30 April 2013

William Goldman’s 'The Season'

by Kirk Woodward

[Here’s another contribution to ROT from Kirk Woodward.  He’s discussing the value of William Goldman’s 1969 study of the Broadway season, a book both Kirk and I have put great store in for decades.  No one has followed up on The Season the way Goldman analyzed it, show by show during 1967-68, and it remains the only such detailed study in print.  (The book is perennially reissued in paperback, so it’s still available in bookstores.)  Anyone interested in how the commercial theater works in the United States, from back stage to the front of the house to the producers’ offices, will find Goldman’s book astonishingly informative, and it’s written in a style that makes it readable even for the merely curious as well as the serious theater student.  I’ll let Kirk explain the rest of the book’s value.  Rick]

I’ve had one particular kind of conversation so many times that it’s starting to seem like some sort of déjà vu experience. It goes something like this: I say to someone who loves theater, “That reminds me of a chapter in William Goldman’s book The Season. Have you read it?” They tell me they’ve never heard of it. Crushed, I reply, “It’s the best book on Broadway ever written, one of the best on theater. I’ll give you my copy.” I do, and I never get it back.

You may not be particularly familiar with William Goldman’s name (or maybe you are), but you’re certainly familiar with some of his work. He has written the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Stepford Wives (1975), All the President’s Men (1976),and Maverick (1994), among many other films.

He began as a novelist; in college I read and loved his first novel, The Temple of Gold (1957), with its stunning conclusion. Other novels include Boys and Girls Together (1964) and No Way to Treat a Lady (also 1964 – he was not happy with its cinematic adaptation by others), and he has turned a number of his novels into movies, including Marathon Man (1976) with its appalling dental torture scene, Magic (1978), and The Princess Bride (1987), one “magical fantasy” that really is magical.

He has also worked in theater over the years, and at the age of eighty-one in 2012, he was adapting Stephen King’s novel Misery for a stage production, as he had adapted it for the screen in 1990. (His brother James wrote the play The Lion in Winter and the book for the musical Follies.)
One of the remarkable aspects of Goldman’s remarkable career is that he has contributed to the culture not one but two widely quoted sayings. One, from All the President’s Men, is “Follow the money,” a line inferred in Woodward and Bernstein’s book but phrased that way by Goldman. The other, from his first book about the movies, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), says so much that there is to say about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

But before he wrote his first book about the movies, he wrote The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969), in which he does something no one had done before: he takes one entire Broadway season (1967-68), sees every show that season, organizes the shows under topics, and writes an insightful, educational, and absolutely delightful book about all of it. My temptation is simply to quote the whole thing, but one has to draw the line somewhere.

I will start by saying that some things have changed since 1969, most of them along lines he proposed (which is not to say his advice is the reason they happened). For example, in the book he can’t understand why Broadway shows aren’t advertised on TV. Eventually a few were – the first I recall was Ben Vereen dancing in the TV commercial for Pippin – and now any show that can afford it is likely to have a commercial running.

Similarly, homosexuality is no longer a veiled topic on Broadway. In The Season Goldman bewails the guarded way he has to use to write about gays and the theater. Those days have gone.

However, human nature is still human nature, and theater is a remarkably conservative art beneath changing fashions in playwriting and staging. Goldman brings many gifts in writing about the theater. He has something to say – his book is thoroughly researched, to the extent of including a study of audiences, commissioned by Goldman, by a polling company. And he says well what he has to say – his narrative gifts as a novelist and screenwriter are continually in evidence in The Season. His chapters are structured like dramas: they have beginnings, middles, and ends, propelled throughout by conflict and suspense. “Each and every Broadway show,” he says, correctly, “is in reality a little battle to the death.”

But supreme among his gifts, in my opinion, is his insufficiently recognized gift for social comedy. He has the eye of a Molière or a Ben Jonson for the contrast between behaviors and ideals, pretenses and realities, hypocrisies and truths, illusions and knowledge. He sees what people pretend to be, and what they are.

The season that Goldman chose to study was hardly a landmark in Broadway history. It had some high points: Joe Egg receives particular praise, and Plaza Suite obviously continues to be performed. None of his season’s musicals are performed much anymore except perhaps George M, but that show survives, if at all, on the strength of its Cohan songs. Most of the season didn’t represent anybody’s best work. As far as Goldman’s book is concerned, perhaps that was just as well. Works of brilliance might distort the picture. Goldman is able to look at the processes that make Broadway what it is, and let them justify themselves if they can.

As Goldman presents this wide ranging social comedy, each chapter has a strategy. He may build a chapter around a single show (Something Different), around a group of shows (for example: sex comedies, shows about rebellious youth), around social groupings (gays, Jews), around a job (producers, reviewers), around a business function (ticket sales, publicity). A single chapter might go like this: describe a moment in the life of a particular show; narrate the show’s recent production history; put it in the context of similar shows of the past; report on conversations with the author and director; describe a telling moment that takes place at intermission; watch the creative team in various moments of stress; draw some organized conclusions; and finish with a revealing anecdote.

