It makes sense that George Abbott is the first theater artist profiled in “The 100 Most Important People in Musical Theatre“(Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,288 pages,publication date: September 15, 2019, $50) by long time theater journalist Andy Propst. Abbott’s importance is laid out in a brief, italicized summary at the top of the entry, as are all the entries in the book: “As a director-writer, Abbott was responsible for both a vast number of shows that are considered landmarks in musical theatre history and in establishing the careers of two generations of musical theatre artists.” In the 1,000 words that follow, we learn that those landmarks include The Pajama Game (1954); Damn Yankees (1955); Fiorello! (1959); Tenderloin (1960); and Flora, the Red Menace (1965), and those careers include Rodgers and Hart, Harold Prince and Bob Fosse (all four of whom get their own entries) as well as Carol Burnett, Shirley MacLaine and Nancy Walker (none of whom get their own entries.)
Abbott was not just an important theater artist; he was important for longer than anybody else. In the 1980s, as Propst recounts, somebody asked him what the most important development in theater had been during his lifetime. “Electric light,” he replied. Abbott was born in 1887. He lived to be 107.
But George Abbott is listed first not because he’s the most important nor because he was born before anybody else with an entry. (That latter honor goes to Gilbert and Sullivan) No, Abbott is first because of his name. The people in the book are listed alphabetically.
This seems an odd way to organize a book whose explicit purpose is to rank theater artists past and present. Implicit in this decision may be the author’s ambivalence towards the enterprise, an acknowledgement that ranking artists by “importance” is at least as problematic as choosing which ones to give theater awards to each year for “excellence.” Such exercises bring attention to the worthy, and ideally stimulate conversation. But how accurate, fair, or useful are they? If many 21st century critics find fault with 19th century philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s “great man theory of history,” isn’t it even less credible to apply a version of the theory to such a collaborative field as the theatrical arts? It feels telling that 16 of the 100 selected are duos (e.g. Kander and Ebb; Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake), each pair getting a single entry; and that many of the artists appear in other artists’ entries. George Abbott, for example, makes an appearance in the entries for designers William and Jean Eckart, composer and vocal arranger Hugh Martin, director and producer Harold Prince, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Richard Rodgers, and actress Gwen Verdon. And what about all the unknown, unsung or forgotten collaborators that make musical theater possible?
Still, if it’s easy to challenge the parlor game premise of “The 100 Most Important People in Musical Theatre,” the book as a whole functions as a compendium of American musical theater history, offering a between-the-lines glimpse into the behind-the-scenes story — or, at least, the perception of that story from an informed theater journalist. Of the 100 theater people whom the author chose to profile, 25 are still living. Sixteen are women (and four are still-living women: performers Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald and Chita Rivera, and composer Jeanine Tesori. Aficionados might argue: Why not Angela Lansbury? Bernadette Peters? Julie Taymor?) More than a third are composers or songwriters, which is apparently the largest category; this makes sense for a book about musical theater. (Many of the composers are also book writers, lyricists, and/or performers.) The youngest person selected is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was born in 1980. It’s bracing to realize he has now lived a year longer than George Gershwin.
The individual entries are diligently researched but workmanlike in the writing — essentially career biographies quickly alighting from show to show, with fewer anecdotes than one might have expected, and critical assessments (after the initial italicized summaries) largely left to brief excerpts from old newspaper reviews of individual shows as well as general appraisals mostly by critics. This begs the question: Why are there no drama critics among the 100? Yet, Ed Sullivan makes the list. Identified as a producer and television personality, he is surely the most surprising choice. Propst’s case for including him: “Sullivan’s nearly four-decade career in print and on television made Broadway both accessible to and palpably exciting for people in even the tiniest of communities in America.”
The individuals he selected, Propst argues in a preface, “have had a significant impact on the form because of their innovations or the perceptions they helped to create about what musicals are.”
Here is the list, arranged alphabetically as in the book. Argue away.
John Murray Anderson
Robert Russell Bennett
Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse
George M. Cohan
Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Agnes de Mille
William and Jean Eckart
S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan
Oscar Hammerstein II
E.Y. “Yip” Harburg
Edward “Ned” Harrigan and David Braham
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
John Kander and Fred Ebb
George S. Kaufman
Michael John LaChiusa
Alan Jay Lerner
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.