A Mount Rushmore of American Theatre

Aaron Netsky

OnStage New York Columnist


The other day, I was listening to a podcast, and the hosts brought up whose faces they would carve onto a Mount Rushmore of American Culture. As usually happens on this podcast, and in most published conversations about culture, theatre was virtually forgotten in favor of movies, music, and literature. I previously came up with my own general American culture selection of people I would put on such a Mount Rushmore, but then I thought, since theatre is so poorly represented, maybe it should just get its own Mount Rushmore. Here are the people I would include on a Mount Rushmore of American Theatre:

Chita Rivera

They made a rule on the podcast that the people chosen should be dead, but then broke it, so I have no qualms about breaking it in this one instance. Whenever I think of the most interesting legendary theatrical career, I settle on Chita Rivera’s. Her involvement with landmark musicals like West Side Story, in part about the immigrant experience, Bye, Bye Birdie, one of the very earliest rock musicals, and Chicago, about America’s obsession with sensational news stories, is just the tip of the iceberg of the career of a Hispanic woman who became one of the most important people in Broadway history at a time when many ethnic roles were still being played by white people. Her most recent Broadway musical, The Visit, about a woman whose wealth comes from the many husbands she has outlived, is a kind of metaphor for her life and career: she lives on, today, after so many of her collaborators have left us, and she is rich with the songs, dances, and dialogue they gave her.

Jerome Robbins

Frequently, though not always, directors and choreographers have been the same person throughout Broadway history. I briefly considered going with Bob Fosse for this category of theatre person, but settled on Jerome Robbins, creator of the bottle dance in Fiddler on the Roof, which has become a staple of Yiddish dance, the legendary opening of West Side Story, and the iconic dance musical On the Town. He started in dance and, over the course of his career, worked with nearly every important musical theatre figure. He may not have created the flying effects for the 1954 musical Peter Pan, but he was the driving force behind that project as well, and probably had some say in them.

Jo Mielziner

I will admit to being less familiar with and less enthusiastic about designers than I am about writers and performers in theatre, but I also know people who geek out about designers and don’t care about the more prominent players. Still, though, when it came time to pick a designer for this designation, I knew who I wanted. In addition to designing the sets and lights for many a musical, including one dear to my heart, my great-uncle’s Ethel Merman show, Happy Hunting, as well as countless plays, Mielziner’s importance in theatre was emphasized to me early in my theatre education, because he was one of technical theatre’s great innovators of the use of set and light. For the original production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, he created a skeletal set that allowed action to be seen in more than one setting at the same time, forever changing theatrical set design.

Oscar Hammerstein II

I naturally had to include either Richard Rodgers or Oscar Hammerstein, but not both, and I went with Hammerstein because beyond his involvement in some of the most popular musicals ever, those he created with Rodgers, he was also the book writer and lyricist of (arguably, always arguably) the very first musical, Show Boat. Musicals evolved like everything else, but the “official” first musical is commonly considered to be Show Boat, and inclusion on any kind of Mount Rushmore is a very official sort of designation. Rodgers and Hammerstein also have a formula of musical theatre named after them, that in which there are five main characters, an older couple, a younger couple, and a fifth character who holds things together (Lady Thiang in The King and I, for instance). So Hammerstein’s inclusion here also represents Rodgers contributions, but there can only be four heads, and I choose his.

The thought of Ethel Merman’s head, mid-belt, topping a Mount Rushmore of American Theatre is very amusing, but I couldn’t justify putting her there instead of one of these four people. I’m guessing most people would want Stephen Sondheim represented, or Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Some would want to emphasize more minorities or women, and perhaps there is a perfect combination of people for something like this. What you see above are merely my preferences, but I think I have defended them well. I would have loved to have included Wendy Wasserstein or Gregory Hines, Tharon Musser or Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne or Betty Comden, but there just wasn’t room. As with the four people on the actual Mount Rushmore, there’s always a reason why someone else should be up there instead of who is. An exercise like this, therefore, is more important for remembering your theatre history than for any sort of prestige. Besides, in the case of theatre, there already is a kind of Mount Rushmore: Broadway theatres are named after the greats. And the names change, they’re not etched in stone.

Aaron Netsky, for the next few months at least, still writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and writes about books, politics, and culture on Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). You can follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.