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Theater books of 2016 to read in 2017

Below is a list of theater books published in 2016 (or reissued in paperback this year, or just books I couldn’t resist listing.) I reviewed some of these books or interviewed the authors.  But a few are on my own 2017 reading list.

Click on the titles to find more information and to purchase these books, grouped under four categories: 1. Scripts, 2. Coffee Table Books. 3. History, Biography, Criticism. 4. For Fans.

SCRIPTS

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2

The play, in which Harry is now a 37-year-old man with children of his own,  is a hit in London that producers hope to have on Broadway in 2018. The script sold over 2 million copies in just two days in North America alone, and is the best-selling book — of any genre — in 2016. When’s the last time the script of a play sold so well? The cover of the book fudges the play’s authorship. It is “a new play by Jack Thorne” but it is “based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne,” with Rowling’s name in the biggest font. (John Tiffany is the director.)

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Sweat

The play by Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Ruined,” is transferring to Broadway in the Spring, marking Nottage’s Broadway debut. As I wrote in my review of it at the Public, I compared the play to Grapes of Wrath, in that it offers devastating look at social and economic breakdown, told not with rants or statistics, but through a riveting tale about good people in a bad situation. The characters in Sweat hang out in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, which 2010 U.S. Census data identified as the poorest city in America. The script will not be officially published until April, 2017, so I suppose it doesn’t technically belong on this list, but it’s a great read.

Dominique Morisseau

The Detroit Project: Three Plays

Similarly, this collection won’t be published until May. (Don’t be mad; it’s worth the wait.) Dominique Morisseau’s “sweeping examination of the sociopolitical history of Detroit: Detroit ’67, which takes place during the race riots of 1967, Paradise Blue, set in a small jazz club in Detroit’s Blackbottom neighborhood, and Skeleton Crew, which explores an auto plant on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse.”

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The Humans

In Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning play, ending on Broadway in January, everybody is afraid of something. When the Blake family of Scranton, Pennsylvania gathers together for Thanksgiving in the Manhattan apartment into which youngest daughter Brigid  and her boyfriend Richard have just moved, the holiday is punctuated with a variety of bumps and literal thumps, and an expression of middle class anxiety that could be judged now as prescient: “Dontcha think,” the father asks, “it should cost less to be alive?”

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Hir

Taylor Mac’s absurd, antic, dark, affecting, and very funny family drama is full of subversive bon mots worth savoring in print. The mother of a transgender child uses colorful magnets on the refrigerator to explain “there are no longer two genders. No longer simply a Y and X chromosome but an alphabet of genders. They call it the LGBTTSQQIAA community” – which she pronounces: Lugabuttsqueehah

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Wishful Drinking

Published in 2008, “Wishful Drinking,” a memoir that’s an adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, is worth reading, or re-reading, and not just because of the shocking loss of such an extraordinary wit.

I recommended these two collections of scripts last year, so they too technically don’t belong on this list, but they are worth having and holding from this time forward.

AmericanMusicalsLOA

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)

Arthur Miller's complete plays

Arthur Miller’s complete plays

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 was revived on Broadway in 2016), 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.

COFFEE TABLE BOOKS

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Hamilton: The Revolution

From my review for American Theatre Magazine: “Hamilton The Revolution…includes the complete libretto, annotated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, alternating with chapters by former critic and Public Theater staff member Jeremy McCarter chronicling the six years it took to make the musical about the “10-dollar Founding Father without a father…It should thrill serious students of musical theatre, whether or not they are matriculated. This is not to say that it is anything close to a scholarly tome; there is not even an index. It’s a book for fans. There are page after page of full-color photographs from the production (many of which form the backdrop for the complete lyrics). As part of the narrative, McCarter profiles members of the cast, the creative team, and others connected to the show, occasionally dipping into the gushing tone of fanzine features. Still, if Hamilton: The Revolution is a souvenir book, it’s one that—like the musical and its creators—is unusually ambitious….”

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The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway

This is another ambitious souvenir book that is a collaboration with the creative team of the musical. It combines the complete libretto by Dave Malloy, with the behind-the-scenes journey, written by Seven Suskin, an author of more than a dozen books on music and theater. In addition, the book includes a CD with three songs from the Off-Broadway production and two recordings for the Broadway production featuring Josh Groban with a 25-piece orchestra.

