Present At The Creation

Book Review by Willard Manus

"There were so many musicals in the fifties and sixties that an aspiring musical dramatist could learn to develop his craft in much the same way apprentice artists did in the Renaissance by grounding colors, priming wooden panels, making brushes of hog's hair, and learning such technical skills as casting and soldering. Kander and Ebb, Adler and Ross, Bock and Harnick, Adams and Strouse all learned their craft by coaching singers, writing dance arrangements, pop songs, and revue material before collaborating on Broadway. The apprentice-master system all but disappeared in the seventies because fewer new, original musicals were being produced."

Stuart Ostrow knows whereof he speaks. The producer of such hit musicals as 1776, M. Butterfly and Pippin began his theatrical career as an apprentice to Frank (Guys and Dolls) Loesser, a seven-year learning stint that ended when he left to produce his first show, We Take the Town.

What Ostrow learned from Loesser was to never be afraid to take chances or to speak his mind, which he does forcefully and bluntly in PRESENT AT THE CREATION, LEAPING IN THE DARK, AND GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books).

"I want you to know as you read me precisely who I am and what is on my mind," he writes in the book's preface. "You are getting a man who for some time has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest the Mafiosi of success and failure of the Great White Way. The forces suppressing musical theatre today are: the Broadway establishment, preferring to buy the future rather than undertake the labor of making it, and the conservative constituency in the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) who insist musical theatre is not high culture and therefore should be relegated to a lower level of Federal recognition and financial support. It's vital to do battle agaianst both, for they are grievously in error."

Ostrow has earned the right to attack the status quo. Although he quotes Loesser's scornful definition of a producer--"A man who knows a writer"-- his book shows, time and time again, how a good producer like himself operates. First he must find, or originate, a project; then he must hire the right creative team to bring the project to life. Ostrow has worked with the likes of Bob Fosse, Mel Brooks, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mike Nichols, John Kander and David Henry Hwang, but not always successfully. Often his writers and composers clashed, or his director/designers botched their assignments and had to be fired, actors and singers as well.

Producers "should show evidence of their ability to be hard-headed, soft-hearted, cautious, reckless, a hopeful innocent in fair weather, a stern pilot in stormy weather, a mathematician who prefers to ignore the laws of mathematics and trust intuition, an idealist, a realist, a practical dreamer, a sophisticated gambler, a stage-struck child," he believes.

Ostrow is by nature a battler, a man who likes to quarrel, but he has also enjoyed his years in the theatre and has had many a laugh along the way, especially with the likes of George S. Kaufman, Abe Burrows and Paddy Chayevsky.

The latter, for example, once accompanied Ostrow and Herb Gardner when they visited Bob Fosse in hospital after his 1975 heart attack. "Fosse asked Chayevsky to read his will," Ostrow recalls, "and when Paddy discovered he wasn't mentioned, he screamed, 'You son of a bitch, LIVE!'"

Ostrow turned his back on Broadway and its current crop of "mindless musicals" to head a theatre lab attached to Houston University. While he is proud of the lab's accomplishments, he believes the musical theatre can only be saved by "an independent, private institution dedicated entirely to the encouragment, support and patronage of learning through fundamental research and definitive scholarship." Patterned after Princeton Township's The Institute for Advanced Study, the center "would be home to some of the most highly regarded creators and thinkers of the 21st century, drawing promising young composers, lyricists, book writers, directors, choreographers, producers, designers, postdocs and accomplished senior scholars from around the world."

Ostrow further envisions the center as "an out of town salon if you will: terrific accomodations, food, company, stimulation, work-space, a salary, and a piano. Ambitious? Yes. Achievable? For a song."