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Hillary Clinton Says Broadway Helped Her Recover

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In the months after her defeat by Donald Trump in the race for President, Hillary Clinton was so devastated, she writes in her new memoir, “What Happened,” that she had trouble finding relief. Good friends suggested Xanax and recommended their therapists.  Instead, she writes:

“I went to Broadway shows. There’s nothing like a play to make you forget your troubles for a few hours. In my experience, even a mediocre play can transport you. And show tunes are the best soundtrack for tough times. You think you’re sad? Let’s hear what Fantine from Les Misérables has to say about that! By far my favorite New York City performance was way off Broadway: Charlotte’s dance recital.” Charlotte is her two-year-old granddaughter.

Among the shows she attended (unmentioned in her memoir but receiving much press and social media  attention at the time): The Color Purple, The Humans, In Transit and Sunset Boulevard. I happened to attend that last musical on the same night in February as she did, and, as I’ve observed, I was struck by how much was packed into the thunderous greeting she received by her fellow theatergoers — admiration, defiance, a shared history, shared emotion, a shared loss.

Hillary at Sunset Boulevard

What Happened book cover

Buy “What Happened”



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Harold Prince’s Memoir: “Sense of Occasion”

 

Harold Prince’s new memoir, “Sense of Occasion” (Applause Books, $29.99) — a conversational chronicle and candid analysis of his many hits, seminal musicals and occasional flops — includes a last chapter on his new show, “Prince of Broadway,” which opened last night; the book and the musical  were clearly timed to coincide with one another.

They have much in common. Both promise a retrospective of a 70-year career in the theater that is one of the most successful in American history. Both aim for breadth over depth — Prince offers his take on 46 of his shows in the book! — although obviously a 300-page book can go into more detail than a two and a half hour stage show. But if his new Broadway revue tries to recreate the original look and sound of popular musical numbers from shows that Prince produced or directed, his new memoir replicates his past work more directly. The first two-thirds of “Sense of Occasion” – 200 of its 300 pages – is a reprint of his 1974 memoir, “Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre” with updates entitled “Reflections” after each of the first 26 chapters.

Photographs and captions from the 16 pages of photographs in the book. Click to see enlarged.

 

 

 

 

The set-up can make for some odd and messy reading. In the five pages of Chapter 2, for example, he writes about “The Pajama Game,” the first show he produced on Broadway, and also his first big hit. He doesn’t tell us he won a Tony Award for it, nor that it was the first of his 21 Tony Awards, more than twice as many as anybody else has received. But he does tell us that when the musical opened on May 13, 1954, it had advance ticket sales “of only $40,000, which means it could only survive one week.” Then, however, in the page and a half that follows Chapter 2, entitled “Reflections on Chapter 2 of Contradictions,” he informs us: “The advance of the Pajama Game was $15,000, not $40,000. That means the show could have run for a performance and a half.”
Not all the “Reflections” are “Corrections.” But it’s baffling why Prince (with the help of an editor if need be) couldn’t simply have reworked the original chapters. Is his old memoir sacred text, requiring exegesis rather than rewrites? Or was this simply the most efficient way for a busy or distracted man to get a product to market on time?
In the last 100 pages, “Sense of Occasion” takes up where Prince left off in “Contradictions,” going show by show from 1974 to the present. There is no obvious sloppiness in the new chapters. But here too there are signs (albeit  more subtle) that Prince might not have been intensely focused on the writing of this memoir. In the chapter on “Sweeney Todd,” he writes of a recent London production that “took place in a specially constructed pie shop.” This is not inaccurate, but the Tooting Arts Club production of “Sweeney Todd” began in an actual pie shop, the century-old Harrington’s, before it transferred to a “specially constructed” space, certainly worth mentioning.
In the chapter on “Merrily We Roll Along,” the first of a five year string of flops, Prince writes about the end of the celebrated partnership between him and composer Stephen Sondheim, which had produced a steady stream of landmark musicals, including Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd:
“As a result of Merrily, both Steve and I, after more than a decade of successful collaboration, thought it would be advisable to sever our partnership. Had Merrily been a hit, our partnership would have been sustained. But it flopped, and we both moved on….we remain best friends…”
That’s it. This is an explanation that explains little, reveals little.
One wonders whether Prince’s discretion is one of the lessons learned from his first mentor, the legendary theater director George Abbott, who hired Prince in 1948 when the younger man had just graduated from college at the precocious age of 20, first to assist Abbott on a venture into television that didn’t pan out, but then keeping Prince steadily employed and advancing his career. Prince admired Abbott for keeping the theatricality restricted to the stage — remaining calm and reserved during the many crises of putting together a show. This might not have been Prince’s natural approach, but it is something he aspired to from the get-go:
“I realize that my presence in the office was abrasive. I was smiley and enthusiastic and overenergized. So, recognizing that, one morning I wrote at the top of my desk calendar (for an entire year!): ‘WATCH IT!!!”

