Thursday 1 September 2022

Meet the Author: Laura Frankos, author of Broadway Revival

Laura Frankos is the author of Broadway Revival, currently shortlisted for the Sidewise Award in Alternate History which will be presented at Worldcon Chicago this weekend.

For those who are not familiar with either your novel Broadway Revival or the Sidewise Award for alternate history, could you tell our readers a bit about your book and what it means to you to be nominated for this award?

In BROADWAY REVIVAL, David Greenbaum is an actor-songwriter whose husband has just died from the latest designer drug addiction in 2079.  David pulls himself out of despair with an outrageous plan. He couldn’t save Ramon, but he might make a difference in other lives cut short. He hijacks his brother Nate’s time machine, the SlingShot, and jumps to 1934 to save George Gershwin from the brain tumor that killed him at age thirty-eight.

That’s just the start of David’s “Broadway Revival Project.” Gershwin wasn’t the only one who died too young. David has a suitcase of modern medicine and the advance knowledge of nearly 150 years of musical theatre history. He’s determined to make the Golden Age of Broadway shine even more brightly.

But David’s actions are causing changes to the timeline that have the Rippers—the international time travel research consortium—very worried. So Nate climbs in the SlingShot, determined to track down his brother in 1930s New York.

I’m incredibly honored that BROADWAY REVIVAL is a finalist for the 2021 Sidewise Award. Alternate history is kind of a big deal in our house; my husband, Harry Turtledove, has written a lot in that sub-genre and is a multiple Sidewise winner. But I would be the first to admit that BROADWAY REVIVAL is a weird kind of alternate history, so I’m extremely chuffed by this recognition.

One of the things that worried me about starting your book was that I’m completely ignorant of Broadway, especially of the 1930s. Yet, the prose is breezy, easy to read, and every character, historical and fictional, leaps to life. How did you approach writing these historical figures and what to you think makes them approachable even to people like me who may not know the era?

First of all, thanks so much for that. I figured I could hook the theatre geeks, but whenever somebody with little background in Broadway likes it—wow, that makes my day! I’m an historian by training and a Broadway nut my whole life, so I already was very familiar with the personalities of this era. That said, I did spend years doing homework, especially trying to get into the complex head of Lorenz Hart. The way I approached portraying these figures was first and foremost as people: they have relationships, eat and drink, argue, brag, discuss sports, go to parties. That’s something any reader can relate to, even if they’re doing all that in the 1930s. It’s also true most readers won’t have written musicals themselves, but you don’t need to have done that to be familiar with pressing deadlines, changing work circumstances, and the problems of collaborations. 

As for the specific characters like the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, et alia, my ace in the hole was my protagonist, David Greenbaum. As a newcomer to New York (albeit one with secret, vast historical knowledge), he’s getting to know these folks and this era just as the reader is. He can mention his plans in a way that gives the reader background on these Broadway legends and his new home—hopefully, without too much exposition.

What inspired your passion of musical theater? What has been your favorite show on or off Broadway?

My mom loved musicals. So I grew up on cast albums, listening to her playing sheet music on the piano, and watching movie musicals on tv. My favorite show is SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, because I think it’s about as close to perfection as a musical can get.

Let’s talk about hats. It irks me when hats are ignored in historical eras. So, I loved your character’s reaction to seeing everyone sporting headwear. How did you breathe life into your Broadway of the 30s and beyond?

“Does anyone still wear a hat?” is a famous line from Sondheim’s 1970 musical, COMPANY. I agree with you about being irked by historical novels and films that get period wardrobe wrong. Again, I’m helped by my time traveler as the outsider—and one who, as an actor, was accustomed to costumes. Practically the first thing he notices, arriving in 1934, is that everyone looks….like they’re wearing costumes. Hats everywhere, and clothes made with far more natural fibers than he’s used to in 2079. It takes effort to adjust to that.

I wanted the reader to feel a part of that past too, so I tried very hard to concentrate on the details of daily life. This included all those restaurants. That was critical not just for the awesome descriptions of the meals (go to the NYPL online digital historical menu collection! Such a fantastic site!), but because Broadway creatives did a lot of their work at the bars and restaurants close to the theatres. And David’s first job is playing piano at a restaurant in Greenwich Village, a real place with a storied history that I cheerfully pillaged for my fictional purposes. David does complain about some aspects of his new life: the coffee’s terrible, there are no delicious microbrews, not so much good ethnic food.

