Ethan Mordden has been a dominant figure in the historiography of theater since the 1970s, and his Anything Goes: A History of the American Musical Theatre joins a quickly growing list of histories of the musical. Dating back to Gerald Bordman’s American Musical Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982) and American Operetta (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), and including Raymond Knapp’s The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), Larry Stempel’s Showtime (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), and Mordden’s many earlier titles, most of these histories largely repackage discussion of the same classic shows. With Anything Goes, however, Mordden analyzes many long-neglected but important works and offers new insights about the standards, filling many gaps in the literature. While doing this, he maintains an accessible and opinionated tone, making the book as entertaining as it is fascinating.
Mordden has organized the book in four roughly chronological but overlapping parts. “The First Age” discusses the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors to modern musical comedy; “The Second Age” surveys the first three decades of the twentieth century; Mordden’s “The Third Age” addresses the period that generally aligns with what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Age” of the musical, spanning roughly from the 1920s through the 1970s; and “The Fourth Age” concerns developments since the 1980s. To be sure, this chronological and evolutionary arrangement is not particularly new. Indeed, today Mordden’s assertions such as “what the American musical had been working up to for some one hundred years” is “the union of story and score” achieved in the 1940s (p. x), and his discussion of works like The Black Crook as “primitive” (p. 18), read as dated. [End Page 287]
But Mordden more than compensates for the book’s conservative structure by addressing historical developments left under-analyzed by other scholars. A discussion of the Chicago theater scene in a general history, for example, has been long overdue. Moreover, while others have perhaps overemphasized authors and hit shows, Mordden refreshingly contextualizes the work of Broadway masters like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers by discussing the profound influence of their publisher Max Dreyfus. Mordden’s willingness to address less successful shows also illuminates Broadway’s successes and other developments: the author’s discussion of The Stepping Stones, a 1923 show, deepens readers’ understanding of Kern’s development as a composer, and Carrie, which premiered in 1988, exemplifies what can go wrong when “the writing of musicals [is] swamped by the staging of them” (p. 243).
Mordden consistently challenges conventional wisdom. Traditionally, for example, the 1910s “Princess Musicals”—so called because they were produced at the Princess Theatre—have been discussed by historians like Bordman as landmark shows that “brought American musical comedy into the twentieth century” (American Musical Comedy, p. 94). Mordden, however, demonstrating that the shows’ intimacy and integration are largely myths, posits that “the series was not remotely as innovative as it is often said to be” (p. 88). Mordden also demythologizes the advancement of dance in Oklahoma! which premiered in 1943, by locating early examples of dream–ballet sequences, starting with The Band Wagon in 1931. Finally, Mordden joins Scott McMillin (The Musical as Drama [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006]) in his critique of the usual distinction between the “integrated” musical—in which music, lyrics, and other arts of stagecraft are united in a single expressive purpose—and the “concept” musical, in which the elements of stagecraft are often pulled apart in order to revolve around a central concept rather than a teleological narrative. To demonstrate that these are not mutually exclusive aesthetic categories, Mordden addresses the show typically held as the exemplar of the concept musical. He writes, “We can say that it was Company that truly integrated the musical for the first time” (p. 225).
Two of Mordden’s chapters are especially noteworthy for the way they complement the current scholarly literature...
Ethan Mordden (born January 27, 1949) is an American author.
Mordden was born and raised in Pennsylvania, in Venice, Italy, and on Long Island, and is a graduate of Friends Academy in Locust Valley, New York, and the University of Pennsylvania. He at first sought a career in show business, working as music director on off-Broadway and in regional theatre, and enrolling in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop run by Lehman Engel. As both composer and lyricist, Mordden wrote musicals based on William Shakespeare's Measure For Measure and on Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, but he ended up earning his living as a writer of English prose. In the 1970s, he was assistant editor to Dorothy Woolfolk on such DC Comics as The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love.
Works and themes
His stories, novels, essays, and non-fiction books cover a wide range of topics including the American musical theater, opera, film, and, especially in his fiction, the emergence and development of contemporary American gay culture as manifested in New York City. He has also written for The New Yorker, including three works of fiction, Critic At Large pieces on Cole Porter, Judy Garland, and the musical Show Boat, and reviews of a biography of the Barrymores and Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus. He is currently a book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal.
