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Mordden, Ethan 1947- (M.J. Verlaine)

PERSONAL:

Born January 27, 1947, near Wilkes-Barre, PA; son of Edgar A. (a building contractor) and Beatrice (a realtor) Mordden. Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., 1969. Politics: "I am for freedom, tradition, and the rule of merit: a conservative." Religion: Society of Friends (Quakers).

ADDRESSES:

Home—New York, NY.

CAREER:

DC Comics, New York, NY, editor of romance division, 1970-71; "at-large observer of life's rich pageant and sullen off-Broadway musician," 1971-74; Opera News, New York, NY, assistant editor, 1974-76; freelance writer, 1976—.

WRITINGS:

NONFICTION

Better Foot Forward: The History of American Musical Theatre, Viking (New York, NY), 1976.

Opera in the Twentieth Century: Sacred, Profane, Godot, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1978.

That Jazz! An Idiosyncratic Social History of the American Twenties, Putnam (New York, NY), 1978.

The Splendid Art of Opera: A Concise History, Methuen (New York, NY), 1980.

A Guide to Orchestral Music: The Handbook for Non-Musicians, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1980.

The American Theatre, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1981.

The Hollywood Musical, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1981.

Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1983.

Movie Star: A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1983.

Smarts, the Cultural I.Q. Test, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1984.

Pooh's Workout Book, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, Dutton (New York, NY), 1984.

Demented: The World of the Opera Diva, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1984.

Opera Anecdotes, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1985.

A Guide to Opera Recordings, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987.

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988.

The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.

Medium Cool: The Movies of the 1960s, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, Abrams (New York, NY), 1992.

Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Coming up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Beautiful Mornin': The Broadway Musical in the 1940s, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s, Palgrave (New York, NY), 2001.

One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s, Palgrave (New York, NY), 2003.

The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen: The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical, Palgrave (New York, NY), 2004.

Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 1930s, Palgrave (New York, NY), 2005.

All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to Encyclopedia Americana and World Book Encyclopedia.

FICTION

I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore: Tales from Gay Manhattan, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1985.

Buddies, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1986.

One Last Waltz, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1986.

Everybody Loves You: Further Adventures in Gay Manhattan, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1988.

(As M.J. Verlaine) A Bad Man Is Easy to Find, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1991.

(Editor) Waves: An Anthology of New Gay Fiction, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1994.

How Long Has This Been Going On?, Villard (New York, NY), 1995.

Some Men Are Lookers, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1997.

The Venice Adriana, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1998.

How's Your Romance? Concluding the "Buddies" Cycle, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS:

Ethan Mordden has written numerous books on the theater arts in all their varied forms. From films and film musicals to staged operas and recordings, Mordden's contributions to the study of popular arts in the United States include Opera in the Twentieth Century: Sacred, Profane, Godot, Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical, and TheHollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies, the last an account of the distinctive character produced in each of the major film studios during the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to his nonfiction works, he also branched out in the mid-1980s as a writer of fiction. Reflecting the perspective and concerns of gay men living in urban settings, Mordden's fictional works include the short-story collection I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore: Tales from Gay Manhattan.

The music of the opera has been an abiding focus of Mordden's nonfiction works, and he has broadened its exposure before the public through authorship of several books, among them The Splendid Art of Opera: A Concise History, Demented: The World of the Opera Diva, Opera Anecdotes, and 1987's A Guide to Opera Recordings. In his Opera in the Twentieth Century, Mordden engages readers through an enthusiastic description of dozens of modern operatic scores; from Lyubof k Tryem Apyelsinam to Ballad of Baby Doe, he discusses innovations and revolutions in both music and stage production. All of this aids Mordden in proving his central point: that opera is not dead in the postwar era. Calling his viewpoint "well grounded," New York Times Book Review critic Alfred Frankenstein added that Opera in the Twentieth Century "should do much to open the door to recent works and to bring about important revivals."

Popular films, with their links to other aspects of popular culture, are the focus of Medium Cool: The Movies of the 1960s. Discussions of Psycho, Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dr. Strangelove, and other classic films of the decade are included, as well as references to numerous minor works that the author has found particularly intriguing because of the trivia surrounding them or their place in the decade's evolution away from studio production and toward realism and technical experimentation. Using the career of actor Warren Beatty to define the decade—Beatty's appearance in films from Splendor in the Grass to Bonnie and Clyde parallel the advances in American film as a whole, according to Mordden—the author draws on his "encyclopedic memory" to compile a book filled with what Antioch Review contributor Jon Saari called "opinions that will make film lovers nod or shake their heads." "Ethan Mordden is what we don't have much of anymore, especially in film criticism," wrote Peter Biskind in the New York Times Book Review. "He is an old-fashioned belletrist, with all the virtues and shortcomings."