But it’s not the different clothing and food that really throw him. It’s the sudden loss of the wealth of information available in the late 21st century. He goes from instant access to everything to relying on radio, newsreels, and newspapers. He brings the equivalent of a 2079 iPad with him, and has to restrain himself from checking it all the time. I think even if people today were plopped back in, say, 1980, they’d go bonkers at losing the Internet. I suspect it would be worse for someone in 2079 going back to an even less technologically advanced era.

It’s also so much fun researching historical details! Like Bronx cocktails. I have those show up in the first chapter, where David is drinking them because they were Ramon’s favorite drink. Ramon discovered them while researching a Jerome Kern musical, which I thought was a good, single fact that tells reader not only a lot about Ramon, but also how much David is missing him. Once David jumps to 1934, he drinks Bronxes all the time—they were one of the most popular drinks of the decade, but eventually were supplanted by martinis, a close cousin.

For a number of years, while I was writing and trying to sell BROADWAY REVIVAL, I ordered Bronx cocktails in restaurants. This freaked out the waiters, who’d never heard of them, and had to google them. This is dedicated research, people. I do all my own homework!

Broadway in 1934

There are many cameos and namedrops of historical figures (and at least one by a fictional one). With minor spoilers, a certain ballplayer from Harry’s House of David {editor’s note: House of Daniel, sorry} slides in and steals a scene. How did that come about, and what was your favorite cameo or name drop to write?

Oh, there are Easter eggs galore, though many will only be spotted by theatre nerds. When David’s brother Nate is searching for him, there are about a half dozen historical figures lurking in that chapter, especially at the restaurant. And they’re all people who logically could have been in Greenwich Village in 1934, so I plead simultaneous plausibility and fun.

When I was writing BROADWAY REVIVAL, Harry was working on THE HOUSE OF DANIEL (**not House of David—that’s the real team). {Editor’s note: this is a hazard when reading alternate history}. That novel is set in a 1930s America, except with magic and vampires and zombies, along with semipro baseball. Now, I ask you: what are the odds, in a two-writer household, that BOTH writers would be working on material involving alternate 1930s Colorado at the same time? My protagonist had reasons to go to Colorado Springs; Harry’s baseball team played in a tournament in Denver…adapted from a real one in our timeline. So I asked him if I could have his protagonist briefly cross paths with mine (I had him make a stop in Denver). If you look closely at THE HOUSE OF DANIEL, there’s an unnamed variant of David Greenbaum in the Denver chapter. He’s the guy juggling oranges. My David spills a bag of oranges. This falls under Weird Stuff Writers Do To Amuse Themselves.

That crossover tickles me no end, but my favorite historical cameo has to be the couple of scenes with Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill’s wife. The only thing more fun than putting words in the incomparable Lenya’s mouth was writing dialogue for Oscar Levant. I had to restrain myself from going overboard with both of them; they were so much fun to write.

If you could pull together anyone from theater history to write and perform a show, which ones would you cherry-pick and what sort of show do you think they would put on?

Ooh, dream production time! That’s easy. There was a report that Sondheim was considering a musical based on the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles, but nothing came of it. I want this so much, I’m practically drooling over the possibilities, especially with a libretto by Moss Hart and Peter Stone, Hal Prince directing, and Michael Bennett doing choreography. Dream casting—and keep in mind, the actors here are plucked from the timeline at roughly close the age of the characters they’re portraying.

Woodrow Wilson—William Daniels (hey, he has experience playing musical presidents!)

Georges Clemenceau (France)—John Cullum

David Lloyd George (UK)—Richard Burton 

Vittorio Orlando (Italy)—Alfred Drake

Saionji Kimmochi (Japan)—Takeshi Kaga

Henry Cabot Lodge—Richard Kiley

John Foster Dulles—Brian d’Arcy James (keep in mind Dulles was only 30 here)

Charles Dawes-Fred Astaire (with “Reparations” as his big solo)

Edward House—George Hearn

Sidney Sonnino (Italy)—Howard Da Silva (Sonnino is the guy who translated for Orlando, and I want to see this two old pals from OKLAHOMA! doing a comic number half in Italian)

John Maynard Keynes—Raul Julia

Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Ratzau (Germany)—John McMartin

Eleftherius Venizelos (Greece)—Chris Sarandon

Lou Tseng-Tsiang (China)—B.D. Wong (he’s even done Sondheim!)

