Below is a list of theater books to read in 2021, most of which were published in 2020.‡ Click on the titles to find more information and to purchase these books, grouped under five categories: 1. Scripts, 2. Memoir and Biography. 3. History, Criticism and Reference. 4. For Fiction Lovers. 5. For Broadway Show Fans.
I put an asterisk next to a handful of books published in 2020 that I read, reviewed and recommend. (Those books on this list that are without an * are either scripts, all of which I’ve read and more or less all of which I recommend reading, or books that I’m eager to get to in 2021.) If you read just one book on this list, let me suggest it be “Shakespeare in a Divided America.” (see History below.)
I put this reading list together at the end of every year, and usually include the scripts of plays and musicals scheduled to open on Broadway in the new year. The following list includes scripts of shows that were supposed to open in 2020, but did not; it’s unclear right now if and when they will be rescheduled for 2021, and what other shows may be produced.
American Buffalo by David Mamet
Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth
How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
The Lehman Trilogy the novel by Stefano Massini
Plaza Suite; a Comedy in Three Acts by Neil Simon
Newly published and notable
Half of these won’t be published until 2021, but I have reviewed productions of them, and read the unpublished scripts.
Lucy Prebble Plays 1: The Sugar Syndrome; Enron; The Effect; A Very Expensive Poison (My reviews of Enron on Broadway and The Effect Off-Broadway.)
Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris (my review of the Broadway production.) Harris has created The Golden Collection, 15 plays/play anthologies by Black American playwrights (including himself) that are worth checking out.
The Thanksgiving Play / What Would Crazy Horse Do? by Larissa Fasthorse. (My review of the Off-Broadway production of The Thanksgiving Play.) (March 16, 2021)
2. Memoir and Biography
*The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad by Mike Birbiglia. This one straddles the line between memoir and script, since it’s the comedian’s personal reminiscences, but he shaped it into a solo stage show. (My review of The New One on stage.)
Mike Nichols: A Life For this biography of the American film and theater director, producer, actor, and comedian Mark Harris interviewed 250 people including Elaine May, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Tom Hanks…you get the idea. (Feb 2, 2021)
Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race by Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom.
Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee
That’s Entertainment: A Biography of Broadway Composer Arthur Schwartz by Tighe E. Zimmers
3. History, Criticism and Reference books
History books often contain astute criticism, and vice-versa. Reference books are often history books put in alphabetical order. So there’s some overlap here
*Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future by James Shapiro. The Shakespearean scholar who is the author of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 and 1599:A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare employs some entertaining details America’s obsession with Shakespeare as a way into American history, in order to analyze long-standing tensions involving race, class, gender, immigration and other fault-lines in American culture. (my review)
Circle in the Square Theatre: A Comprehensive History
by Sheila Hickey Garvey
The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939: Engagement and Experimentation by Rania Karoula. This especially timely academic book is another one priced for libraries.
Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway by Michael Riedel, a look at Broadway in the 1990s, a follow-up of sorts to his Razzle Dazzle, which was largely about Broadway in the 1970s.
From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater by Carey Purcell
Another Day’s Begun:Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century by Howard Sherman.(Jan 28, 2021)
Blue Song: St. Louis in the Life and Work of Tennessee Williams by Henry I. Schvey. (June 4, 2021)
The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes by Gyles Brandreth
The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia by Rick Pender (Apr 15, 2021)
Gilbert and Sullivan: The Ultimate Collection (March 1, 2021.) Mike Lepine chronicles Gilbert and Sullivan’s greatest operas from inspiration to opening night, as well as their lives and times. Included in the book is a DVD with 11 complete Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
4. For Fiction Lovers
These two novels are what you might call theater adjacent. But they are on many book critics’ lists of the best books of 2020, period.
Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell’s novel uses the true story of the death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet at the age of 11 to imagine a tale of 1580’s England, during the Black Plague, when a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman.
Homeland Elegies: A Novel by Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of “Disgraced” tells an autobiographical story that is ”
part family drama, part social essay, part picaresque novel, at its heart the story of a father, a son, and the country they both call home.”
5. For Broadway Show Fans.
Jagged Little Pill is representative of a relatively new genre — a cross between a lushly illustrated souvenir coffee table book, the libretto, and a behind-the-scenes history. In this case, it includes a “chronicle” of the 1995 Alanis Morissette album, not just the musical from which it was fashioned.
American Utopia (my review), is surely the first time that a Broadway musical has made a companion book based on its theater curtain. This is largely a book of illustrations by Maira Kalman (who created the curtain), accompanied by a handful of lyrics.
Working on a Song: The Lyrics of HADESTOWN. Anais Mitchell traces her journey with the musical and annotates the lyrics.
On The Roof: A look inside Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish look inside Off-Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish by Samantha Hahn, the youngest member of the cast, who interviewed her colleagues and her bosses.
‡ A few books (mostly the Broadway scripts) were published in previous years. A number of others are scheduled for 2021; their publication dates are put in parentheses. Your purchase through some of the links above may generate a small commission, which helps support my work.