broadway actors, directors, playwrights, composers, critics, publicists, designers, and stage mangers about their lives and experiences. The result is It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way (Harcourt Brace), a new book due out in November.

The Frommers interviewed such luminaries as actors Carol Channing, Gwen Verdon, John Raitt, Leslie Uggams, Linda Lavin, and Patricia Neal; producers Robert Whitehead, Marty Richards, and Manny Azenberg; composers Cy Coleman, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Jerry Herman; director Jerry Zaks; and critic Clive Barnes. The stories cover the back stage history of Broadway from the end of World War II to today.

The Frommers are historians who teach oral history at Dartmouth College. Their previous books are It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, and Growing Up Jewish in America. Harvey Frommer said he got the idea for the Broadway book after watching the Tony Awards ceremony on television a few years ago."



"It Happened On Broadway" is nothing short of living, breathing theatre history. Carol Channing's first appearance on stage at a grammar school in San Francisco; Patricia Neal's subsistence jobs cutting pies and scooping ice cream while waiting for her career to bloom (which really didn't take all that long by today's standards); the advent of the Theatre Guild; Celeste Holm and John Raitt on creating the grand-daddy of musical theatre, Oklahoma; Kim Hunter on Marlon Brando; Donna McKechnie on Michael Bennett; Linda Lavin on Neil Simon and Len Cariou on Stephen Sondheim, it's all in there. "It Happened On Broadway" is told by those who have spent the past 50 years in the trenches, the actors, designers, press agents, choreographers, directors, and even their offspring. With vintage photos, drawings, posters and Playbills the Frommer's provide us with a look at theatre history from a time when $1.50 would buy you a movie and six or eight vaudeville acts to the impact of the AIDS crisis on the theatre community to the vast corporate culture now responsible for many of today's Broadway shows. An invaluable and engrossing book for anyone interested in an insiders perspective on the business of the Great White Way."


from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, September 1, 1998

"A chorus of more than 100 voices including stars, celebrities, producers, costume designers, critics, sons and daughters of Broadway greats lend this oral history of Broadway theater over the past 60 years the heady excitement of a blockbuster show. "The first time I ever set foot on-stage was in grammar school," begins Carol Channing, the book's first speaker. The remembrances that follow of Broadway debuts, of its richest era following World War II, of famous musicals and comedies, stars, hits and unexpected flops and a string of laments over what "Broadway no longer" is today move so seamlessly. Charles Durning remembers the first laugh he got on stage. John Raitt describes almost not getting to replace the lead in Oklahoma! because he couldn't fit into Alfred Drake's costume. John Lahr says his comedian father "could get a laugh on a conjunction." Interspersed with stage and backstage photos, caricatures, playbills and posters, the hundreds of magical, informative, never boring stories the Frommers have gathered demonstrate what it took to fill those seats."


preview from TALKIN' BROADWAY

"For those of you who love talkin' Broadway, there's a new book on the horizon, It Happened on Broadway, an oral history of the Great White Way, by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer. You'll find out what everyone, from Billie Allen to Jerry Zaks, has to say about their experiences on Broadway. Actors, dancers, musicians, playwrights, columnists sit around, talking, and telling what "their" Broadway was and is like. From the pages of the New York Post to the little bar at Sardi's to the rehearsal stages and dressing rooms of your favorite theater, you'll get new insights on how it works and what makes Broadway what it is. Wonderfully informative and a truly great read."


review from TALKIN' BROADWAY

Harcourt Brace & Company hit the bookstores this week with a new theater book by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer. A collection of more than 100 luminaries - including stars, celebrities, producers, costume designers, and even critics make It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way the best theater read of the year.

What you will find in this wonderful read is the only history of Broadway told by those who lived it and made it happen. The trials and triumphs, the battles and betrayals, the dedication and drudgery are all here in a collective memoir that is filled with the light, the magic, and the stardust of Broadway. There are accounts of the towering dramatic successes of the post-war years, the great mid-century book musicals, and the spectacular megahits of today.

Carol Channing begins the book with her remembrances of being on stage in grade school. Lee Roy Reams remembers auditioning for The Phantom of the Opera with Harold Prince being surprised that he could sing. John Lahr says his comedian father "could get a laugh on a conjunction."

You'll find out what everyone from Azenberg to Zaks has to say about their experiences on Broadway. From the pages of the New York Post to the little bar at Sardi's, you'll get new insights on how this business we call "show" works. You'll also laugh your ass off!

Charles Durning: One day I was walking down the street when suddenly I was grabbed from behind. "I've seen what you've done to my wife," Zero Mostel shouted at the top of his lungs. "This is a citizen's arrest." He shoved me into a six-seater Checker cab. The driver didn't know what the hell was going on. "Where do you want to go?" he asked. "Drive us to a bigger cab," said Zero.