Billy Hughes (Australia)—Jack Cassidy or maybe William Gaxton (not Hugh Jackman, as it’s not the right role for him)

Rob Borden (Canada)—Len Cariou 

T.E. Lawrence—I am so tempted to add Noël Coward here, except Sondheim hated Coward’s work. But if I am the producer (aka God), I may insist, though John Barrowman isn’t a bad choice, either

Edith Wilson—Angela Lansbury 

Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger—Gwen Verdon (doing an extended dance for the women’s suffrage movement)

Three nameless doughboys, who sing and dance representing the lost millions—Joel Grey, Andre de Shields, Harry Groener 

The love between David and Ramon is central to David’s motivation. And I loved how you showed their strong connection with just a few lyrics of a show. It reminded me of how my wife and I bonded over skits by Stan Freberg. Pulling back the curtain, is this a peak into real life or how did this idea come about?

I’m extremely pleased you found David and Ramon’s relationship convincing. I’m a straight cis woman who’s been married to the same man for 42 years, so taking on a gay protagonist was a big leap. (Especially since I have heard some of my gay friends rail against straight women writers writing really awful novels with gay protagonists. And I really didn’t want to end up one of them.) 

It makes sense for David and Ramon, both actors, to bond over musicals and frequently quote lyrics at each other. I have found, among musical theatre folks, that a shared love of a flop musical (“OMG, you like AMOUR, too? Why didn’t it have a longer run?!”) leads to firm friendships. Likely romance, too, I suspect.

And that brings me to a pet peeve in science fiction: the obsession over 20th century American culture. Ever notice how (especially in tv and film sf) there are characters, living in the far future, who are just crazed fans of 20th century American movies, songs, cartoons, tv, whatever…? Like nothing worthy of interest was ever produced between 1980 and 2500?

The short hand answer is, it’s easier for a reader/viewer in the late 20th-early 21st century to identify with a far future character who is fond of, say, Humphrey Bogart, than one who goes all fanboy over “Zelurk-glarp, who stars as the steely eyed (all six of them) cop from the tough Dreeble sector on Wyrxx Prime.” 

This bugs me. Now, I’m convinced that by the 2070s, there will still be an interest in classic 20th musicals. I allude to David getting roles in the 100th anniversary production of Sondheim’s FOLLIES (1971) and a production of 1776 (first staged in 1969), done for the Tricentennial in 2076, and he played Perchik from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1964) in high school.

But I also added (fictional) plays, musicals, songwriters, and actors from the years between now and 2079, as well as events that haven’t happened, like the closing night of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Because even though I sent David Greenbaum back to 1934, I wanted to indicate that there’s much, much more musical theatre history by the time he was active in the field. The show that David and Ramon regarded as “their show” was a dreadful flop from 2050. Of course, the other thing about inventing a show meant I could invent lyrics, too—and not have to worry about licensing!

Broadway Revival is unique in its topic, but there’s a broader rise in stories that want to see artists keep producing. Bryce Zabel did this well in Once There Was A Way. And Broadway Revival excels in doing the same. So, is this desire for artists to keep working simply mere fandom or is it a deeper, more universal societal need for exceptional art? Does an artists’ premature death elevate their work? Could someone like Gerswhin still have survived yet only released flops afterwards?

Sure, the fan in me who wanted a world where Gershwin didn’t die so young was indeed the driving force behind BROADWAY REVIVAL. However, I never intended to delve into any deep societal need here; the decision to write it went more like this: I’m a Broadway buff and this is an alternate history scenario I can definitely write. Do I want a world with more exceptional work from a longer-lived Gershwin? Hell, yes, and I think a lot of Gershwin fans would agree with me (and they should all go buy my book, right now). And Gershwin was a towering figure in American music, extending well beyond Broadway, yet we only had 19 years of his professional work. That’s all we got. We should have had more, much more.

That said, I should note that BROADWAY REVIVAL’s plot has more than just  David Greenbaum saving George Gershwin. My interfering time traveler gets involved with Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, Lorenz Hart, and Jerome Kern—to varying degrees and with varying results. Their names may not be as familiar to non-theatre nerds, but they all could (and did!) produce exceptional work. So am I just a self-indulgent fangirl, trying to conjure up what these Broadway legends might have created with better fates than they got? Well, I hope I did more than that, such as looking at the potential effects of having more work by these men on the evolution of the musical—and society as a whole. For example, Kurt Weill died of a heart attack aged 50, while working on a musical HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I imagined, had he completed it, that some of the score could have been adopted by the emerging civil rights movement.