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On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution

From my review: “It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe On Broadway as somewhere between a vanity publication and an elaborate business card. It offers a look at the advertising campaigns of 90 productions over the 20-year history of advertising firm SpotCo. But it is so well designed that it’s a fun coffee table book, and the short accompanying texts are by a clever selection of Who’s Who in Broadway—and beyond. David Sedaris writes the foreword because, before he became a famous writer, he cleaned offices, including SpotCo’s.”

HISTORY, BIOGRAPHY, CRITICISM

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The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built

This wonderfully readable book by Viertel, an executive at Jujamcyn Theaters (owners of five Broadway houses) and the artistic director of New York City Center Encores! series, offers lessons in the craft derived from a course he developed at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The book focuses on the structure of successful musicals, going chronologically step by step from the overture to the finale. But underneath the rulebook, he is arguing persuasively for the importance of the American musical:“If Shakespeare is England’s national theatre, aren’t Broadway musicals ours?” A final chapter lists his recommendations for the best recordings of the 37 musicals he has analyzed, and for 20 more musicals “that can’t be ignored even though they are not quoted in the book.”

RazzleDazzleByRiedel

Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway

One of my selections last year too, it’s now newly in paperback, but this is just an excuse to recommend it again. Michael Riedel, theater columnist for the New York Post since 1998, focuses on the Shubert organization and how they helped bring back the Broadway industry, on the verge of collapse in the 1970s, but Riedel’s history ranges nearly the breadth of the 20th century.

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By Women Possessed: A Life of Eugene O’Neill

When Arthur Gelb and his wife Barbara Gelb wrote their 964-page biography O’Neill in 1962, little was known of the playwright’s personal life. That’s hard to believe given the attention since, including from the Gelbs themselves. Their latest 886-page tome (which they had more or less finished when Arthur Gelb died in 2014), focuses on O’Neill’s later years, and makes extensive use of the diaries of his third wife, Carlotta Monterey. It explores his stormy relationships with his three wives and his mother, who inspired the character of Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Some critics might think By Women Possessed could be shorter, but then again, the Gelbs include O’Neill’s reaction to dismissive critics: “I love every bone in their heads.”

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New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway

Hooked to an exhibition in 2016 at the Museum of the City of New York, and published by Columbia University Press,  this nicely illustrated history book edited by Prof. Edna Nahshon of the Jewish Theological Seminary is what a Times reviewer called  “a scholarly scrapbook” of photographs and essays arguing that the vibrant Yiddish theater of the early 20th century  “served as the meeting place and forum of the Jewish community in America,” grappling with important issues — immigration,  women’s rights, labor relations — and had great influence on the American stage, and American culture. If there had been no Yiddish theater, would we ever have heard of Eddie Cantor, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Stella Adler, Joan Rivers?

Forgive me for excerpting one morsel: “English-language critics may have poked good-natured fun at the informalities of the immigrant audience, many of whom had not been to the theater before arriving in America, and whose folksy conduct…included munching on food, popping soda bottles, talking among themselves, and treating the theatrical gathering as an occasion for socializing. But uptown visitors also recognized the seriousness and rapt attention the immigrant audience accorded the stage…”

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Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep

This book by New Yorker writer Michael Schulman follows Streep from the beginning of her career as a performer — when she sang at a school concert in New Jersey at the age of 12 (“It was the first time she felt the intoxication of applause”) —  to her first Oscar win for the 1979 film Kramer vs Kramer. It’s too gushy for my taste (and apparently for Streep’s, who didn’t agree to be interviewed for it.) But few other biographies about an actress nominated for a record-breaking 19 Academy Awards are as likely to focus as much on her theater career, including her time spent at the Yale School of Drama.

FOR FANS

This category is a polite way of grouping together books — memoirs, personal essays and books of anecdotes — that you might want to check out (at least check out of the library) if you’re a die-hard fan of the author, or the genre.

