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Time for that tuneful question: What are the best Broadway musicals of all time?

Jul 19, 2006 at 4:00 am
What are the best Broadway musicals of all time? That's a hypothetical that theater buffs spend countless hours ruminating about. But Frank Vlastnik is lucky; he got paid to ruminate. Vlastnik, who is featured in next week's Muny production of White Christmas, is co-author (with Ken Bloom) of Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, a lavish coffee-table confection that's so much fun, if you don't own a coffee table you might want to buy one just so you can display this book.

Vlastnik grew up in Peru, Illinois, an hour's drive west of Chicago, loving the theater. "I know this sounds like something out of a bad movie," he admits. "But our house was out from town on a blacktop road across from a cornfield. When I was a teenager, at seven o'clock central time, which was eight in New York, I would stand at the blacktop, look to the east and try to imagine the curtains rising in the Broadway theaters. Across the cornfield I could see this glow of lights. It was actually the truck stop on Interstate 80, but in my imagination that was the glow of the City."

That kind of charming naiveté permeates Broadway Musicals. In contrast to those tedious "I know more about musicals than anyone else" tomes, this is a volume of shared discovery, page after page of "you're not going to believe this, but...." Nor is the subject matter limited to 101 musicals; this is an all-encompassing celebration of a way of life. Actors, producers, directors, choreographers, flop shows and guilty pleasures are all eulogized in sidebars. And thanks to Vlastnik, the volume is a visual feast. His great coup was to unearth several dusty boxes containing photos and slides of every Broadway show from 1952 to 1975 that have not been seen since they were donated to the Lincoln Center Library 30 years ago.

After graduation from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1987, Vlastnik moved to New York. He has acted in several musicals, including the innocuous Big, the ambitious failure Sweet Smell of Success ("the best experience I've ever had"), the American premiere of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night ("It was fascinating to watch how effective Sondheim was at being gentle yet insistent about what he wanted from the cast") and the agreeable failure A Year with Frog and Toad, which will be broadcast on PBS in December. But Vlastnik's longest run was as a photo cataloger at Time magazine. That's where he learned how to track down obscure images and became expert in restoring faded colors.

At a party for Ken Bloom's book about the lyrics of Jerry Herman, for which Vlastnik edited the photos, an editor from Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers approached Bloom about doing a volume on Broadway musicals. The catch: They wanted to publish the book in six months. Bloom, who knew the assignment was beyond his reach, turned to his photo editor and asked, "Have you ever thought about writing?" After submitting a couple of sample chapters, Vlastnik was drafted to collaborate. "We jumped in and fought and yelled and had a great time," he says.

Readers will yell too, but that's part of their great time. No one's going to agree with all 101 selected titles. Certainly the Muny management won't. Of the nineteen musicals that represent the period 1970 to 2000, the Muny has staged just seven. But everyone should savor the photos.

The book is in its fourth printing, a 2007 Broadway Musicals calendar is due out any day, and Vlastnik has enough future assignments lined up to keep him littering coffee tables for years to come. He also intends to keep acting. "Everyone in New York has more than one job," he says. As both actor and author, Vlastnik has succeeded in transforming his two jobs into vocations.