Book review: The shows that didn't go on

The strange deaths of performers onstage

THE SHOW WON’T GO ON By Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns Chicago Review Press 240 pages; $16.99 (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE SHOW WON’T GO ON By Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns Chicago Review Press 240 pages; $16.99
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 The Show Won’t Go On is one of those books, which I strongly suspect, scores of professional non-fiction entertainment writers wish they had first captured the idea for and written.

It a marvelous accumulation of stories covering a tragic phenomenon: the passing out of existence onstage.

Authors Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham, however, pose a series of sticky counterintuitive question in their prologue: “To die onstage – is it a curse? Could it be a gift? Is there any consolation in knowing that these performers died doing what they loved? And was it really the way they’d have wanted to go? Some answers, and much more, will be found in the pages to follow.”

It is left appropriately to the reader to interrogate the stories contained in their book as to whether there can be meaning associated with a death onstage. In the witty anecdotes and stories, which the authors have rigorously verified, they crisscross such fields as pop music, theater, comedy, magicians and escape artists, rock & roll, hip-hop, country, Gospel music, opera and dance.

The subtitle of the book, The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage, lives up to its to promise.
There is a caveat. The authors note, “We didn’t include athletes, fighters, toreadors, race car drivers, or others who enter the field, arena, or ring, accepting that death is always a potential outcome.”

Perhaps the most famous sports event where the show continued to go on was the Palestinian Black September attack by terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes and German policeman at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The antisemitic International Olympic Committee chairman, Avery Brundage, demanded that the games continue. (Brundage did not object to Nazi salutes at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.)

Back to the ostensibly non-lethal fields of the artistic world.

The failure of a performer’s body to survive a concert or other artistic endeavors cited by the authors has a kind of inside private language for actors. For example, “corpsing” is the term coined by British thespians to describe the sort of death by acting that has struck many actors.

For Israeli readers, the book documents the deaths of two stunningly brilliant Israeli musicians. The Romanian-born pianist Mindru Katz, who made aliyah in 1959, died onstage in Istanbul, Turkey, while performing Tempest, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, wrote the authors.
THE WRITERS delve into the premature death of the Israeli conductor Israel Yinon, who collapsed onstage during a youth concert in Switzerland five years ago.

“The death of internationally renowned orchestra conductor Israel Yinon in January 2015 sent shock waves through the music world. It was seen by many as inexplicable. How could such an energetic, seemingly healthy maestro die suddenly at the relatively young age of 59 – in the middle of a performance? Yinon, who happened to be an Israeli but who lived in Berlin, was known for his intensity and youthfulness,” the authors wrote.

“Yinon made it his specialty and mission to revive works of forgotten German composers who were banned under Adolf Hitler. Thanks to Yinon, modern audiences got to hear compositions by composers like Erwin Schulhoff, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, and Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann, who went to the Auschwitz gas chambers,” noted Kearns and Abraham.

A lover of the great American-Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein died onstage in Milan, Italy. Dimitri Mitropoulos, the Greek conductor who preceded Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, passed away on November 2, 1960. Mitropoulos was just 64 when a heart attack hit him during a rehearsal of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony. The authors wrote, “Norman Lebrecht writes that the second bassoonist drew a cross in his score at the eighty-sixth bar and noted, ‘Maestro Mitropoulos made it to here and died.”’

The shockingly bizarre also appears in many of the stories listed in the book. Take the example of the Russian-Jewish classical pianist Mikhail Klein.

Klein “performed with the Irkutsk Philharmonic Orchestra on October 3, 2017, in Irkutsk, Siberia, where he’d lived for the past 45 years. He was playing his jazz composition ‘This Is All Russia’ when he slipped from the bench and wound up in a heap at the foot of the grand piano. He was 72.”

The book’s section on escape artists and magicians is packed full of some of the oddest deaths in the midst of performing. One artist sought to perform a variation of the Hungarian-born Jewish escape artist Harry Houdin’s “milk can trick.” Houdini’s real name was Erik Weisz.

Royden Joseph Gilbert Genesta attempted the Houdini-style act “to escape from a water-filled barrel at a vaudeville theater in Frankfort, Kentucky, on November 9, 1930. On this day, the secret lid that he’d usually slide off was bent. He drowned at 52.”
While the show, sadly, failed to go on for the performers in the book, the internal dynamics of The Show Must Go On still carry the
day.
 
THE SHOW WON’T GO ON
By Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns
Chicago Review Press
240 pages; $16.99