When Broadway Went to Hollywood by Ethan Mordden – Review

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By Rachael Popow

It wasn’t just a desire to repeat a winning formula that led to so many early Hollywood musicals being about putting on a show. As Ethan Mordden points out in When Broadway Went To Hollywood, movie bosses initially feared that if a couple burst into song while out for a stroll in a forest, the audience would wonder where the music was supposed to be coming from. But if they were backstage, at least there’d be a rehearsal piano…

when broadway went to hollywood ethan mordden book coverSo, perhaps it’s unsurprising that many of the Broadway composers who headed to Hollywood following the arrival of sound found writing for the movies to be a frustrating experience. Having their stage shows adapted for the big screen could be even more of a gamble, as the studios would often make sweeping changes. For example, the 1940 film version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Very Warm For May had a different plot, an almost entirely new score and was re-titled Broadway Rhythm.

Mordden’s story of how we got from there to the point where songwriters Kander and Ebb could veto producer Harvey Weinstein’s plan to include a new track by Anastacia in the 2002 movie Chicago makes for hugely entertaining reading.

“Lively and witty”

If, like me, you love show tunes but your actual musical experience is limited to singing along to Radio 2’s Elaine Paige on Sunday, then some of the more technical analysis of the songs may be a bit baffling. Luckily, the book doesn’t get bogged down in jargon. Mordden’s style is lively and witty, especially when he’s musing on Hollywood’s apparent belief that an inability to sing and/or dance shouldn’t be a bar to starring in a musical.

He does admit, though, that unlikely casting decisions can sometimes pay off, as in the case of Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in Guys And Dolls. However, he’s particularly scathing about director Fred Zinnemann’s wish to cast Frank Sinatra as cowboy Curly in Oklahoma!

If nothing else, When Broadway Went To Hollywood will make you want to curl up on the sofa and work your way through a stack of classic movie musicals, starting with the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And when you’ve finished with those, you may be curious enough to seek out the 2004 Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely, which Mordden states ‘isn’t the worst of the Hollywood musical bios. It’s the worst of the Hollywood musicals.’

‘When Broadway Went to Hollywood’ by Ethan Mordden is published by Oxford University Press, £19.99


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