Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Broadway Babies: Biographies of Mary Louise Wilson and Madeline Kahn

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Broadway Babies: Biographies of Mary Louise Wilson and Madeline Kahn

Article excerpt

Mary Louise Wilson's My First Hundred Years in Show Business is a chatty memoir distinguished by its candid informality, while William V. Madison's Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, a Life is a carefully researched, straight-ahead account, notable for its perceptive analysis. As show-business narratives go, they couldn't be more different. Both books, however, tell a version of the same tale: a talented but troubled woman's struggle to forge an acting career. Each story offers Sondheim connections and juicy behind-the-scenes dish.

Wilson's book began as a recounting of creating her Obie-winning 1995 one-woman show about Diana Vreeland, Full Gallop. She intended it as a "how-to" book, but friends complained that she was too absent from it. Hence, her memoir intersperses the story of Full Gallop with her own. She clearly considers the show to be her greatest accomplishment, but her life is full of accomplishments, despite a continuing battle with a shaky sense of self-worth, which originated as the child of an unhappy marriage.

Wilson moved to New York City in the 1950s after graduating from Northwestern University, and her portrait of that era's bohemian Manhattan is evocative. She got one of her first jobs replacing Bea Arthur as Lucy in The Threepenny Opera at the Theatre de Lys. Next she joined the cast of Julius Monk's Upstairs at the Downstairs revues. Her Broadway debut came as Judy Holliday's sidekick in the 1963 short-lived Hot Spot, and her wry account of the beloved star's behavior isn't pretty. This also marked Wilson's first brush with Sondheim, who came in to fix the show. She recalls hearing him at work on a last-minute opening number, "Don't Laugh," written with his friend, Hot Spot composer Mary Rodgers.

Wilson followed Hot Spot with another flop, Flora, the Red Menace (1965). She vividly describes working with legendary director George Abbott. Her big Sondheim moment came with the 1973 revival of Gypsy, playing Tessie Tura and understudying Angela Lansbury as Rose. Lansbury only missed once, a preplanned absence, and Wilson's description of going on is memorable.

Other career highlights are interspersed with unsparing tales of her sometimes-crippling insecurities, serial love affairs and a tempestuous relationship with her closeted gay brother. …

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