In both Broadway Babies and Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s Mordden moves to the stage—not the stage of the 1980s and 1990s but the New York theater district during its golden years. Covering talented stage performers, directors, playwrights, and composers that include Stephen Sondheim, Ziegfeld, Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, and Angela Lansbury, his analysis includes a forty-page discography of recorded versions of many stage musicals. In addition to being included in Broadway Babies, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein are the subject of another book, a 1992 effort wherein Mordden characterizes the duo's compositions as "a healing art as interested in discussing the advantages of community or analyzing the nature of love as in entertaining." An Economist reviewer labeled Rodgers and Hammerstein "celebratory" and praised Mordden for his extensive collection of anecdotes about the talented pair and their oeuvre.

Mordden turned his attention to eras in a series of books covering the decades of the Broadway musical. The series began with Make Believe, referring to the decade that saw the musical's form evolve from plays peppered with generic tunes to story-specific songs that advanced plot and defined character. The author—who "seems to be familiar with every star, song and show that appeared on Broadway during that decade," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor—examines the impact of the operetta, the influence of jazz and the contribution of black musicals and revues.

Coming up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s recalls the decade that many remember as conservative, but that on Broadway spawned such cutting-edge talent as Sondheim, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins. The author argues that the 1950s "was [ten] years of change, growth and glory," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who also lauded Mordden's "jaundiced eye, sharp wit and passion for his subject." Jack Helbig, writing in Booklist, also cited Mordden's expertise but added that the author displays a "Broadway-centric perspective [that] becomes tiresome" and neglects such influences on the theater scene as the rise of the off-Broadway culture and the introduction of television. While the author "is sure to give commendations where they are deserved," noted American Music critic Mark Shaiman, "he also takes delightful glee in zapping productions that had a long way to go to even be sub-par. He claims [Happy Hunting,] Ethel Merman's 1956 return-to-Broadway vehicle, as the worst musical of the decade, pointing out its libretto as the worst of its time." (Merman would get her legitimate comeback vehicle just a few years later, with Gypsy.)

The third volume of the decades series is Beautiful Mornin': The Broadway Musical in the 1940s. During the World War II years, certified classics like Oklahoma! and Carousel shared the stage with such less-remembered titles as Bloomer Girl and Miss Liberty (a "total disaster" writes Mordden, calling it "a bomb with two wonderful elements—the score and the dancing"). The original cast album became popular during the 1940s, which helped bring musicals to people living far from 42nd Street. "Mordden's references are up-to-the-minute," observed a Publishers Weekly contributor, pointing to a citation of a late 1990s revival of one of the 1940s musicals, "and his research is meticulous." Mark Dundas Wood reviewed Beautiful Mornin' for American Theatre and deemed the book "provocative" for sections in which, for instance, Mordden describes Lady in the Dark as composer Moss Hart's "gay coming-out parable."

Jumping ahead two decades, Mordden produced Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s. The era covers Camelot to Cabaret, with a notable rise in darker-themed and countercultural projects. Productions suffered in the 1960s as costs rose faster than revenues; the book's recounting of such economic victims as She Loves Me and Flora, the Red Menace makes Open a New Window feel "as much like a dirge as a celebration," according to Helbig in another Booklist review. As with his three previous volumes, Mordden "doesn't pull any punches" while he "provides insight into a turbulent era reflected by both the concepts of the shows and the audiences' responses to them," suggested Library Journal critic Laura Ewald.

Mordden rounded out his decade-by-decade look into musical theater history with Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 1930s and One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s. Described by Booklist reviewer Jack Helbig as "invaluable to any student of American music theatre," Sing for Your Supper looks at Broadway during the era of the Depression, when declining ticket sales and a lack of artistic vision led to a temporarily slump in the genre. One More Kiss looks back to what Mordden claims was the last decade of Broadway's "golden age," putting forth some of the genre's most memorable shows. Howard Miller described One More Kiss in Library Journal as "breezy, witty, and intelligent."

