For as much as I know, there is always someone who knows more than me, and that's why, these people are experts. When a request came in to interview Laurence Maslon, an expert on Broadway/Musical Theatre, I jumped at the opportunity to speak with him. We talked about teaching musical theatre history, famous students, favorite Broadway shows, PBS specials, and so much more!
Laurence is the host of the weekly NPR radio show Broadway to Main Street, which just featured special guest Steven Pasquale. Broadway to Main Street airs every Sunday at 3pm on NPR affiliate NY/Long Island station WPPB/88.3FM.
1. You are one of the leading experts on Broadway/musical theatre history and an Arts Professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. What made you fall in love with this genre? I was very lucky to: A., grow up 52 minutes from Manhattan on the Long Island Rail Road and B., have parents who were still very enamored of theater and movies from their youth. So, the first two albums I listened to as three-year-old (they were on these flat black circular things called "records") were Noel Coward in Las Vegas and Oh Captain!, a 1958 musical with Tony Randall. My parents didn’t go to Broadway much, if at all, so a friend’s mother took us to see 1776 in 1969, from the back row of the 46th Street Theater. I was totally hooked; I remember writing, directing, and starring in my own 12-minute version of the show in my 5th Grade Social Studies class. I thought all musicals were about guys in wigs yelling at each other; a few years later, when I saw shows with chorus girls and tap dancing, I had no idea what they were doing in a musical.
2. What do you get from teaching? What is something one of your students taught you? For me, it’s about sharing enthusiasm and passing along a history that you love. Context is so important, especially in our perspective-challenged times. I don’t (necessarily) expect a student to share my passion for Noel Coward or 1776, but if he/she can understand or appreciate the context for Madonna or Hamilton, respectively, her/his appreciation of what’s in front of them might be more meaningful. Facts are not, in and of themselves, important; seeing how things fit together in a cultural continuum is important.
When I started teaching my NYU Graduate Acting class called "The Now of Then" (back in 1995), I taught two plays written and set in the 1930s, Golden Boy and Stage Door. One of the students in the second class I taught was black and he said, essentially, "There’s nothing about me in these plays." So, I went out and looked at what black playwriting was like in the 1930s and discovered an unproduced play by Langston Hughes called Little Ham. It kicked off my love affair with the Harlem Renaissance and both the play and its cultural context have been an essential part of my curriculum ever since.
3. One of your former students, Mahershala Ali just won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Moonlight. As his teacher, what went through your head when you saw him win? Had you kept in touch with him over the years since you taught him? Hersh was always a kind, thoughtful gentleman and well-deserves his success. Our jaws dropped when he thanked three of his NYU teachers—and I can only assume he ran out of time before he thanked me. (That’s a joke).
4. You are the host/producer of the weekly NPR radio show Broadway to Main Street where in you interview Broadway performers. What is something you've learned about Broadway from your interviews that you did not know before? Who do you still hope to interview? My radio program is more about programming topics and themes around music that made its debut on the American musical stage: in addition to original cast recordings, I play renditions from films, cabaret, jazz, pop recordings. Interviews are just a part of that programming. I’m very lucky when I can get folks into the NYC studio (I usually record in Southampton) to talk about their work and, more interestingly, talk about what music inspires them and what music they put out into the world. I do an annual holiday show and my guests have included Jordan Gelber, Ann Harada, Malcolm Gets, Veanne Cox, and Lewis J. Stadlen for each holiday show over the last five years; I love what they bring in as the songs that influenced their holidays growing up (or what holiday material they have performed in their careers). It’s fascinating to me the range of music that influences a Broadway performer—not everyone grew up with The Music Man. (I always hated that show; give me Oh Captain!)
I haven’t learned that much about the "biz"—because it’s not really that kind of program. I have learned that performers often don’t love the recordings of their own work that I love. Both Marin Mazzie and Veanne weren’t totally in love with some stuff of theirs I picked for the show, but I think, in context with their other recording work on the program, they came around. Through a wonderful bit of serendipity, William Daniels—who I saw in my first Broadway show—has written a new memoir. I reached out to his publicist and—voila!—he’ll be my guest for an hour-long program in June. The idea that I could interview a lifelong hero on my own program, listening to his performances and talking about them is amazing to me.
5. If you had to choose eight Broadway shows (one for each day of the week + a matinee) to watch on a loop, which shows would they be?
Monday: Pal Joey (to get the rhythms flowing)
Tuesday: A Little Night Music (something a bit more reflective)
Wednesday: Do Re Mi or Top Banana (a little Phil Silvers to get through the hump)
Thursday: Golden Boy (a good night to be thoughtfully engaged)
Friday: On The Twentieth Century (because it’s the end of the week and let’s have fun!)
Saturday matinee: 1776 (so I could take my nine-year-old son)
Saturday night: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s…Superman! (maybe my wife would let him stay out late…)
Sunday: Sunday in the Park with George (because, well….)