Howard Kissel: Gower Champion was apparently a control freak. Someone once called him a Presbyterian Hitler. Bob Fosse was also not a piece of cake. But they had this high degree of professionalism.

Philip Langner: Even after Rodgers and Hammerstein had gotten together and agreed to work on the project, it took two years to raise the money. The Theater Guild was a bit slow, and a lot of people they went to turned it down. It had no striptease, no suggestive jokes, none of what was in the successful musicals of the era. Philip Barry had a royalty account with the Guild for his plays, and when they suggested he take ten thousand dollars and put it in, he declined. Later on he pinned two telegrams up on his wall. One was to Barry from the Guild: "Would you like to invest in wonderful new play?" The other was to the Guild from Barry: "Forget it." Oklahoma! would have made him a good eight hundred thousand dollars.

Betty Buckley, Joel Grey, Jerry Herman, Donna McKechnie, Patricia Neal, Mary Rogers, Maureen Stapleton, Elaine Stritch, Leslie Uggams, Gwen Verdon, Robert Whitehead and many, many others tell of their experiences. When you are finished reading this highly entertaining book you'll have a sense of the history of the Great White Way. Interspersed throughout are rare backstage photos. I'll leave you with one of my favorite anecdotes.

John Kander: At that time, I had yet to have a hit show. But every so often, Zero would throw his great beefy arm around my shoulder and say, "Kander, I want you to do me a favor. When you get up in the morning, I want you to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'My name is John Kander, and I'm a talented man, and fuck 'em all."



The Ultimate Bedside Reader

The damn thing is good! If you put it by your bedside, as I did, you will not regret a sleepless night until you've read all the 300 pages. But I won't bore you with opinions, or superlatives. I'll just quote some passages:

"All the world may be a stage, but there's only one Broadway."
Myrna & Harvey in their introduction

HAL HOLBROOK: Theater was mainstream, riding a wave of tradition that was vital and essential to the entire entertainment process in the United States. We had actors who lived in the theater. That was all they did. We had playwrights who were writing good plays, sometimes astonishing ones. In 1947 and 1948, I cxame into town and saw "A Streetcar named Desire" and "Death of A Salesman". I saw "King Lear" for the first time at the old National Theater. I saw Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, the Lunts, Louis Calhern.

MANNY AZENBERG: Olivier, Scofield, Gielgud, Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates...

HARVEY SABINSON: Tennessee Williams, Wiliam Inge, Arthur Miller, Kaufman and Hart. There was Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser --- great shows every year.

MERLE DEBUSKEY: You had continuing producers; it was their life. Kermit Bloomgarten would produce a play every year or two.

SABINSON: There was a hard-core audience that had to see everything in a seaso

FREDDIE GERSHON: Going to the theater was an event. It was very carriage-trade.

MORTON GOTTLEIB: I loved the glamor; I don't mean just the dressing up, but the whole feel of how lucky you were to see a Broadway show.

TONY WALTON: Jerome Robbins had named names during the McCarthy era. Jack Gilford's wife, Madeline, was one. Zero Mostel was another.

CHARLES DURNING: Zero Mostel didn't work for ten years. He told me he went from making a thousand dollars to one hundred a week. "What kind of secrets was I giving away," he'd ask, "acting secrets?"

WALTON: Zero Mostel and JAck Gilford were cast for "A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum". George Abbott had become the director, and I was doing the set and costumes. We were floundering out of town, and absolute disaster. When we opened in Washington, George Abbott gave an interview saying "I think we could save the sucker if we threw out all the songs." Steve Sondheim made a big pitch to Hal Prince to bring Jerry Robbins back in. ... Hal phoned Zero to ask whether he would be prepared to work with Jerry Robbins. "Are you asking me to eat with him?" "I'm just asking you to work with him." "Of course I'll work with him," Zero said. "We of the left do not blacklist." ...

But when Jerry first came in, we were all terrified. He was already a daunting figure. This was --- after all --- well after "West Side Story". We stood on the stage of the National Theater in Washington. Jerry Robbins ran the gauntlet, shaking everyone's hands. When he finally got to Zero, everyone held their breath. The tension was palpable. Then Zero boomed out, "Hiya, loose-lips." And everyone burst out laughing --- including Jerry.

CHARLES DURNING: "A Chorus Line" is an actor's play about actors. When that girl starts singing "What I Did for Love" it has nothing to do with sex. It's the love of the theater --- the horror, the heartbreak, the disappointments. We've all had our share. When I saw "A Chorus Line", and I saw it several times, I broke down and cried. My wife does not understand why; she hasn't gone through what I haved.