Did Gershwin’s premature death elevate his work? Well, he was already at the top, with a Hollywood contract and plans for more serious symphonic work planned. The one place where his death had a definite effect on how his work was viewed was with PORGY AND BESS. It was not a success in its 1935 debut, and when George died in 1937, the score was valued at a whopping $250. His death led to the 1942 revival, where it was much better received. Some of that may have been prompted by sheer love of the deceased composer, but a good part was more people had heard the songs by then, and came to realize what a masterpiece it was.

Could someone like Gershwin have written only flops? No. Because. Gershwin. But he could write some flops; I do propose that some of his shows in BROADWAY REVIVAL are not successes, as the one he wrote in reaction to being called before the House UnAmerican Activiies Committee. Nor do the other songwriters whose lives David meddles with have perfect, stellar careers. There are more flops on Broadway than hits.

Do you see a shift within the genre of AH away from stories of warfare and toward social and cultural topics and if so, why do you think that is? What made you decide to contribute to this shift?

I can’t I track trends in alternate history, so I can’t really comment on this. We tend to be pretty careful about what AH we read here. If there’s a chance a boom touches on an area Harry might be considering for one of his own books, we won’t get it, for fear of it influencing his own ideas. I don’t think wars—or rather, alternate wars—are going to go away anytime soon. The best fiction often shows people in conflict, and there’s no greater conflict than nations at odds. 

The other reason why AH with a military or political breakpoint have dominated the field is that they’re more straightforward concepts. Everyone (well, mostly everyone—I hope) knows there were World Wars, that the North and South clashed in the Civil War. It’s a lot easier to market. I spent nearly a decade trying to sell BROADWAY REVIVAL. The sf houses said there was too much theatre. Uh, yeah. The mainstream houses didn’t like all that alternate timeline stuff. So I started calling it my platypus novel—a weird thing, but my own. 

But social and cultural changes are fascinating subjects for alternate histories, and I’m happy to see more of them and to have contributed one. As I said above, it wasn’t any deliberate plan on my part. I just thought the premise might work. The other thing I’d like to note here is that portraying the altered careers of the songwriters affected by my time traveler wasn’t the only thing I wanted to accomplish in BROADWAY REVIVAL. The other change is more subtle: what happens when a man with so many decades of advance knowledge of how this art form developed becomes active, and making contributions on his own in a variety of ways? Never mind Gershwin and Porter. What does David Greenbaum, and his late-21st century sensibilities, aided by his substantial bank account, do to affect the evolution of the musical? I had as much fun exploring that aspect as I did concocting Musicals That Never Existed, But Should Have. And that in itself is certainly uncommon territory for an alternate history.

Harry just sold a novel with a social and cultural focus. THE WAGES OF SIN is set in 1850s England, but it’s a world in which HIV/AIDS erupted out of Africa in the sixteenth century…and it’s a very, very different Europe, having coped for centuries with a terrible, incurable wasting disease. The protagonists are about the most ordinary types imaginable: a young law student and the daughter of a small town doctor. I may be a bit biased (!), but I think it’s damn good.

What’s next for you? Will we see more alternative history from you, are there any plans to save any planes full of ill-fated musicians?

What’s next? Well, just out this past spring from Routledge is a book called FIFTY KEY STAGE MUSICALS, edited by Robert Schneider. It’s a terrific addition to any library of musical theatre history…and I’m not just saying that because I wrote the chapter on the Gershwins’ OF THEE I SING. The book also has a nifty podcast, so if you want to hear me natter on about George and Ira, check it out!

I have some short fiction—sf and fantasy, with theatrical connections—that I’m trying to sell, but nothing has stuck yet. The current big work in progress is non-fiction. I did so much 1930s research for BROADWAY REVIVAL that I started work on a survey of the 1935-36 Broadway season. But when the chapter on Rodgers and Hart’s JUMBO grew to over twenty thousand words alone, I decided to see if I could do a whole book on this show alone. So here I am, still wallowing in 1930s musicals, but this time with an elephant!

Where can readers connect with you especially if they are also fans of Broadway and musical theater?

I’m on Facebook.

Thanks again, Laura and good luck on your shortlist for the Award! Now, everyone, go out and read BROADWAY REVIVAL, it’s a fantastic read, I absolutely enjoyed it and I loved that it’s a refreshing, unique entry into the expanding genre of alternative history.

BROADWAY REVIVAL is available on Amazon here.

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