Eight years in the making, From the Bowery to Broadway: Lew Fields and the Roots of American Popular Theater is theatre history with an epic sweep. At the center of this vibrant, richly detailed pageant of American show business from the 1880s to the Great Depression is an archetypal American hero, a Jewish immigrant named Moses Schoenfeld who fashioned himself into Lew Fields, one of the masters of the early Broadway stage. Among the book’s,many virtues is that it rescues from the edge of oblivion a once-celebrated figure now largely unknown to the general theatre-going public, and remembered by specialists for only one phase of his protean career: his teamwork with Joe Weber as the “Dutch” comic duo Weber and Fields.
“Our impetus in beginning the project was to find out about family roots,” said Marc Fields, who co-wrote the book with his father Armond, in a recent interview. “My father, who was born in 1930, is the grandson of Lew’s elder brother Max. We figured nobody else would write about Lew. Most show business biographies are usually a succession of scandals and anecdotes, but we weren’t interested in that.” A good thing, too, because, as the co-author himself attests, “Lew Fields was essentially a strait-laced Victorian in his outlook: He did not employ the casting couch. He was every bit as talented as Florenz Ziegfeld but he is not as well known because, unlike Ziegfeld, he was not a womanizer.”
Fields was not one to construct a larger-than-life persona oozing with sex and ego. Offstage he was a devoted husband and father with relatively modest flaws: He gambled; he mismanaged money; he overworked himself; and, like many immigrants, he was willing to erase his ethnic heritage in order to achieve American success. But if Fields’s life was virtually barren so far as the gossip factor, and if he is an engaging rather than a mythic protagonist, he is also, as his biographers amply document, an extraordinarily fertile figure in other ways. Fields’s career covered all the major forms of popular entertainment of his day, from the minstrel show, burlesque and variety through revues, extravaganzas, the book musical and early silent movies.
Wit and savvy showmanship
In glistening detail, the authors re-create the Bowery melting pot out of which the great comic team of Weber and Fields was born. out of the immigrant culture in which they were both raised and the rough-and-ready variety entertainment of the time (before the form became gentrified and began to call itself by the Frenchified name “vaudeville”), Weber and Fields devised Mike and Meyer, a “Dutch” duo who assaulted each other verbally and physically. Their knock-about, cross-fire routines, peppered with malapropisms and miscommunication, reflected the struggles, the missteps and the moxie of the immigrant audiences who came to laugh at themselves. Not content to place Weber and Fields behind the glass of history, the authors make a convincing case for them as forerunners of the anarchy dispelled by the Marx Brothers and the rude, realistic” contemporary satire of In Living Color and Saturday Night Live.
Around the turn of the century, Weber and Fields’s burlesques, performed at their own Music Hall, were a beloved Broadway tradition-popular entertainments gleaming with wit and savvy showmanship. Joe Weber was satisfied to remain in place, recycling the same basic formulas, but Fields became compelled to move on and so the partners split, though they were to be reunited for numerous return engagements. In his never-ending attempts to both renew himself as a performer and revise and reshape the theatrical formats he had inherited, Fields became a musical theatre pioneer whose modernizing touches helped lead the way out of the serendipity of 19th-century variety into the fluid, seamless coherence of the book musical. Far from ending his career as a relic, Fields in the ’20s (with the help of his two children, librettist Herbert and lyricist Dorothy, whom he had attempted to forbid from careers in the theatre) produced a series of adventurous, up-to-date musicals like Peggy Ann, Chee-Chee, Hit the Deck and A Connecticut Yankee.
Having begun his career at a time when Puritanical anti-theatrical prejudice still stained the profession, Fields struggled to achieve respectability. The attempt flavored his life with tantalizing and often unresolved contradictions: He was a burlesque comic who yearned for the prestige he felt only a career as a dramatic actor could convey; he was a performer who wanted the creative powers of a producer and a director; he was an artistic renegade whose ambitions were undermined by the demands of the commercial marketplace he tried both to elevate and to appease. But-as the authors realize, even if their subject never quite seems to-the ability to create satisfying popular entertainment is no mean gift.
Longer chores lines
“Show business is as much about the business as the show,” Marc Fields says. “We wanted to demonstrate that the business was as much a part of a showman’s life as the shows were.” Here again, Fields proves an exemplary figure. He was an early adversary of the monopolistic Syndicate, whose cutthroat practices changed forever the way the business is conducted. And in his long and tumultuous association with the Shuberts (who challenged and ultimately conquered the Syndicate), Fields was exposed first-hand to the school-of-sharks method of how shows were financed, booked, routed and advertised. In 1906, after his break with Weber, Fields became a partner of the money-wise Shuberts. Unlike them, however, Fields was a perfectionist who paid high salaries to his employees, hired chorus lines that were larger than those of any of his competitors, and spent much of his twenties. This sympathy is complicated by his erotic attraction to his personal oppressors, overtly heterosexual figures like the older bullies he “married” at Mettray, and American and French policemen and soldiers.
This literal exhibition of Genet’s sexuality, both in his writing and his personal liaisons, becomes a way for White to make Genet’s private expression political. In a recent lecture, White asserted that Genet “wrote to seduce the heterosexual reader.” He went on to suggest that this motive was decidedly political in its attempt to confront the surface rectitude of Genet’s audience with the poetic sociology of an alien underworld. Viewed from what might be considered a normative perspective, this focus implies the invention of an “other” which is fascinatingly repulsive, an “other” that signifies unknown territory, uncharted human experience, but that attracts by appearing violent and vital-which lends White’s analysis of Genet’s psyche an importance beyond the narrow limits of the artist’s particular psychology, and implies that this biography of Genet is also a sociohistoric accounting of the culture which made him what he was.
But White seems to place himself outside the seductive power of Genet as other.” His writing is lucid and elegant, consistently moving away from the lush hyperbole of Genet’s own prose. He attempts to flatten where Genet ornaments, using his detailed research to get under the surface of Genet’s texts and into the workings of his mind. But, as White knows, the texts (and the man) retain many layers of onion skin, layers that merge into each other to create a complexly patterned fabric that is at its core a grand illusion. For at the heart of this book is an absence, a hole around which all White’s words revolve. A hole where Genet should be.
And Genet remains, like the Queen in The Balcony, in and not in his palace of the imagination, embroidering and not embroidering his lace handkerchief, to be conjured only in and through a fictional language which reflects, always, itself. spared no expense in glazing his musical spectacles with the finest possible production values. As a result, he ended up not as the Shuberts’ partner but as their employee, and he had to work harder and harder to pay off his growing debt to them. Quite unlike the Shuberts, Fields was a splendid showman who never mastered the business of putting on shows.
“Our first draft was 1,000 pages,” Marc Fields says, “and of course our editor demanded cuts.” From the Bowery to Broadway is still very long, and wide pages thick with smallish typeface may prove daunting to prospective readers. But despite the fact that it contains more production details than it needs, the book never loses narrative momentum as it swings deftly from panoramic long shots to intimate closeups, intercutting backstage and onstage scenes, exploring the tensions between Lew’s creative problems and the hustling he had to do to get his work produced, and between his private and public lives. The authors’ voluminous research bespeaks an unimpeachable academic competence and rigor, but the book is written in a brisk, snappy style which matches and indeed helps to illuminate its subject.
Like the popular forms it chronicles, this is theatre history that is both edifying and fun.