RONNIE LEE: The curtain went down, the lights came on. Everyone had left the theater, and I was still sitting there weeping. My wife was holding me in her arms. I was remembering the cattle calls. Hundreds came. They'd teach you one step, everybody would do it, and they'd eliminate. Then they'd teach you another step, perhaps two steps, and eliminate again. They would eliminate for size, for looks, for color, you name it. What we did for love --- "A Chorus Line" really caught it.

CAROL CHANNING: It wasn't until a year or two ago that I learned Ethel Merman was offered the original role of Dolly and turned it down. All I knew was that Mr. Merrick told me he was going to have a musical version of "The Matchmaker" written for me. Thornton Wilder told me he wrote "The Matchmaker" about a woman he knew who had sandy hair like mine. "She was a tall, handsome figure of a woman, like you," he said to me. "You even look like her."

LEE ROY REAMS: Everyone thinks to be in the theater you have to have such an ego. I think you have to have a lack of ego to be up there. You're constantly receiving rejection, constantly being judged and criticized. To succeed, you have to be passionate about your work. And it's that commitment that makes us so verbal and indulgent in the craft.

ROBERT WHITEHEAD: Strangeley enough, when the musical theater was at its most exciting and most expressive of us as a country, our theater had a kind of world influence. A lot of plays were being done, and out of them grew the great musicals. But then the volume of productions went down, down, down, until there was practically nothing. And when the serious plays began to disappear, the great American musicals began to disappear.One fed off the other.

HOWARD KISSEL: The Andrew Lloyd Webber shows and the like fulfill many people's idea of what an evening in the theater is supposed to be: spectacle, constantly changing panoramas, theater as movie. The average person doesn't know that something should happen to him while he's watching a play. He gets beautiful stage pictures and he thinks he's gotten his money's worth.

ELAINE STRITCH: As I am in the autumn of my life, I am finally able to say that it is the work that satisfies. It is in the moment. A movie star doesn't hear a "Bravo" from the seventh row. I have gone back and forth from musical theater to straight plays. One year I did Noel Coward's "Sail Away" and the next year I did "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I went straight from "Showboat" to "A Delicate Balance". It's a kick for me to do everything. Still, I must admit that preparing for a play is such a difficult adventure that every time I wonder why in God's name I choose to do this. It's my version of nine months of a difficult pregnancy: morning sickness and evening tears, misunderstandings, a long, long trip.

FOSTER HIRSCH: The 1996 revival of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" made me hopeful. Here was a revival of a great play originally produced about thirty years earlier that got wonderful reviews and a decent run. It's a very demanding play, with lots of dialog that requires you to listen in a way we're not used to listening in this era of spectacle shows. Its success means there is still a desire for that kind of theater. The glitter can come back.



"Those who find backstage details about the theater (and more particularly about the musical theater) absorbing will very likely enjoy the often witty chat recorded here, including the widely varying, but generally warm recollections of the producers and actors who worked on many of Rodgers and Hammerstein's landmark musicals, and the musings of a number of figures, from Patricia Neal to Richard Kiley to Louise Lasser, about the manner in which they launched their careers. There are also loving but unsparing portraits of the lives and careers of such major innovators as Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett."



  "Great book! Full of entertaining stories."


from TONY ON LINE, October 23,1998

Broadway is Really Talking Harvey and Myrna Katz Frommer's New Oral History Harvey and Myrna Katz Frommer are the keepers of many flames. Their oral histories of the Catskills, Brooklyn and growing up Jewish in America have established this husband and wife team as contemporary historians of American culture. The two Dartmouth professors recently turned their attention to Broadway and compiled It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way (Harcourt Brace), arriving in bookstores on November 5. Harvey, a writer who successfully combines the ancient tradition of oral history with the latest innovations in digital technology, met with Tony Awards Online to talk about Broadway celebrities talking about Broadway.

CH: How did you get into the oral history game, Harvey?

HF: I've written many sports books, including many professional players' biographies, and in many ways, doing those books was like doing an oral history with one person.

CH: What was your first official oral history?

HF: Myrna and I got a contract to write the book It Happened in the Catskills. We were going to do it from our point of view, in our voice, but once we met the zany, humorous characters up there, we realized that our voice wasn't nearly as good. That was our first oral history, followed by It Happened in Brooklyn and Growing Up Jewish in America.

CH: Where did you get the idea for the latest book?

HF: I got the idea a couple of years ago watching the Tony Awards on television, hearing the wonderful acceptance speeches. I realized that it would make a great oral history.

