By Norman Matthews
Musical Theatre types love to gossip, right? They are camp and fun and rarely shun the limelight? I tussled with obvious generalisations in reviewing this autobiography from Broadway dancer, Norman Mathews. Are they fair? Accurate? Honestly, I fought them. I tried countless other opening paragraphs. All to no avail. Why? Because Mathews undeniably comes across as a camp, fun lover of gossip who, despite protestations, seems to rarely shun the limelight. This is far from a criticism. It’s what makes the book such an entertaining read.
The Wrong Side of the Room, A Life in Music Theatre covers all aspects of Mathews’ life in illuminating, if slightly exhausting, detail. Your reviewer is a sucker for New York history so I particularly enjoyed reading of Sicilian grandparents who emigrated there in 1907. As you’d expect, we then get parents and, ultimately, baby Norman. All at breakneck speed. No musical theatre or celebrity gossip yet, but there is enough quality in the writing to keep readers entertained. As the first chapter closes, we feel we know, and like, the nervous young boy that a concerned mother sends off to dance lessons.
School, sexual awakening and conflict with the dominant Catholic Church all follow. We also learn about family holidays, disappointing trips to Broadway and discovering, if not quite approving of, rock & roll. Mathews shares eye-opening experiences of teenage psychiatric intervention too. Homosexuality was ‘treated’ with some hair-brained schemes in the 1950s. A bout of boxing with your father, anyone? No, really.
Mathews’ writing never loses its charm but, like an elderly relative with a drink or two inside them, it perhaps becomes too heavily reliant on family anecdotes. Things definitely change in tone at the book’s mid-point, however, due to an unflinching account of a suicide attempt worth signposting in this era of trigger warnings. As you expect, this has a major impact on the narrative too. After a turbulent time finding himself as a young gay man, Mathews eventually becomes an editorial assistant for Dance Magazine and, finally, a professional dancer.
The promised life in music theatre now arrives fully, and rather wonderfully, formed. Readers will recognise The King and I, Showboat, West Side Story and countless other shows Mathews joins as a jobbing dancer. He tells of ballet companies too, being rejected at a Bob Fosse audition, as many dancers surely were, and bumping into stars such as Joan Fontaine and Tallulah Bankhead. All the while, he brings alive a vivid supporting cast of other dancers, singers, actors, directors, producers, boyfriends and roommates. This second half of the book certainly has more to offer musical theatre fans – surely the author’s intended audience – than the more personal first.
In his final few lines, Mathews analyses himself, mercifully with more sophistication than the psychiatrist he met early in life. He asks if his “carpet, this tapestry of a life, reveals a hodgepodge of insignificant events or a coherent, focused, satisfying work of art?” I would argue that, very satisfyingly, it does a bit of both.
Written by: Norman Mathews
Published by: Eburn Press
The Wrong Side of The Room: A Life in Music Theatre is available in paperback and e-book now, from all good booksellers.