As a result, aspect after aspect of Broadway come to life. Goldman knows how to get his ideas across. A few examples may suffice. Of Mike Nichols’ directing: “What Nichols did through this production [of The Little Foxes] was have the characters behave as if their subconscious were common knowledge. Now this is simply not what people do.” Of reviewers: “You get the dregs, the stage-struck but untalented neurotic who eventually drifts into criticism as a means of clinging peripherally to the arts.” On why rewrites of shows can be disastrous: “It’s as if you want to go north, due north, that’s the place, and off you start. But then there’s a change and then another . . . And then one morning you wake up, and the sun’s dead in your face, and you think, ‘East, huh?’ . . . And then you think, ‘Well, what the hell, at least I’m moving and . . . when you get right down to it, I’m a motion man.”

This last illustration points out one of Goldman’s most enjoyable strengths as a writer about Broadway, namely, his illustrations – often extended analogies that put whatever he’s writing about into perspective. About homosexuals, he imagines how Jews (like himself) would feel if treated the same way. About the ideas that musicals should be up-to-date, he writes, “Musical comedy is under no more obligation to reflect the music of its time than Mr. Balanchine is to put the New York City Ballet through an evening of the Frug [a dance current at the time].” About the immortal fame of certain current writers, he writes, “Want to know whom we named in the eighteenth century as the three greatest writers of all time? Catch this: Homer, Sophocles and Richardson. Richardson. You know, that great, great writer none of us could live without.” (Samuel Richardson was the author, in 1740, of Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. You may have read it . . . but probably not.)

Some of Goldman’s useful categorizations include: the Culture Hero (someone who all of a sudden is acknowledged, not just as a fine worker, but as one of the Great of the Greats, who can do no wrong – my current example: the South Park guys); the Snob Hit (the one show a season, usually from England, that everyone feels they should see, not because they’ll enjoy it, or possibly even understand it, but because it’s a duty to see it); the Three Theaters (the Musical Theater; the Popular Theater, which “wants to tell us either a truth that we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in;” and the Third Theater, which “wants to tell us something we don’t want to know”); the Muscle (the person who is the real power behind a production – the Muscle may be an actor, director, producer, anyone who has the last word); and the Kiss of Death production, where from the start nothing seems to go right, and the disasters mount up. The directions he leads his discussion of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party are masterful; but I hope readers will discover its delights for themselves.

The Season is Goldman’s only book on theater. Drawing on his experiences in the movies, he has also written three books on films. I’ve mentioned Adventures in the Screen Trade, and the others are Which Lie Did I Tell? (2000) and The Big Picture (2001, a collection of Goldman’s daring film journalism, with a nice punning title). These are all fine books, and Screen Trade is generally considered a classic and is widely quoted.

In his books on the movies Goldman continues to batter at the walls of hypocrisy, self-delusion, and fraud with the weapons of experience and common sense. Why do movies succeed, he asks? Because people want to see them. Why do films and filmmakers win awards – or not? Because that’s how the votes go. Nobody, that is to say, knows anything.

For me, though, I must say, The Season trumps the books on cinema, because The Season is so brilliant about, let’s call it by its name, hypocrisy, and Hollywood is famously beyond hypocrisy. It’s gone into hypocrisy as a possibility, and come out on the other side, with hypocrisy as its very nature. That Hollywood is venal, dishonest, corrupt doesn’t surprise anyone. What surprises us is when it’s anything else.

But Broadway is different. There’s something unique about Broadway. The Season tells us a lot about a flamboyant business, but it never forgets that the potential for genuinely fine work is always there, and it tells us even more about how we as human beings get through life . . . especially when there’s prestige and money on the line.

So in his books on film, Goldman has to up the New Journalistic tone, make his writing process even more explicit, express more opinions in more earthy ways. And he tells us a great deal we probably didn’t know about movies. But the insights on human nature in the film business seem familiar, playing on the familiar themes of greed, vanity, and hypocrisy, while his insights on human nature on Broadway continually surprise and delight.

And, as I said, he doesn’t lose sight of the most remarkable fact of all: that good work does sometimes get done. An example is The Season itself, a triumph of dramatic writing – in multiple senses – if there ever was one.



  1. I have researched Leonardo Shapiro. I believe I have all the info I need. FYI, I graduated from Windsor Mountain School in 1963, the same year as Leonardo. He was a very interesting character! Rick Goeld

    1. Mr. Goeld--

      Yes, Leo was very interesting. Also talented, thought-provoking, and infuriating. Anyone who knew him will certainly agree, at least to one degree or another. I assume you found my profile of Leo and his theater company, Shaliko, in the Winter 1993 issue of 'The Drama Review.' It didn't deal much with his life before New York and Shaliko, but my unpublished expansion covers his early life and schooling, and his post-retirement activities, extensively.

      I'd be curious to know what your research is for. (Leo gave his papers to the N.Y. Pubic Library for the Performing Arts, but the last time I checked, they had not been made available for research.)