In a sense, Prince’s memoir also reflects the philosophy recently expressed by Stephen Sondheim in a different context – that directors should serve the text rather than themselves. If in “Sense of Occasion” Prince offers little in the way of personal revelation or even personal anecdote, it is full of shop talk – enough of it for a certain class of theater lover to dismiss any claims of literary infelicity as so much irrelevant quibbling.

Prince does drop in a few amusing tidbits, such as the time that a singer named Jay Harnick brought his mother to a backer’s audition for “The Pajama Game.” Prince politely complimented Jay Harnick’s mother for her son’s talent. “She said if I thought Jay was talented, I should meet her other son.” That’s how Prince met her other son, Sheldon Harnick, who would write the lyrics for the Prince-produced “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Fiorello” and for “She Loves Me,” which Prince both directed and produced.

Prince also establishes himself as opinionated, digressing on occasion to pontificate about critics and ticket prices (he supports dynamic pricing) and unions (“If you lived up to the letter of your contracts with any of the affiliated guilds and unions, you would never get a show on.”) He even lets us know he doesn’t like “Hello, Dolly!” because it’s the kind of musical where “songs are utterly unmotivated” and “characters react inconsistently for laughs.”

But the greatest strength of “Sense of Occasion” rests in the insights Prince offers into the way he works. For each show he directs, he searches for what he calls a metaphor, which then helps guide him. He saw “Cabaret” as a play about civil rights, “the problem of blacks in America, about how it can happen here.” “Phantom of the Opera,” he tells us, is about our instinctive response to deformity, which is to pull back, followed by our realization that our response was irrational. To each new company of Phantom he tells a personal anecdote of his reaction when a leper shook his hand.

At 12 pages, the chapter on Phantom is the longest and most detailed — including a story I had not heard before of producer Cameron Mackintosh  firing Prince from the show because he wanted an English director, causing Prince to “blurt out the f-word” and stalk off. (Prince was rehired about three weeks later.)

The greater attention on Phantom surely has something to do with its success, the longest-running show in Broadway history, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary on January 26, 2018 – four days before Harold Smith Prince turns 90 years old.

Hal Prince seems just as engaged with some of his old flops as his continued successes, and after 70 years in show business, he expresses what seems a clear-eyed perspective about his extraordinary career  “Broadway is not the place to look for loyalty from the public,” he writes in “Sense of Occasion,” “and sad as that is to the ego, it is one of the best things you can say about Broadway.”

Buy “Sense of Occasion”

15 Great Books About The Theater

The 50 best plays and 10 greatest musicals of the last century are all available as books to read, but what are the best books about the theater?

That’s the question I asked in giveaway contests for two books:

 

 

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


Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical

Below are 15 books (one of them in two volumes) selected by the contestants, with some of their comments. Click on the the titles for links to a page where you can learn more about the book, read excerpts, and purchase a copy.

Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart

“I picked up the book after I saw the show at Lincoln Center, and I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about Moss, or the show really, before I went in. I left the theatre feeling inspired and rejuvenated with my love for theatre. I read the book in two days and felt even stronger feelings upon finishing it. It’s incredible how vivid his stories are, especially from his childhood. And the book often feels like a novel, not a memoir, because the dialogue is so rich. Easily one of my favorite books about theatre for sure.”

Hat Box: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim

This contains Stephen Sondheim’s two volumes of annotated lyrics, written separately, Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat.
Stephen Sondheim has always been my favorite musical theatre composer/lyricist. His collection is an invaluable resource to any Sondheim fan/theatre lover. These books provide an insight of the process of song writing and creating a musical in general and give a brief history of how each of his shows came to be. The West Side Story and Sweeney Todd chapters were especially useful while I was working on productions of those shows for a better understanding of the original work.