6. Another project you have going on is a documentary for PBS about Sammy Davis Jr. You have worked on several programs for PBS. What do you love about creating projects for them? PBS is by far the most thoughtful and well-produced venue for historical context of any kind, particularly the arts. I’ve been most fortunate in collaborating with producer/director Michael Kantor on most of my writing projects; he makes it easy and fun and jam-packed with integrity. PBS also provides a context: I’ve done two American Masters shows, one on Richard Rodgers, one of Sammy Davis, Jr,, about two decades apart; but what makes them each masters of American culture? How do they fit together as part of a continuum?
7. Why did you want to do a documentary about Sammy Davis Jr.? What is something about Sammy Davis Jr. that you can share with us, that the average fan would not know about him? For one thing, the current generation knows practically nothing about him, but in many ways, he defines popular culture of the 21st Century; he set the terms. Sammy has always been a source of pure joy for me. I tend to favor "cool" performers--Noel Coward or Chris Connor or Mabel Mercer or Bill Evans—but Sammy always gave 110%; he’d "pulverize you" with his talent as one of our interviewees, George Schlatter, said. There’s something terribly attractive about that. He was also incredibly complex, as a black man living through the most racially charged times of the 20th Century: when he was trying to make it in the first part of his career, he had to fight white audiences; when he became a success, he then had to fight black audiences. The struggle never ended for him, so he kept re-adapting his identity: "I’ve Gotta Be Me" is our subtitle. But which "me"?—that’s the question, and it’s something we can all relate to. There are a million things in his life that people don’t know—he was a fantastic photographer, he marched at Selma, he was the first black actor to have a dramatic show on television, on and on—but, a lot of people remember nothing about Golden Boy. Here was Sammy—a major recording star, think of John Legend meets Chris Rock—giving up hundreds of thousands of dollars in club dates, etc., to star in a demanding role on Broadway in 1963, in a show created just for him, about civil rights in America. He had eight songs, plus two fight sequences, and he did eight shows a week for eighteen months, then did it on tour in Chicago and London. So he spent three years at his prime on the stage, in one of the most challenging roles in Broadway musical history: where’s the credit for that? Who would even think of attempting that today?
8. Another series you worked on for PBS is the Emmy-nominated Make 'Em Laugh. What makes you laugh in these post-election times? What has been the funniest thing to happen to you during one of your interviews? Nowadays, the only thing I find vaguely amusing are the three political musicals of the 1930s by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and the Gershwins: Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. They are all timely and timeless and prefigured the American infatuation with being bamboozled nearly a century ago. They are always worth returning to.
We interviewed Jerry Lewis, actually for the Sammy Davis documentary, and he talked about being funny: "I was funny when I was four, I was funny when I was fourteen…I was funny when I was 74, I was funny when I was 84…" And I said, "So, Jerry, that means you were funny only once every ten years?" And he laughed: really, really hard.
George Carlin (who was interviewed for MEL) signed my album cover of Class Clown: "To Larry—Fuck You, George Carlin."
9. One of your books that really peaked my interest was Superheroes! Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book Culture. If there was a film or comic book created around Trump winning the election and the dark times we are living in, what superhero or team of superheroes do you think could help save us? Maybe "The Flash" could get on the Cosmic Treadmill and run really fast and take us back in time to the summer of 2016 when we could think more seriously about what we were in for. ("Kang the Conqueror" could do that, too, but he’s a bad guy.) Maybe "The Joker" could just show up somewhere to remind us how dangerous a clown can be.
10. Since you are an interviewer yourself, what is one question I did not ask you that you wish I did? (Please provide the answer to that question as well). How did you get to be here, Mr. Shepard?
It’s just amazing to me that all the things I loved growing up—Broadway shows, music, comic books, comedy, old-time radio, the world of the 1930s, Kaufman and Hart, Hollywood movies—I not only still get to "play" with, I get paid to do it. I just had fun with all of this, and got more and more curious about it and read more and more about it, and—lo and behold!—I became an "expert" in it (although there’s always someone who knows more than you do about anything). The responsibility is to share that knowledge and enthusiasm with the next generation.
Laurence Maslon is the Associate Chair/Arts Professor at the Graduate Acting Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, with an affiliation in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.
His most recent publication is American Musicals (1927-1969), a two-volume set of sixteen musicals which he edited for Library of America. He is the host and producer of the weekly radio series, Broadway to Main Street, broadcast on the NPR-affiliate station WPPB-FM. Among his books are Superheroes! Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book Culture (Random House); Some Like It Hot: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion; The South Pacific Companion; The Sound of Music Companion (2007; revised with foreword by Julie Andrews, 2015). With Michael Kantor, he co-wrote two episodes of the Emmy-winning Broadway: The American Musical as well as the companion volume (updated edition published by Applause in paperback) and the liner notes for the five-disc box set for the series, released by Sony/Decca.
He also cowrote the six-part PBS series Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America with Kantor, as well as the companion volume; they were nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing of a Non-Fiction Series for this show. Laurence wrote the acclaimed American Masters/Thirteen documentary Richard Rodgers: The Sweetest Sounds and is the editor of Kaufman & Co., the Library of America edition of George S. Kaufman’s plays, as well as the official website, www.georgeskaufman.com.
He has written for The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and Slate; created concerts and programs for Lincoln Center Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall; and served on the nominating committee for the Tony Awards from 2007 to 2010. He is currently working on an American Masters documentary on the life of Sammy Davis, Jr. for PBS.