The dozen most enlightening and entertaining non-fiction books about the American theater that have been published since 2013 have been works of history, criticism, biography and memoir.
They are arranged chronologically by publication date.
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History by Glen Burger. (Simon and Schuster, 2013, 384 pages.) An instructive history of the Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” which broke innumerable records both good and bad (the highest attendance in a single week, the longest preview period, the biggest money loser, etc.), by a writer who with Julie Taymor and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is credited as the author of the musical. “Before something can be brilliant, it first has to competent” is at the top of his list of lessons learned.
Tennessee Williams Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, 764 pages.) 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 this one, written by the former chief theater critic of the New Yorker.
The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Alfred A Knopf, 2015, 304 pages) Bryan Doerries chronicles his work with his company (now called Theater of War Productions) presenting plays, primarily those by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, to help specific audiences throughout the U.S. grapple with trauma, much of it related to violence—soldiers, prison guards, survivors of domestic violence, and of torture. The scholarship goes down easy.
Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway (Simon and Schuster, 2015, 464 pages) is the first book by
Michael Riedel, theater columnist for the New York Post from 1998 to 2018 whom theater people loved 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. But to tell the story, the book ranges nearly the breadth of the 20th century.
The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel. (Farrar, Straus and Girous, 2016, 312 pages.) The wonderfully readable 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?”
“Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever” (Simon and Schuster, 2018, 277 pages) by Peter Rader. Sarah Bernhardt remains the most famous stage actress of all time. But during her lifetime she had a rival, Eleanora Duse. The two didn’t just compete; they represented opposing views of what acting, and the theater, should be. (This is not strictly speaking a book about American theater, although both actresses triumphantly toured the U.S. and were adored here.)
Broadway and the Blacklist by K. Kevyne Baar (McFarland & Company Inc., 2019, 217 pages), an eye-opening compact history of the theater community and its members (including Arthur Miller and Joseph Papp) as right-wing target for decades. The title is a bit misleading, since the author tries to prove there was no Broadway blacklist; that, on the contrary, theater served as a refuge for those entertainers (such as Zero Mostel) who had been blacklisted by the movie, radio and television industries.
Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future James Shapiro (Penguin, 2020, 286 pages) 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 looks at eight controversial events involving Shakespeare, which he calls “defining moments in American history.” Each chapter focuses on a specific year, a specific play by Shakespeare, and specific issues of the day, which largely remain American issues today — long-standing tensions involving race, class, gender, immigration and other fault-lines in American culture.
This Is Not My Memoir by Andre Gregory with Todd London (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, 210 pages.) The Dada title fits. There are plenty of moments in his account of his childhood and his life as an avant-garde director and occasional actor where the reader may be tempted to stop and ask: Is he putting us on? But the book is more than just a collection of remarkable stories. It also chronicles Gregory’s theatrical career in such a way that we get a clearer than usual description of some landmark experimental theater, and not just his own.
Mike Nichols: A Life (Penguin Press. 2021, 688 pages.) Much of the book by Mark Harris is taken up with a chronological accounting of each of the 21 films Nichols directed and the 29 Broadway (and handful of Off-Broadway) shows with which he was involved.
“Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created ‘Sunday in the Park with George’” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 416 pages) is an eccentric, valuable and entertaining book, which author James Lapine describes early on as “a mixed salad: one part memoir, one part oral history, one part how a musical gets written and produced.’” It also includes the full script of Lapine and Sondheim’s 1984 Broadway musical,
Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, 480 pages) written with New York Times chief theater critic Jesse Green, based on several years’ worth of twice-weekly interviews, and now published eight years after her death at the age of 83.
There are other great books about the theater published in the last decade, especially lately (and surely more to come this year.) But I tried to spread the wealth over the last ten years, and I picked those I personally cherished. The titles are linked to the page on Amazon where you can learn more about the book, and purchase a copy. Your purchase through some of the links above may generate a small commission, which helps support my work.