A Chorus Line of Showbiz Books

SONDHEIM By Martin Gottfried Abrams 192 pp., $49.50

THE ZIEGFELD TOUCH: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FLORENZ ZIEGFELD JR. By Richard and Paulette Ziegfeld Abrams 352 pp., $49.50

SING OUT, LOUISE: 150 STARS OF THE MUSICAL THEATRE REMEMBER 50 YEARS ON BROADWAY By Dennis McGovern and Deborah Grace Winer Schirmer Books 232 pp., $28

WHO PUT THE RAINBOW IN THE WIZARD OF OZ? By Ernie Harburg University of Michigan Press 454 pp., $35

THE COMPLETE LYRICSOF IRA GERSHWIN By Robert Kimball Alfred A. Knopf 414 pp., $45

`PEARLS ... Rubies ... Diamonds ...'' If you find yourself unconsciously starting to sing the opening lines of ``Stranger in Paradise'' from ``Kismet'' this Christmas, it could be because the treasures potentially sitting under your tree come from America's stage-struck publishers.

Martin Gottfried's Sondheim is a winner. The author writes with intelligence and verve. As former critic for Women's Wear Daily and the author of two previous coffee-table heavyweights, ``Broadway Musicals'' and ``More Broadway Musicals,'' the man knows his stuff.

The volume is a relatively slender 191 pages, but then, Sondheim is still alive, well and abundantly creative; who knows, after another decade, we might get ``More Sondheim.''

Meanwhile, the author helps us simple folk understand what makes Sondheim Sondheim, or rather, how a genius tortures word and music into being. Breaking his subject's professional life into five parts, starting with his lyrics for others (Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne) and going on to his collaborations with director Harold Prince, Gottfried provides generous excerpts from Sondheim's trunk of brilliant lyrical invention, together with his own tough, incisive critical overview.

One could complain that there is not enough of Sondheim talking about himself, but perhaps the maestro is saving that for his own book. Meanwhile, the big splashy color photos alone make it a natural for gift-giving.

If you want more for your money, though, try The Ziegfeld Touch: The Life and Times of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. In 352 thoroughly researched and photo-rich pages, Ziegfeld's cousin Richard and his wife, Paulette, bring to life the golden age of the master showman Flo Ziegfeld (1876-1932), whose glittering showcases for beautiful women and vaudeville stars set standards for extravagance that have never been equaled.

After a touching introduction by Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson, Flo's daughter by his marriage to the adorable Billie Burke (she followed Anna Held), this volume plunges the reader into the ``no expense spared'' mentality of Flo Ziegfeld's compulsive desires to please, to entertain, and to enchant.

The text is immensely readable and lively; the authors neatly divide the book between the man and the shows. With a slightly larger format than the Sondheim volume, created by the same publisher, this immersion into an unstinting world of beauty and romance makes one long passionately for time travel. You'll want to go there right now.

Theater aficionados are the best potential audience for Sing Out, Louise: 150 Stars of the Musical Theatre Remember 50 Years on Broadway, a smaller-format book that mixes interviews with numerous theatrical personalities from both sides of the footlights and filler material about shows known and little known. There are frustratingly few photographs, however. More critically, the fascinating information is not well-organized by Dennis McGovern. A single page will go from ``Flora the Red Menace'' to ``Oklahoma'' (Alfred Drake speaking!) to a tale about ``The Boys from Syracuse.''

Wouldn't it have been more satisfying to let us read the uncut interview and enjoy them as oral histories? But let's not be churlish. For those with a frame of reference, this scrapbook of memories brings back ``the headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops,'' as Irving Berlin put it, with undeniable authenticity.

When the experts and the history buffs name the century's greatest lyricists, the list doesn't stop with Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Noel Coward, and the aforementioned Sondheim. Yip Harburg gets high marks from everyone, including his son Ernie Harburg and journalist-columnist Harold Meyerson in Who put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?

This loving memoir of a 50-year career helps explain the heartbreak and the subtle political agenda that informed such songs as ``Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,'' ``Paper Moon,'' and ``April in Paris,'' to say nothing of the glorious lyrics for the delicious ``Finian's Rainbow'' and, of course, the enduring film classic of the book's title.

Harburg's sympathies were clearly for the underdog; the fact that his left-wing tendencies landed him on the McCarthy-era blacklist makes his life, if anything, even more interesting in retrospect.

But there is surprisingly little here of the man's psychological makeup. Even so, interviews with the subject and many of his collaborators help augment a decent sampling of his lyrics, together with many photographs (both color and black and white) and some rare and valuable insights about an often overlooked master of verse.

If you must choose only one nostalgia trip to Broadway and Hollywood, drop hints about The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, a bountiful, richly researched treasure chest edited by Robert Kimball that amounts to its own ``stairway to paradise.''

Ira Gershwin? Yes, Ira. Often overlooked in the understandable and well-deserved idolatry reserved for his brother George, this brilliant, erudite poet also collaborated in the second half of his long life with the likes of Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, Aaron Copland, Arthur Schwartz, Burton Lane, and Harold Arlen, to name a few.

The resulting lyrics are not only eye-opening, they are staggering in their versatility, charm, warmth, intelligence, and sheer beauty. Truly, this is an American genius whose accomplishments were so vast that it took a book this big (almost the size of a long-playing record) and heavy to recognize them.

Kimball has treated his task as an archaeologist would. No fact is overlooked, no variation of a lyric put aside. Full-size black-and-white photographs set off each stage or film production from 1917 to 1964; the absence of color doesn't matter; the words themselves are so luminous.

Not only Gershwin's lyrics but also the long and revealing excerpts from his out-of-print ``Lyrics on Several Occasions'' summon up an often insecure, self-deprecating loner who poured several lifetimes of feeling into his typewriter.

By adding historical notes that tell us what was left out, transposed, and otherwise overhauled, Kimball has done the cause of American musical history a great service.

One book about the present, four about the past. That fact alone says enough about the state of the American musical theater. But who cares? Bring back the revivals! There's gold buried in those trunks.

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