Broad­way Baby

Alan Shapiro

By – January 3, 2012

The hero­ine of this nov­el by award-win­ning poet Alan Shapiro is Miri­am, a Jew­ish girl with star­dust in her eyes and a pas­sion for Broad­way musi­cals of the 1940’s. She espe­cial­ly reveres the char­ac­ter of Miss Julie from Jerome Kern’s musi­cal Show­boat and keeps a poster from the show over her bed, a diary in which she details every show she and her boyfriend, Curly, see, as well as every menu from every restau­rant they fre­quent. After he is draft­ed, she enjoys describ­ing her­self as a fiancée pin­ing for her gor­geous sol­dier boy” in her diary. In actu­al­i­ty, she is relieved that he is away. For it is the idea of them as a cou­ple she enjoys infi­nite­ly more than she enjoys actu­al­ly mak­ing love with him. And we begin to notice that she seems to see every­thing in the third per­son, as if she and those around her were char­ac­ters in a play she is viewing.

When she gives birth to a girl she names her Julie. But she doesn’t bond with her the way she did with the character’s name­sake from Show­boat. And when she has two more chil­dren, both sons, Ethan and Sam, and they all sit togeth­er in her rock­ing chair one evening, she sings Lul­la­by of Broad­way” to them while think­ing, Some­one should take a pic­ture of this, what a pic­ture we’d make…”

Grad­u­al­ly we begin to real­ize that Miri­am is dis­con­nect­ed from her­self and oth­ers and this has trag­ic con­se­quences for her and her fam­i­ly. Sit­u­a­tions which seem unim­por­tant occur­rences to her, when ignored, become mon­u­men­tal draw­backs. Ethan’s bed-wet­ting, because it is neglect­ed, lasts so long that he can’t attend camp or a sleep­over, even as a teenag­er, for fear of embar­rass­ment. Julie’s lack of inter­est in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with her moth­er is nev­er dealt with, as Miriam’s nar­cis­sism makes her retal­i­ate by not inter­est­ing her­self in her daugh­ter. And Sam’s annoy­ance at hav­ing to spend long hours babysit­ting” his grand­moth­er, which is con­ve­nient for Miri­am, has reper­cus­sions as well.

The posters from South Pacif­ic and Show­boat remain on the wall while her chil­dren grow up. Their pres­ence fuels Miriam’s desire to pro­mote Ethan’s singing tal­ent so he can become the star in the fam­i­ly. Yet, no mat­ter what suc­cess­es each child has, they are nev­er sat­is­fy­ing enough for Miriam.

A strange kind of jus­tice is served Miri­am. As things spi­ral down­ward, the sto­ry evokes chills and even hor­ror — a far cry from the opti­mistic mood at the begin­ning of this com­pelling novel.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Algo­nquin Books
1. In the Broad­way show that Miri­am sees, Show­boat, the char­ac­ter Miss Julie is a kind of out­cast after she is exposed as being born of mixed blood, an anath­e­ma in the peri­od in which the musi­cal play was set, right after the Civ­il War. Why do you think the ten-year-old Miri­am iden­ti­fies so close­ly with the char­ac­ter of Miss Julie in par­tic­u­lar, and to the lure of the stage in gen­er­al? What is it about her fam­i­ly life and her par­ents’ divorce that pre­dis­pos­es her to love the the­ater, to dream about a life on stage? 

2. By means of musi­cals and Miriam’s life­long love of them, what does this nov­el say or imply about the role not just of enter­tain­ment but of art in gen­er­al, high art as well as pop­u­lar art, in how we live our lives? 

3. How does Miriam’s rela­tion­ship with her moth­er, Tula, influ­ence the kind of moth­er she her­self becomes?

4. Despite her dreams of star­dom, Miri­am is in many ways a con­ven­tion­al mid­dle-class Jew­ish house­wife. How do those con­ven­tion­al val­ues shape her rela­tion­ship to her chil­dren, to her daugh­ter Julie’s involve­ment with African Amer­i­cans, to Sam’s eccen­tric­i­ties and his lat­er pas­sion for poet­ry, and to her friend­ship with Stu­art Foster? 

5. While Miri­am is any­thing but a reli­gious Jew, how does her Jew­ish­ness inform her under­stand­ing of the world? Why do you think she is made so uncom­fort­able by the pres­ence in her neigh­bor­hood of Holo­caust sur­vivor Sigrid Rosenberg? 

6. Why is inti­ma­cy, phys­i­cal as well as emo­tion­al, so dif­fi­cult for Miri­am? What in her make­up or in her cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal back­ground hin­ders her from con­nect­ing with her chil­dren and her hus­band? Does she ever real­ize what it is about her­self that estranges her from others? 

7. In their last con­ver­sa­tion, Stu­art Fos­ter tells Miri­am that she’s been liv­ing in a dream world. In what ways is this state­ment true? In what ways do Miriam’s dreams, hopes, and expec­ta­tions cut her off from those she loves? 

8. Faced with a dis­tress­ing­ly dys­func­tion­al home life, Sam retreats into a world of his own cre­ation, using bit­ing humor rather than overt rage as a cop­ing mech­a­nism. Dis­cuss the very nar­row lines that sep­a­rate com­e­dy from tragedy and humor from anger. Giv­en his upbring­ing, do you envi­sion a hap­py adult life for Sam? Why or why not?

9. Miri­am los­es her daugh­ter Julie to the cul­ture wars of the 1960s and her son Ethan to can­cer. She cares for her moth­er, Tula, when she falls ill; she cares for Curly dur­ing his long phys­i­cal and men­tal decline. In what ways do these cat­a­stroph­ic loss­es change her? In what way do they human­ize her? 

10. At the end of the nov­el, there is a moment of redemp­tion for Miri­am, a moment of seem­ing unchar­ac­ter­is­tic human­i­ty and love. The moment involves the char­ac­ter Cather­ine Olsen — what is it about this woman that draws Miri­am to her? How does Cather­ine help Miri­am over­come her inhi­bi­tions, her squea­mish­ness about the human body? 

11. Do you feel that Miri­am was a good” per­son? Which of her traits and char­ac­ter­is­tics do you relate to, and which do you find most unattractive? 

12. The lack of emo­tion­al inter­ac­tion between mem­bers of Miriam’s fam­i­ly is a con­stant theme in the nov­el and leads to fre­quent con­flict, yet in the telling, the sto­ry is full of humor. Do you find this kind of black com­e­dy” an effec­tive way to con­vey the real­i­ty of human emo­tions, or do you think the sto­ry would have been more effec­tive if played straight”?