The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen: The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical is the culmination of Mordden's series on musical theater and focuses on what he feels is a deterioration of quality in theater since the 1980s. Mordden points to a whole host of reasons for Broadway's decline, including vastly overblown productions, ballooning budgets, and poor leadership, while sifting through for what he feels are the era's standout shows. In a review for Opera News, Todd B. Sollis commented that "Mordden's passion for, and his encyclopedic knowledge of, his subject matter are palpable." Sollis continued that the book "may enlighten musicologists and Broadway trivia junkies, but most readers will be deprived, occasionally, of a frame of reference with which to differentiate" between what were truly showstoppers and flops, and what is essentially "the author's idiosyncratic taste." Helbig, writing again for Booklist, found Mordden's commentary "sharper, wittier, even bitchier, than ever."

With All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959, Mordden takes a departure from the subject of musical theater and focuses on nonmusical productions during what he feels was Broadway's heyday. He guides the reader through forty years of theater, introducing key behind-the-scenes figures and sharing gossipy backstage tidbits. Despite the extensive material at Mordden's disposal, Booklist reviewer Helbig wrote that "the book doesn't feel rushed or shallow, thanks largely to his witty, compulsively readable style." Mordden "easily wins over the reader … in the first few pages with his conversational style and sly wisecracks," commented Susan L. Peters for Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly critic remarked: "Erudite, but casual and conversational, and full of fresh perceptions, Mordden is a charmingly insightful raconteur."

Breaking from popular-arts studies, Mordden used fiction to examine the development of the gay community in the twentieth century, beginning with I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore. This 1985 story collection was the first of the author's "Buddies" series that includes Buddies and Everybody Loves You. In 1995's How Long Has This Been Going On? the author follows the narrator from a Los Angeles cabaret sometimes frequented by secretly gay film stars to the overtly gay community of modern-day New York City. He scopes out such places as San Francisco and parts of the Midwest as he introduces new gay characters in a variety of relationships and circumstances. Characterizing Mordden's fiction as "an idiosyncratic mix of keen social observation and low comedy, with occasional sidelong glances at real emotions," Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Mark Merlis called the novel "big," similar in scope to works by Jacqueline Susann; he added: "With all its flaws, there is still something moving about this clunky panorama." Questioning the author's focus in such a large undertaking in a New York Times Book Review article, Suzanne Berne called How Long Has This Been Going On? "too sensational to be a political novel, too political to be pure romance."

In 1997 Mordden produced Some Men Are Lookers, the fifth of the "Buddies" books. This entry revisits characters such as Virgil, who has matured from an innocent youth to traitorous opportunist, and Dennis, who has decided to become a writer like his late friend Bud (the author's alter ego). To Advocate reviewer Robert Pela, "the book's one real flaw—and one that may keep it from being accessible to readers who haven't cracked the other Buddies books—is its occasionally self-conscious narrative." Still, concluded Pela, Some Men Are Lookers amounts to "a sophisticated stack of stories that reunite our favorite fictional cast and provide wry commentary on queer life from one of our most reliable authors."

The Venice Adriana, a non-Buddies novel, is set in Venice in 1961. Narrator Mark Trigger is living with and writing the authorized biography of the notorious opera diva Adriana Lecouvreur. Trigger, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, becomes the star's biggest confidante in a book that Booklist contributor Whitney Scott felt abounds in "the joys, sorrows, vanities and travails of the opera world." With its loosely structured plot, The Venice Adriana "attempts to tackle many weighty themes," suggested Opera News reviewer Eric Myers, "and they don't all coalesce clearly by the time the novel ends. Mordden is at his best when showering the text with gossipy operatic tidbits and memorabilia." But to Lambda Book Report writer Felice Picano, even "when not a hundred percent apt," the material in The Venice Adriana "is so entertaining as to be gladly received. There are few enough novels written about music and published so that when one this smart, this good and this sensible about music comes along, it makes others … look pointless and self-indulgent."

Mordden once told CA: "It is a time of specialization, ours, now, and one might well ask how one writer can legitimately move from musical comedy to opera (quasiplausible) to sociopolitics (not plausible). In answer I can do no better than to quote Jules Michelet: ‘All science is one … language, literature and history, physics, mathematics and philosophy; subjects which seem the most remote from one another are in reality connected, or rather they all form a single system.’ An extreme theory—but, I think, subject to some modification, applicable. Barring physics and math, all these sciences are one, for art, thought, and analysis conduce to one study, that of man and his haphazard accommodation to the action and expression of life: to facts and poetry. My field is humanism, and in that context, all—or most—science is indeed one."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Mordden, Ethan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Abrams (New York, NY), 1992.

