Broadway musicals are so reliant on the deft combination of composition and performance that it's a miracle anyone ever raises the curtain, let alone has a long, successful run. Steven Suskin's Second Act Trouble looks at theater's grandest failures by compiling pieces written right when they happened. Reporters for New York newspapers were on the scene for the out-of-town tryouts of the ghastly 1968 musical version of Breakfast At Tiffany's (starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, with a last-second rewrite by Edward Albee) and the out-of-control New York previews of Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot's 1972 Hair follow-up Dude (plagued by flighty staging innovations that included a stage covered in dirt, and an orchestra situated in the balcony). The book contains firsthand accounts of star misbehavior by the likes of Jerry Lewis, Carol Burnett, and Liza Minnelli—the latter abetted by an in-over-his-head Martin Scorsese—and fragments of memoirs by producers and publicists. It's practically a primer on how art-by-committee becomes predictably tedious.
As a read-from-start-to-finish book, Second Act Trouble has one significant problem, summarized by Mel Brooks' comment about the massive 1965 flop Kelly: "It's the same with all shows in trouble. The same sad tune with different lyrics." After a while, page after page of tryouts, rewrites, and closing notices begins to blur together, even given the occasional curveball, like Harvey Sabinson's reminiscence about David Merrick's outrageous publicity stunts. The standard for this kind of book is still held by Ken Mandelbaum's Not Since Carrie, which is a breezier read and adds keener critical insights about Broadway's most notorious.
But Suskin's accumulation of archival reportage still holds historical fascination, both for the way it becomes an inadvertent chart of the intrusion of "new journalism" techniques into the drama pages of the '60s and '70s, and for the beguiling melody of Brooks' "same sad tune." It's frankly amazing how many talented, intelligent writers and producers hold out hope that the right cuts, a boffo new opening number, and a fresh set of critical notices in a new city will overcome the aesthetic tragedy that they can see with their own eyes, on their own expensive stages. There's some kind of lesson there, about how instincts fail as the bills start piling up.