CH: You talked to practically everyone on Broadway. How did you decide who to interview?

HF: We went after the stars, and wanted to get a mix of performers, producers, writers and directors. We got George C. Wolfe the day after he won his Tony and he was flying high. We also have people like Louise Lasser and Linda Lavin; Ronnie Lee, who runs one of the big ticket agencies. We also have theatre critics, such as Howard Kissel and John Lahr, who told us that his father, Bert, "could get a laugh on a conjunction." One of the most interesting things was meeting sons and daughters of legends, like Jamie Hammerstein and Mary Rodgers, who talked about passing a room and hearing her father starting out with tunes on a piano.

CH: Any favorites?

HF: Although I don't want to make the other people feel bad, my all-time favorite was Carol Channing.

CH: Isn't she great?

HF: I had always admired her from afar. Meeting her and having her pour French champagne in her hotel suite high above Broadway - and my telling her that I always thought of her as a legend - her telling me "I'm just a person like you," was fantastic. She opens the book. Charles Durning was an incredible surprise. His real love is Broadway, not Hollywood. Manny Azenberg was another favorite.

CH: What process did you use to compile the information?

HF: This method is truly the product of the computer age. Had we relied on actually cutting and pasting paper, we would never have completed a single chapter. What we do is transcribe our interviews and then decide on the overall subjects or themes we want to focus on and take parts of each interview, interweaving them with parts of others on the same subject. In essence, we strive to produce what reads like a conversation in a living room, but in actuality is a collection of pieces of interviews interwoven to deal with a particular subject.

CH: How long did it take?

HF: About a year and a half. There are two of us, so writing it alone would have taken three years, I guess.

CH: How did you divide the labor?

HF: When we interviewed teams like Kander and Ebb, we understood how they felt when asked what comes first the words or the music. In truth, we can't say who does what. We work together,interview together. Sometimes we have to split up because there are two appointments at the same time. That happened when I went to interview Maury Yeston. He opened the door and yelled, "Where's Myrna? Aren't I big enough to get both of you?



"Though husband and wife team Myrna Katz and Harvey Frommer are professors at Dartmouth, this oral history would be better off passed around backstage than in the classroom. Includes interviews with Kitty Carlisle Hart, Linda Lavin, George C. Wolfe, everyone else you'd expect, and a few you wouldn't."



"A one of a kind memoir."



"You're sitting in your living room having a cozy little chat with many of the living legends of Broadway. Their reminiscences are filled with nostalgia for the Broadway that once was and sparkle with candor and wit about Broadway in the present. This may sound like a highly unlikely occurrence, but it's possible through the efforts of Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer in their new book, It Happened on Broadway.

The Frommers have taken the time to glean stories from not only some of Broadway's brightest stars, but from those we would not usually hear from. Among these are critics, press agents, playwrights, costume designers, and stage managers, just to mention a few. There are even stories from the owners of The Drama Book Shop and Sardis. All of these personal stories form a rich mosaic that makes the history of Broadway come alive.

An example of one of the stories included in the book is one told by press agent Susan L. Schulman. It was the rehearsal for the  twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tony Awards, for an audience made up exclusively of TONY Award-winning Broadway stars also appearing on the program.  Yul Brynner danced to Shall We Dance from the King and I, although he had not performed it for a number of years. When he was through there was not a dry eye in the house.

If there is anything missing from this book, perhaps it is that there is little mention of Johnny Mercer and the wonderful lyrics he provided for shows such as L'il Abner, Foxy, Top Banana, and the last stage creation dedicated to his work, Dream. Choreographer, Wayne Cilento provides a lovely narrative about how he developed his vision for Dream, but that is the extent of anything having to do with Mercer.

The life force that fills this book is almost tangible and provides readers with an extraordinary variety of Broadway memories. It Happened on Broadway is well worth the price of admission. You'll want to "see" it again and again."


The Dallas Morning News

"Why hasn't someone done this before? No matter, because the Frommers have compiled a fascinating oral history of Broadway, with recollections from more than 100 performers, producers, directors, composers and choreographers who made the Great White Way blaze. So at last you can see what John Raitt and Celeste Holm say about the creation of Oklahoma!, how Kim Hunter remembers Marlon Brando in the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire, how Betty Buckley zoomed from Fort Worth to Eight Is Enough and Cats, and so much more. Applause!" 


LA Life (Los Angeles)

"Included in this volume are stories, anecdotes, jokes, recollections and love letters from more than 100 theater professionals - actors, directors, playwrights, composers and choreographers - who talk about the past 60 years of theater. Illustrated with more than 100 black-and-white photos, such luminaries as Celeste Holm, John Raitt, Marge Champion, Richard Kiley, Leslie Uggams and Neil Simon share their memories of the Great White Way." 