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Master of Ceremonies: A Memoir

Joel Grey, he tells us in “Master of Ceremonies,” is “one of only eight people to win both the Tony and the Academy Award for the same role” – in his case the Emcee in “Cabaret.” It’s the role that made him famous, and it is also the only role for which many people know him.

But Grey has more than one story to tell. He is a performer who got his first professional gig, in a straight play at the Cleveland Play House, at age 9, and is still at it as he approaches his 84th birthday, a 75-year career that has included work as a nightclub comic, TV guest star, Broadway song-and-dance man, Hollywood supporting player, and a serious actor. He is also a man who was married for more than two decades, and a father of two (including actress Jennifer Grey), who came out in People Magazine as a gay man just last year. His career and his struggles with his sexuality are the two major threads of his memoir.

My full review of Master of Ceremonies

Cover_Barbara Cook

Then and Now: A Memoir

Barbara Cook, who is now 88 years old – the exact number of keys on a piano – has three distinct stories to tell in her new memoir.

The first is about a poor, unschooled and seriously naive Southern belle from Atlanta with a sad and weird childhood who escaped to New York at 20 and soon became the reigning soprano ingénue on Broadway, originating roles in several celebrated musicals, including The Music Man.

The second describes her descent into alcoholism, depression and over-eating, which, she writes, made her unemployable for years.

The third rejoices in her overcoming her alcoholism (she’s been sober 40 years) and coming back as a sophisticated cabaret, concert and recording artist, a premier interpreter of the Great American Songbook plus Stephen Sondheim

( my full review of Barbara Cook Then and Now)

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Rules for Others to Live By: Comments and Self-Contradictions

This collection of short essays  is by the author of some two dozen plays, including my favorites, the Tony-winning “Take Me Out” and “The Assembled Parties,” as well as “Three Days of Rain,” most notable for who starred in it on Broadway (Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper and Paul Rudd.) In his new book, Richard Greenberg writes from the perspective of a self-declared “Urban Recluse” on life in New York City; about his friends, some of them famous (such as in a section entitled “Several Dead Women of Whom I Was Fond”), but he uses pseudonyms or just first names; and on nothing at all. His shortest essay is a single sentence under the title Cute Idea:
“You know what would be a cool thing to do?” my murderous friend says: “Kill yourself, and in the note, blame it on someone who wronged you in a totally trivial way.”
There’s just a smidgeon of theatrical references, such as his synopsis of The King and I:
A young and very hot king dies because a widowed British schoolmarm, whose main contribution to court life has been to instruct the palace chef that at state dinners he should serve bloody roast beef and a pie that tastes like urine instead of all that horrible Thai food, has said she doesn’t like him anymore.
That’s in his longest essay, entitled On Liking Racist Things.
“Rules for Others to Live By” seems inspired by a similar recent collection by fellow playwright Sarah Ruhl, the delightful  “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, which I recommended last year, but Greenberg’s collection is neither as pithy nor as good. Indeed it is excessively uneven, the essays falling into one of two categories, witty in a subversive but satisfying way; or glib, smug, self-satisfied, pointless and/or irritating – reminding you that Greenberg was also the playwright of Breakfast At Tiffany’s and  Our Mother’s Brief Affair.

 

Ken Bloom’s Show and Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes and Jennifer Tepper’s The Untold Stories of Broadway Volume 1Volume 2 and Volume 3 (with more volumes promised) are collections of Broadway anecdotes, the latest in a long line of such books. I’ll admit these are not my favorite kind of theater book; they’re not useable as reference works (neither reliable nor easily searched), and their randomness makes them less than an unmitigated pleasure to read through.  I’m fine if you disagree; that’s why I include them here.
Tepper’s anecdotes are told in the first person by a variety of theater people (and read like unedited transcripts.) The anecdotes are organized based on the theater in which they occurred. Each theater gets a chapter. Volume 2 has eight theaters, eight chapters. These volumes have no index.
Bloom’s anecdotes are put in chapters focused on specific subject matter, such as “Writing the Show,” “Critics,” “Stunts.” At least “Show & Tell” has an index. The anecdotes are succinct, but also suspect, as Bloom admits, with some charm, in the second sentence of the book: “I can definitively state that all these anecdotes are true, inadvertent lies, or apocryphal.”

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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