PERIODICALS

Advocate, June 24, 1997, Robert Pela, review of Some Men Are Lookers, p. 103; February 17, 1998, review of The Venice Adriana, p. 55.

American Music, fall, 1999, Mark Shaiman, review of Coming up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, p. 362.

American Theatre, January, 1998, review of Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s, p. 62; December, 1998, review of Coming up Roses, p. 77; January, 2000, Mark Dundas Wood, "Getting Real," p. 83.

Antioch Review, summer, 1991, John Saari, review of Medium Cool: The Movies of the 1960s, p. 466; February, 2002, Celia Wren, review of Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s, p. 72.

Backstage, November 30, 2001, Mark Dundas, "Mordden's Musical Morsels," p. 34.

Booklist, May 15, 1997, Jack Helbig, review of Make Believe, p. 1554; February 15, 1998, Whitney Scott, review of The Venice Adriana, p. 983; September 15, 1998, Jack Helbig, review of Coming up Roses, p. 185; October 1, 1999, review of Beautiful Mornin': The Broadway Musical in the 1940s, p. 334; November 15, 2001, Helbig, review of Open a New Window, p. 537; November 1, 2004, Jack Helbig, review of The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen: The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical, p. 460; March 1, 2005, Jack Helbig, review of Sing for Your Supper: The BroadwayMusical in the 1930s, p. 1128; March 15, 2007, Jack Helbig, review of All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959, p. 13.

Economist, January 9, 1993, review of Rodgers and Hammerstein, p. 80.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1998, review of Coming up Roses, p. 1021; August 15, 1999, review of Beautiful Mornin', p. 1289.

Lambda Book Report, May-June, 1995, Bob Summer, review of How Long Has This Been Going On?, p. 16; October, 1997, Dennis Drabelle, review of Some Men Are Lookers, p. 14; September, 1998, Felice Picano, review of The Venice Adriana, p. 22.

Library Journal, May 15, 1997, Roger Durbin, review of Some Men Are Lookers, p. 103; February 1, 1998, Roger Durbin, review of The Venice Adriana, p. 111; October 15, 1998, Michael Colby, review of Coming up Roses, p. 73; October 1, 1999, J. Sara Paulk, review of Beautiful Mornin', p. 97; November 1, 2001, Laura Ewald, review of Open a New Window, p. 95; May 15, 2003, Howard Miller, review of One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s, p. 91; March 1, 2007, Susan L. Peters, review of All That Glittered, p. 86.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 25, 1995, Mark Merlis, review of How Long Has This Been Going On?, p. 2.

New Yorker, February 22, 1999, review of Coming up Roses, p. 28.

New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1978, Alfred Frankenstein, review of Opera in the Twentieth Century: Sacred, Profane, Godot, pp. 14, 20; October 7, 1990, Peter Biskind, review of Medium Cool, p. 41; July 15, 1995, Suzanne Berne, review of How Long Has This Been Going On?, p. 21; October 24, 1999, review of Beautiful Mornin', p. 33.

Observer (London, England), January 17, 1999, review of Coming up Roses, p. 14.

Opera News, February 13, 1993, Paul Gruber, review of Rodgers and Hammerstein, p. 44; March 14, 1998, Eric Myers, review of The Venice Adriana, p. 54; December, 2004, Todd B. Sollis, review of The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen, p. 93.

Publishers Weekly, September 14, 1992, review of Rodgers and Hammerstein, p. 84; April 24, 1995, review of How Long Has This Been Going On?, p. 60; March 31, 1997, review of Make Believe, p. 52; December 22, 1997, review of The Venice Adriana, p. 38; August 17, 1998, review of Coming up Roses, p. 59; September 13, 1999, review of Beautiful Mornin', p. 74; October 22, 2001, review of Open a New Window, p. 68; January 22, 2007, review of All That Glittered, p. 176.

Theatre Journal, May, 1999, review of Coming up Roses, p. 225.

Washington Post Book World, October 3, 1999, review of Beautiful Mornin', p. 6.

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Mordden, Ethan 1947- (M.J. Verlaine)

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