Slam plot dumbos

Russell Baker

August 28, 1991|By Russell Baker

I WAS ONCE involved in a Broadway musical that never got to Broadway on account of folding in Toronto. It was a humbling experience. A lot of talented, hard-working dancers and singers who had been anticipating their big break were suddenly thrown out of work through some fault of my own. A large sum of money may or may not have been lost. Since theater bookkeeping is one of the most creative arts, it was hard to tell.

Most humbling of all, though, was the discovery that I was the only person in the United States and Canada who didn't know how to write a successful Broadway musical. The newspaper reviewers were amazed at my ignorance, and had a delightful time telling the world about it.

Members of the cast knew how to write a musical and the bolder ones didn't hesitate to tell me. Neither did their husbands, wives, children and parents. There was a man whose job apparently was to sweep the stage before and after each rehearsal, and he knew how to write a musical.

So did the ushers, as I learned from eavesdropping in the back of the theater. So did the Yugoslav waiters at the nearby restaurant where a sense of impending doomsday led me into an evil martini habit. It is humiliating, ladies and gentlemen, for the failed author of a Broadway musical to discover that the Serbian immigrant shlepping his plate of baby back ribs knows how to write a musical right.

I tell you this to explain why I feel a twinge of sympathy for the communists whose coup folded in Moscow after only 60 hours. Folding after 60 hours is truly pathetic; by comparison, our five weeks in Toronto was a triumph. I keep thinking, though, how astounded the plotters must be to discover they may be the only people in the world who didn't know how to overthrow a government.

For days newspapers and television in America have had coup reviewers laughing and sneering at the plotters' incompetence, their comical ignorance of the most basic rules for overthrowing governments.

I have been amazed myself at the vast amount of coup know-how available right here in the United States. Even admitting that the IRS is an annoyance, you wouldn't think there'd be so many Americans so well briefed on how to overthrow a government, would you?

Yet there was humane Mary McGrory, the most big-hearted of all newspaper columnists, noting that the plotters were too dim to know that if you strike at a king you must kill him. She was not alone. American commentators were nearly unanimous in giving the plotters the raspberry for not knowing that blood must flow if a coup is to succeed.

Several spoke with admiration of Stalin's willingness to murder copiously, which is essential apparently if you seek to become a great coup meister. In the same spirit, during my Toronto suffering many theater people told me hair-raising tales of the ruthlessness to which the famous play doctor Abe Burrows had resorted when treating ailing musicals.

After studying American press reviews of the failed coup, I wouldn't want to be in President Bush's shoes if the American media ever try to take over the government.

The humiliating reviews of the plotters' errors didn't all originate with the press, of course. Such stuff rarely does. Unlike theater reviewers, coup reviewers commonly consult government oracles, known in press jargon as "sources." So it's pretty safe -- or maybe blood-chilling -- to suppose that a lot of the coup reviews really reflect the aesthetics of official government insiders.

Some, of course, may be less official. One of the TV networks sought the expertise of the best-selling author and former insurance man Tom Clancy, whose one-line review dismissed the plotters as a bunch of small-timers who had produced a bush-league coup such as you might expect in Paraguay.

If any network or newspaper had the presence of mind to get a review by Sean Connery, speaking on behalf of 007, I missed it. There was no shortage, though, of Pentagon-wise reviewers eager to roll in the aisles with laughter at the plotters' failure to arrange brilliantly coordinated military strikes at every conceivable point of resistance.

In the end one of the plotters shot himself to death. He must have read all the reviews. In Toronto, after the first dozen, I refused to read another one.

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