These theater books were mostly published in 2015 (or reissued in paperback) — and are good reads for 2016. I reviewed some of them or interviewed the authors. But a few are on my own 2016 reading list.
They are listed more or less alphabetically within each category.
Click on the book cover or the link to purchase any of these books or learn more about them.
History, Biography, Criticism, Essay
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by playwright Sarah Ruhl, which recently came out in paperback, is the ideal book to begin to fulfill any New Year’s resolutions about theater reading, because it’s short. The title is longer than some of the 100 essays. (The complete text of essay 11, which is entitled “An essay in praise of smallness” is the following: “I admire minimalism.”) It’s also full of pithy observations, some of which can be made into well-regarded Tweets. (This is not meant as snarky put-down. I Tweet every day.) Three of many examples:
“Regard with suspicion any idea that seems cool.”
What theater making shares with parenting:
Dealing with irrational people day and night
Both are embodied art forms
“The theater is one of the few places left in the bright and noisy world where we sit in the quiet dark together, to be awake.”
Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway is the first book by
Michael Riedel, theater columnist for the New York Post since 1998 whom theater people love to hate. But Riedel leaves his withering remarks to himself in this history of Broadway in the 1970s and 1980s. Focusing on the Shubert organization, he recounts how the Broadway industry, on the verge of collapse, was reborn, both helping (and helped by) the transformation of Times Square and the city as a whole.
What use a slender volume like Ethan Mordden’s On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide when so much has been written already about the composer and lyricist? This includes by Sondheim himself, who authored two hefty volumes that include the lyrics of his musicals, plus scholarly annotation and colorful anecdotes. Maybe that’s why: Mordden’s book is a total of just 198 pages — and that includes the index and a “Sondheim chronology,” as well as a “selective bibliography” and a “selective discography” (both written in essay form.) The book provides a quick overview, with a couple of short chapters on his life, Mordden’s take on his art overall, and his mentors and then a chapter each on 18 of his musicals, the longest chapter is just 11 pages (that’s the one on Company.) His approach is akin to that of a critic — analysis, description, background (a few digressions) — except that one should know that Mordden considers Sondhim “the author of musicals, period”.
Some 40 books have been written about playwright Tennessee Williams since his death in 1983. I haven’t read enough of them to offer an authoritative judgement, but it’s hard to imagine one better-written or more informative than Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
a biography by John Lahr, until recently the long-time chief drama critic of the New Yorker magazine. Merging biography and criticism, Lahr’s book, which came out in paperback in 2015, aims to help rescue the playwright’s reputation. “Many still accept the conventional wisdom that Williams’ creativity dried up with his last Broadway hit, The Night of the Iguana, in 1961, two decades before his death. Once a narrative has been established, it’s just repeated; people are lazy.” Not Lahr, who spent 12 years writing this book. Read this before the movie comes out. (It’s been optioned.)
In The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today
Bryan Doerries chronicles his work with his company Outside The Wire presenting plays, primarily those by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, to help specific audiences grapple with trauma, much of it related to violence— —soldiers, prison guards, survivors of domestic violence, and of torture. We learn a lot about Greek tragedy, and it’s fascinating. For example, the plays were geared towards soldiers. “The violence in Greek tragedies is about helping the community come to terms with the violence they’ve experienced, and the violence they’ve perpetuated.” Interspersed with personal anecdotes, the slim book is well-written, so that its scholarship goes down easy.
In The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 “Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro shows how the tumultuous events in England in 1606 affected Shakespeare and shaped the three great tragedies he wrote that year—King Lear,Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.”
I read the script of nearly every show I see — any I can get my hands on — a practice I recommend, which is why I am including here a couple of published scripts from my favorite shows in 2015.
This is not the actual script of Fun Home, but Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, upon which the musical is based, is a terrific book.
American Musicals: The Complete Books and Lyrics of 16 Broadway Classics, 1927-1969 (Library of America) is two compact volumes containing the texts (without musical notation) of such tuneful and beloved shows as South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof, as well as a previously unpublished musical revue by Irving Berlin and Moss Hart, As Thousands Cheer. Editor Laurence Maslon, a professor of arts at NYU, offers useful background information about each show in the back of the volumes, but the beauty of the collection is its effort to have us see these oft-performed musicals as American literature. (Each volume can be bought separately)
The Collected Plays of Arthur Miller (Library of America) is a three-volume set of Arthur Miller’s plays — 42 in all — the last volume of which was published in 2015.
For those not willing to splurge, the best bet is Volume 1 — Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944-1961 (Library of America) –which includes Miller’s most familiar plays, such as Death of A Salesman, The Crucible (which will be revived on Broadway in February), and A View From the Bridge, as well as All My Sons, Miller’s first hit on Broadway and one of his most frequently produced dramas.
Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way
is a beautifully designed and clearly written coffee-table book by Broadway producer and theater owner Stewart F. Lane. It weaves in some general American theatre history into the story of blacks on Broadway, and includes a timeline of African-American history (only rarely connected to the theatre) running along the bottom of many of the book’s oversized pages.
There are straightforward descriptions of the most significant events in black theatre history, not all directly connected to Broadway, starting with the first black-owned theatre in New York City, African Grove Theatre, which launched in 1821 with a performance of Richard III. There are one-page profiles of theatrical pioneers, with the most interesting ones being the least known, such as William Henry Lane, “the father of tap dance,” and Garland Anderson, the first African-American playwright to be produced on Broadway, in 1925, with a play entitled Appearances, about a black bellhop accused of raping a white woman.
The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age
is a beautiful book that offers decade after decade of the movie and theater illustrations by Al Hirschfeld, who lived to 99 and whose name is up in lights on Broadway (a Broadway theater is named after him.)
I would be remiss to leave out Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author and star of the musical Hamilton, even though the book won’t even be published until April, 2016 (available for pre-order), and I know nothing but what Miranda has said about it: “Our goal here is to take you INSIDE Hamilton: not just the timeline of its creation, but the thought process, historical considerations, and artistic decisions that went into my lyrics, from beginning to end. I want you to know everything about it.”
The success of Hamilton on Broadway has turned a political biography into a theater book — the book that inspired Miranda to write the musical, and upon which the show is largely based.– Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which is a terrific read in and of itself.
but original cast albums are for a future post.
New York Theater is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. But all these books are also available from your local library and independent bookstore. One I love — the Drama Book Shop, especially good for scripts.