Kristin Chenoweth, in a sparkling gold gown, holds a bottle of champagne as she sings.

Kristin Chenoweth sings and dances in a scene from the 2011 revival of 'On the Twentieth Century.' (Photo by Joan Marcus, from the book "I'll Drink to That!")

Broadway historian and Tisch School of the Arts professor Laurence Maslon was named for the legendary actor and director Laurence Olivier, so maybe his future in theater was destined to be. Thanks to Broadway-loving parents, he was hooked on the genre from an early age, taking the train from Malverne, Long Island, to the Theater District while still in high school, before studying theater—and dabbling in acting—at Brown University.

A popular Graduate Acting teacher and theater pundit, Maslon is also a first-rate raconteur. He puts his storytelling chops to good use in a new illustrated book, I’ll Drink To That! Broadway’s Legendary Stars, Classic Shows, and the Cocktails They Inspired (Weldon Owen), that blends his love of theater and knowledge of Broadway with his interests in mixology. The book includes images from classic shows, vintage commercial ads, and evocative portraits of the drinks inspired by legendary productions—taken by leading Broadway photographer Joan Marcus.

But I’ll Drink To That! is just the latest history project from the longtime professor. Maslon wrote and co-produced the PBS documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me and wrote the companion volume to the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Broadway: The American Musical, which he also co-wrote. He penned a history of recorded music from Broadway, and a companion volume to the Broadway sensation Come From Away.

NYU News sat down with Maslon to discuss his new book, his journey from theater lover to Broadway historian, and his thoughts about Boadway today.


You’ve written many books and produced several documentaries on Broadway. How did this one come about?

There’s something about cocktails and Broadway that makes a lot of sense. The ritual of going to a show and going to Sardi’s after, and champagne on opening night is such a tradition. I thought it would be a way of tracing that history. There’s six chapters of narrative history and all these anecdotes and it toggles back and forth. It’s a nice way to talk about Broadway and offer profiles of some of its giants. And another thing that made it exciting was working with Joan Marcus.


How did you go from a theater fanboy to one of the leading scholars of Broadway and American musical theater?

After college, I worked at Arena Stage [in Washington, D.C.] and we did some very rare musicals, like On the Town and Of Thee I Sing. I worked as a dramaturg and I did all this research and I found that I had a nose for taking musicals seriously.

It always struck me as weird that people would write the history of 20th Century American theater and talk about Arthur Miller and Edward Albee but no one ever talked about Oscar Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim, or people like John Guare, who straddles both fields.

It always seemed so obvious to me that musicals reflected American culture. The first show I ever saw was 1776. That 1776 was such a big hit in 1969 had nothing to do with 1776 and everything to do with the Vietnam War. Why was Fiddler on the Roof such a big hit in 1964? It had nothing to do with a shtetl in 1905 and everything to do with the generation gap in America. Wasn’t that obvious? Don Quixote [in Man of La Mancha] is singing about the impossible dream three years after Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream” in Washington. Wasn’t that intentional? Didn’t everybody know that?

Well, when you put it like that it seems obvious. Why do you think musical theater was overlooked?

There was a cultural snobbery to it, and to some degree there still is. And because they were popular, they became somewhat suspect.

The American Musical has two lanes: One that has Sondheim and Hammerstein and, you know, Lin-Manuel Miranda—a little more serious and a little more in the enlightened tradition. And the other has Marc Shaiman and Jerry Herman and Cole Porter—God bless them—that a lot of people love, which is in the entertainment tradition.

But musicals are a great way of telling serious, important stories. There are lots of them: Ragtime, Hamilton, South Pacific.  Why was My Fair Lady such a big hit? Not Phantom, not even Hamilton, was as huge as My Fair Lady was in its day. It had a lot to do with holding up a portrait of elegance and charm during the somewhat gray Eisenhower era. My point is they don’t even have to be set in America to be about America.

If Broadway reflects the culture at a given moment, what is it saying about America now?

It’s interesting that Funny Girl is the hit that it is—it’s reminding us that we haven’t completely obliterated every single tradition. Even pre-pandemic, Broadway has become like cable [TV] with its niche markets. There’s an audience for A Strange Loop, and an audience for Funny Girl and Parade, and there’s not a lot of overlap.  There used to be shows that everyone saw, right? Like Phantom of the Opera, The Producers. Now, I don’t know.

I think Broadway is still finding its legs, post-pandemic. I don’t know where the audience is. You have stars like Hugh Jackman and Lea Michele and Josh Groban. Is that the way it is going to be for a while until people feel comfortable coming back? 

Is there a comparable time from the past when Broadway was struggling? After 9/11 maybe? Or something else?

In the 1970s, urban decay was so bad that it was impossible to get people to come. Until A Chorus Line opened, and it was “Okay, now here’s something worth braving the Theater District.” Then Annie opened, and it was “Okay, now it’s safe to bring your kid.” I think the situation now is a little more complex.

The 2023 Tony Awards are only a few weeks away. What categories are you watching most closely? Do you have any predictions?

The best revival will be interesting because you have Parade and Camelot and Sweeney Todd going against each other. For new musicals, usually there’s a kind of face-off between a Big Serious Musical and a Crowd-Pleaser, like A Strange Loop vs. Six, or Jagged Little Pill vs. Moulin Rouge. But this year all the major musicals are pretty upbeat and crowd-pleasing. It’s a tough category, although I think Shucked might pull it off. Audiences love it and it's inexpensive  to produce on the road.

In the Best Musical Acting category, I'd be curious if the voters go more fan-based—Josh Groban in Sweeney Todd, Sara Bareilles in Into the Woods—or more to Victoria Clark (Kimberly Akimbo) or J. Harrison Ghee (Some Like it Hot), who are inside types. And I thought Good Night, Oscar was the most satisfying non-musical this year. I’m sorry it didn't get more love but I hope Sean Hayes wins.