"Here are anecdotes, jokes, recollections, predictions, critical assessments, thumbnail biographies and valentines from more than 100 theater professionals--actors, producers, directors, press agents, playwrights, and critics--talking affectionately and entertainingly about the shows they've seen, staged, produced or acted in over the last 50 years. A marvelous book for browsing, with a great show-biz quote on every page. Sample, from composer Maury Yeston:

"I don't think Cole Porter was kidding when he said to Richard Rodgers, 'You know, I think I discovered the secret of great songwriting in America.'

"And Rodgers asked, 'What is it?'

" 'Yiddish melody.'"


The Yiddish Melodies Behind Broadway Tunes

'We knew there were Jews deeply embedded in the story of the New York theater," Harvey Frommer, the co-author of "It Happened on Broadway" (Harcourt Brace), says, "but it didn't come clear to us until Maury Yeston, the composer of the musical 'Titanic,' told us that if you look into the background of many of the famous Broadway composers, you'll find a relative who's a cantor. And then he said that he didn't think Cole Porter -- the only non-Jew in the bunch -- was kidding when he said to Richard Rodgers that he'd discovered the secret of great song-writing: Yiddish melody."

In "It Happened on Broadway," the latest book of oral history from Mr. Frommer and his wife, Myrna Katz Frommer, the couple not only give tell the story of Broadway but discuss how it has overlapped with the story of Jews in America. The Frommers, professors at Dartmouth College, are veterans of the Jewish American cultural scene, which they covered in their oral histories "It Happened in the Catskills," "It Happened in Brooklyn" and "Growing Up Jewish in America." Now they have moved onto another form of nostalgia: the saga of the Great White Way in its glory years immediately following World War II. Although they planned to discuss the major dramatists of the postwar period, such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, they knew from the start that the Broadway musical would occupy a central place in the book. "That's because the musical is our cultural legacy," Ms. Frommer said. "Where 'La Boheme' is the Italian legacy, the musical is ours. It's our gift to the world."

The authors, speaking to the Forward from their home in Lyme, New Hampshire, also acknowledged that their latest book is a Jewish story on many levels, but that this element took them somewhat by surprise. "The Catskills book should have prepared us for this," Ms. Frommer said, "but it wasn't as apparent at first, as in that book."

"When you think about it, all the minor keys in Porter's song 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy' make it sound like a Yiddish melody," Ms. Frommer said. Another example of the pervasive influence of Yiddish theater and humor, Mr. Frommer said, is how the example set by Joel Grey's father, Borscht Belt entertainer Mickey Katz, informed Mr. Grey's creation of his breakthrough role as the master of ceremonies in "Cabaret."

"As you read this book, you have the feeling that the Jews, after so many years of being repressed and oppressed in Europe, came to America, where their children were free finally to do what they wanted in the world, and then the talent just came pouring out," Ms. Frommer said.

"Think of a play like 'A Raisin in the Sun,' all about African-American life," she said. "But if it hadn't been for the Jews -- the producers and so many people involved -- the play would never have been done. You could say that it was a triumph for African Americans but it was also a triumph of Jewish liberalism."

Ms. Frommer said that a pre-"Fiddler on the Roof" production in the early 1950s called "The World of Sholom Aleichem" reflected the intersection of Jewish lore, left-wing politics and the New York theater. As press agent Merle Debuskey tells the story in "It Happened on Broadway," in 1953 Jack Gilford and several other actors who'd been blacklisted, including Howard Da Silva, Morris Carnovsky and Ruby Dee, decided to put on the Sholom Aleichem play, written by Arnold Perl, to show that the blacklist hadn't killed them off as artists. Mr. Debuskey told the Frommers that the press was scared to death of covering the play. "But the people of the left, the progressives, were ready to support it," he said. "That's where some of the money came from. And also from the people who knew and loved Sholom Aleichem. They were the audience." Against all odds, the play became a smash hit and ran for at least a year.

According to the Frommers, their favorite story in this wide-ranging oral history comes from Cy Feuer, one of the producers, along with Ernest Martin, of the musical "Guys and Dolls."

"It was such a great interview, it became an entire chapter on its own," Harvey Frommer said. "You have to understand, Cy Feuer has this thick New York accent and as he tells the story of how he and his partner brought together all the people who made 'Guys and Dolls' such a great show -- a show based on Damon Runyon stories -- he sounds like a Damon Runyon character himself. It's the definitive Broadway story. Cy Feuer's voice comes through, and the medium is as good as the message."
- From the FORWARD

Back to the book page