His best known fictional works are the inter-related series of stories known collectively as the "Buddies" cycle. In book form, these began with 1985's I've a Feeling We're not in Kansas Anymore. The fifth in the series, 2005's How's Your Romance?, is subtitled Concluding the "Buddies" Cycle. Together, the stories chronicle the times, loves, and losses of a close-knit group of friends, men who cope with the challenges of growing up and growing older. In this circle of best friends, teasing putdowns become performance art, but none of the friends ever attacks any other friend's sensitive spots. Mordden thus breaks away from the gay model proposed by Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band, in which supposed best friends assault one another relentlessly in a style that has bedeviled gay art ever since, for instance in the television series Queer as Folk. Mordden's ideal of gay friendship presents men who genuinely like themselves and one another. They are unique in gay literature in that they respect the limits of privacy. This explains their devotion to one another: this "family" is a safe place.
In 1995, Mordden produced an epic novel, How Long Has This Been Going On?, following the lives of a diverse group of men and women from 1949 to 1991 and moving from Los Angeles to the Midwest, then from San Francisco to the Northeast. All but one of the principal characters are gay or lesbian. Mordden's own favorite among his works of fiction is The Venice Adriana of 1998, which uses the life and art of the opera soprano Maria Callas to question whether we are trapped by fate or free to invent a destiny. In a Nabokovian game meant for opera lovers, the novel's plot and characters reflect the plot and characters of Francesco Cilea's opera Adriana Lecouvreur. Mordden's least well-known work is A Bad Man Is Easy To Find, published in 1989 under the pseudonym of M. J. Verlaine. Though the book aligns with the "Buddies" cycle in its structure of interrelated short stories, it is entirely about the lives of women, and has only one minor gay character. In 2008, Mordden published The Jewcatcher, a surrealistic novel set in Berlin from the end of the Weimar Republic to the last day of the European war. The many principal characters are a combination of Mordden's inventions and such real-life figures as Adolf Hitler, Marlene Dietrich, Raoul Wallenberg, Claus von Stauffenberg, and President Paul von Hindenburg. In 2012, Mordden brought out his first volume of gay fiction in eight years, The Passionate Attention of an Interesting Man. In the form of a novella and four short stories, the book explores relationships in which one man dominates another. Mordden returned to writing fiction based on history in 2015 with One Day in France, set in Limoges and Oradour-sur-Glane when the latter, a peaceful village, was destroyed and its inhabitants brutally murdered by a squad of the Nazi Schutzstaffel.
Mordden's non-fiction includes six volumes detailing the history of the Broadway musical from the 1920s through the 1970s (followed by a seventh volume going up to 2003 in a different style from the six-title series), guides to orchestral music and operatic recordings, and a cultural history of the American 1920s entitled That Jazz. He has also published Demented, an examination of the phenomenon of the operatic diva, and a coffee-table book on the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. His 2012 book Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya is a dual biography chronicling the romance and professional collaboration of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, and in 2013 he published Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre. He has written a number of books on film, including analyses of the influence of Hollywood studios and of the role of female film stars. In all his non-fiction, Mordden has been a pioneer among writers who bring their personal experience and even their personalities into discussion.
The New York Times spoke of Mordden as being among a group of "ruminators on popular culture" animated by "the gun-moll gesticulations of Pauline Kael, for whom responsiveness was everything." 
- Buddies series
- I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore: Tales from Gay Manhattan, 1985
- Buddies, 1986
- Everybody Loves You: Further Adventures in Gay Manhattan, 1988
- Some Men Are Lookers, 1997
- How's Your Romance?, 2005
- The Golden Age of the Broadway Musical
- Make believe : the Broadway musical in the 1920s, 1997
- Sing for your supper : the Broadway musical in the 1930s, 2005
- Beautiful mornin' : the Broadway musical in the 1940s, 1999 
- Coming up roses : the Broadway musical in the 1950s, 1998
- Open a new window : the Broadway musical in the 1960s, 2001
- One more kiss : the Broadway musical in the 1970s, 2003
- ^Gewen, Barry, The New York Times Book Review, December 12, 2004, p. 20.
- ^Mordden, Ethan (1999). Beautiful Mornin: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s. U.S.: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512851-6.