Monday, April 11, 2011

Interview - Laura Frankos, Author of "The Broadway Musical Quiz Book"

By Byrne Harrison

Laura Frankos writes the “Great White Way Wayback Machine” column on and is the author of several books in the fields of mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. Frankos also works as a librarian and lives in Chatsworth, CA, with her husband, author Harry Turtledove.

I had a chance to talk with Laura about her amazing new book, "The Broadway Musical Quiz Book," the hardest test I've taken since my grad school comprehensive.

I love trivia, but this made me feel like a rank amateur. Please tell me that this was the result of painstaking effort on your part, and not just a bunch of facts that you already had in your head.

Well, both parts are true. There was a lot of work involved, but my brain is stuffed with lots of seemingly useless knowledge that I often managed to squeeze into a quiz question. Or an answer. I admit that the answer section was backbreaking effort, but I hate those quiz books in which the answer section simply lists Question 9: B. So I not only listed the name, but I tried to explain some of the reasoning that went into my choices for the wrong answers. For example, if a question dealt with casting for a certain role, I made the "distractor" answers include other actors working at that time--sometimes even people who had been considered, but not hired, for that role.

I know the questions are hard. But I didn't simply want to ask "What's the longest running musical in Broadway history?" or "Who was the original El Gallo in The Fantasticks?" Instead, I'd list five famous actors and ask which one DIDN'T appear during The Fantasticks' long Off-Broadway run. I'm aware that very, very, very few people have any sort of detailed knowledge of what the Follies girls were wearing in 1907-1909, but I hope that merely by reading the possible answers--which include such costumes as taxicabs with working headlights, mosquitoes in the New Jersey marshes, and jurors at the trial of Enrico Caruso, who had pinched a girl at the zoo -- readers will be interested enough to guess, and learn something new.

I'm a historian by training, and I like to think of the Quiz Book as a kind of anecdotal history of the American musical.

How did you go about doing the research for the Quiz Book?

To quote Johnny Mercer, "I'm old-fashioned." I used libretti, cast albums, and a gigantic library of theatre books, foremost among them being the works of Gerald Bordman, Ken Mandelbaum, Richard Norton, Ethan Mordden, John Stewart, and Steven Suskin. The Internet isn't bad for fast-and-dirty research, but it's not completely trustworthy. I wish I could have included my full bibliography, but it would have run on for pages.

Sometimes a quiz would come together very easily; other times, I'd have to wade through pages, waiting for inspiration to strike. This book would not exist without the invention of Post-It notes. I had sticky notes everywhere and on everything. As I'd read, I'd jot notes. Eventually, I'd cobble them all together. And yes, I'd get distracted. For example, while writing the quiz for spring, I was looking for song titles or character names with flowers in them. But then I'd notice a bunch of song titles mentioning coffee. Nothing to do with spring, but I started making a "coffee song" list, and managed to turn that into a question for a different quiz.

Just listening to songs could often generate quiz material. That's why I describe the book as one woman's excuse for listening to show tunes and calling it work!

How did you come up with the categories?

I knew I wanted quizzes covering nearly all major songwriters, as well as some notable actors, producers and directors, and ones covering each decade from 1900 to the present. Many of the thematic quizzes -- sports, shows set in France, food -- sort of grew, like Topsy. I'd scribble notes until I had enough for a quiz. Others I developed more deliberately. For example, I knew I had to have a quiz on jukebox musicals, even though I personally don't like them. But I think it turned out to be one of the better quizzes, maybe because I sweated so much over it.

For the long quizzes on major figures, I tried to include a little biographical information, then centered each quiz on ten significant shows for each person, listed chronologically. (Yeah, Sondheim got 35 questions, including the Sweeney Todd mini-quiz, plus I stuck the shows for which he was just the lyricist in other areas... what can I say? I'm a rabid Sondhead.) I tried to balance the source material for each quiz: some questions were based on song lyrics or plot, some on production details (tryouts, design, cuts), some on the actors involved, and some on weird anecdotes. I didn't always succeed. I'm not happy with the Ahrens and Flaherty quiz since it's almost entirely based on lyrics and plot detail. On the other hand, I'm proud of the Hal Prince quiz, since nearly every question was based on a directorial decision of Prince.

The decade quizzes were tough. For the early years, I knew most readers would never have heard of some of these shows, yet I wanted to give a flavor of what early Broadway was like. So I picked some operettas, some revues, some shows with famous comic stars. For the later decades, I included significant shows by songwriters with small output (i.e., not enough to generate a full quiz; thus, The Music Man is in the 1950s quiz, but there is no Meredith Willson quiz). For some of the decades, it was easy to find enough one-hit-wonders to make a full quiz, but not for the forties! Since all the forties shows of Berlin, R&H, Weill, and Porter were covered in those songwriters' quizzes, what was left of the decade was a bit on the thin side.

There's more stuff I could have added, but the end result was 82 quizzes and over 1200 questions, with over 700 shows referenced. Things did get cut -- I had a quiz on state songs, but since a few states have not had the honor of a show tune (Washington State, Vermont -- unless you include the cut song from Lolita --, and a couple of others), I dropped it. So now there's no question derived from Whoop-Up. (What did Bruce Kimmel ask me last year, when I told him I'd just sold the book: "Is there a question on Whoop-Up?") And I keep running into more Shakespeare musicals I left out of the literature quiz, too.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the musical theatre fans?

It's been generally favorable. I learned Seth Rudetsky featured the book on his show, which had me totally chuffed for days. Some fans have said they intend to use the book at their Tony Awards party -- a truly fun idea. The biggest complaint is the level of difficulty. On the other hand, I've got a teenage cousin, eager to star in a musical one day, who has said, "I'm not getting any of these right, but I'm learning a lot!"

That's exactly how I felt! If you had to choose, what would you say is your favorite Broadway musical and why?

That's easy: Sweeney Todd. I love Sweeney because I think it's the best constructed musical of all time. I've seen enough musicals in my life that even when I'm enjoying a production, I find myself wondering about characterizations or plot points or clunky lyrics or whatever. There's always some little thing that I might ponder, "Maybe they should have..." But Sweeney is put together so damn well, without any extra fat on it, it just works. I love the story arc, the musical clues to the mystery, those lyrics that evoke the era without wallowing in Victorian sentiment, and those vivid characters. But then, I've already admitted to being especially partial to Sondheim. If stuck on a desert island with only a dozen cast albums, I think half of them would be Sondheim. And the first would be Sweeney.

What's next for you?

I'm ready to submit the next column for "The Great White Wayback Machine" on, which (I hope) will start running on a more regular basis. I'm using leftovers from the Quiz Book, as well as material that wouldn't have fit in quiz format, and examining different aspects of musical theatre history. Current plans include a multi-part series on immigrants in musicals, and a study of cows on stage. Yes, cows. If you thought Milky White and Caroline were the only bovines on Broadway, you've got another think coming.

And I do have some ideas for short stories that I'd like to get working on--science fiction and fantasy, but with some theatrical elements in them.

The Broadway Musical Theatre Quiz Book
By Laura Frankos
Published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard
ISBN 978-1-4234-9275-7

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