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“Why weren’t they grateful?” Robert Moses The Power Broker

Published: January 12, 2011

A musical about Robert Moses?

How do you break into song about a guy who built and bulldozed much of the New York metropolitan area? And why would anyone want to see a production today about a public figure who reigned some 40 years ago?

Well, who better to consider these questions than Robert A. Caro, who wrote the definitive doorstop of a Moses biography that won the Pulitzer and continues to be required reading for anyone who wants to understand how power works in cities. . . .

Bridges rise;
Roads blast through;
Parks blossom:
Triborough, Whitestone, Throgs Neck, Verrazano;
Northern State, Southern State, Saw Mill, Henry Hudson;
Jones Beach, Riverside Park.

To be sure, the musical is considerably less comprehensive than Mr. Caro’s 1,286-page 1974 book, “The Power Broker,” which follows Moses’ career as city parks commissioner and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. “Robert Moses Astride New York” moves through major chapters of history in just a few stanzas, and the piece to be performed Saturday is only a sampling of what the composer, Gary Fagin, ultimately hopes will become a full-fledged production featuring additional characters like the neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs and Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. . . .

But Mr. Caro said he enjoyed himself nonetheless. The piece took him back into the book, with its references to pivotal Moses battles like that over Central Park (Moses wanted to expand Tavern on the Green’s parking lot; parents wanted to save their playground; they won) or Moses’ bitterness at having Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller accept his resignation.

Mr. Caro said he was particularly pleased by the musical’s last section, which recalls Moses’ dedication of a bench in Flushing Meadows, one of the parks he’d built. It is the poignant scene that concludes “The Power Broker,” in which Moses wonders why he wasn’t sufficiently appreciated.

Someday, let us sit on this bench
And reflect on the gratitude of man.
And when someone asks,
“Who built this road, this bridge, this park?”
Say: A giant, a genius.
He built it all.
He built New York.

Mr. Caro said the bench dedication inspired the last line of the book — “Why weren’t they grateful?” — and enabled him to organize an otherwise overwhelming seven years of research and to start writing.

“In all the stuff that’s ever been written about ‘The Power Broker’ no one has ever written about the bench,” Mr. Caro told Mr. Fagin after the rehearsal. “The bench was the great moment as a writer, an epiphany: I can do this. I have the last sentence.” . . .

See the entire New York Times article here.