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

“It’s such an insightful and thorough look at the insides of the current American musical, and shows the start of such musicals from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim. It truly is a great read.”

“It wowed me earlier this year. I got the book over the holidays and devoured it – I was so impressed by how clearly and intelligently he dissected the American musical. Not only does it work as an analysis of the American musical, but it can serve as a guidebook for creating musicals – what the essential elements are (and how they exist in musicals) and why they work in the creation of a show. It’s a wonderful read, and while it may not be the BEST book (that would probably go to Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hate) but it certainly is one of the most interesting and entertaining I’ve read.”

 

Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops by Ken Mandelbaum

It’s just full of fascinating stories – sometimes the shows that DON’T work are more interesting than those that do, because there are just so many things that can go so terribly wrong…I love seeing the thought processes behind these “failures,” and of course for every so-called flop out there, there’s someone who actually cherishes that show for various reasons! It’s important to remember even Broadway’s mistakes, especially because they can hopefully help us all learn from them for next time

Broadway: The American Musical

“One of the best books written about the history of Broadway and it’s roots. It’s huge, has tons of cool photos and it is accompanied by great videos of each chapter. Bonus: it has an intro by Julie Andrews.”

Original Story: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood by Arthur Laurents

“It was incredibly honest about himself and the theatre folks he worked with over the years. Laurents was able to create a richly detailed tapestry of a story while not glossing over the moments that were challenging.”

The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate by Peter Brook

“The Empty Space” by Peter Brook. This book showed me more of what theatre can, could, and should be than any class I ever took in college. He takes theories and movements that I was familiar with and turned them into something I had never imagined, allowing me to grow as a director and artist.”

David Merrick – The Abominable Showman: The Unauthorized Biography  by Howard Kissel

“We can all learn how to be a creative genius/monster from the actions of David Merrick!”

THE SEASON A Candid Look At Broadway by William Goldman

“It is certainly dated in more than a couple of ways, but I can’t think of many more books that have impacted the way I think about the business and ecosystem of New York Theatre the way that that one has. From the flops to the hits, not only do you get to be jealous of the standard ticket prices of the shows in the late 60s, you learn about why certain shows connect with critics or audiences and other shows don’t. And the idea of “The Muscle” who is the chief driving creative force behind a production, is something I think about all the time in regards to both Broadway and Hollywood.”

 

Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill

Theatre of the Unimpressed by Jordan Tannahill. The book mostly functions as a diagnostic of the state of contemporary theatre in Canada and attempts to establish a standard for revitalization. Not everything is agreeable, and the book is more about problems than solutions, but it really gets the wheels in my head turning.

Ghost Light: A Memoir by Frank Rich

“It passionately describes how a love for musical theater is born out of both a need to escape into something beautiful and a desire to relate to characters in a range of emotional states. Personal and lovely”

How Does the Show Go On: an Introduction to the Theater by Thomas Schumacher

I love it because it’s geared towards kids and is written to excite a new generation of audience members and theatre artists

Unnaturally Green: One girl’s journey along a yellow brick road less traveled by Felicia Ricci.

“It’s a story of the actress who got to play Elphaba in Wicked, and it’s really wonderful because it goes through all the audition calls, the rehearsal process and the show itself. For the student actress as me, it’s one of the best resources to get more familiar with theatre work. I always wondered how it goes on Broadway, what happens after you get the role, is it any different from what I know… Felicia reveals just so many little details! I learned a lot of new things about American theatre while sitting in Russia and drinking my tea. That’s the magic. And that’s the theater.”

Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History by Glen Burger
“It goes into detail about the decline and fall of Turn Off the Dark. Understanding what makes a show with ‘everything going for it’ fail helps us recognize what is needed for a show to succeed.”

 

Hamilton: The Revolution

“Reading that book not only gave me insight to Lin Manuel Miranda’s world, but all of his collaborators as well. Reading Hamilton is much like reading other books, even though it is nonfiction there are still literary elements that spark imagination. When I read about Hamilton, I can’t help but feel an appreciation for art. Creating art is one of the most ambitious challenges anyone can face. To create art you have to become vulnerable, explore different styles, and above all show humanity. With automation in the 21st century it is difficult to find true human work in anything. Hamilton, the whole world of Hamilton, is unadulterated humanity, and that is why I love the book.”

Giveaway Contest: The Great Comet

Comet 3D Cover Image

Win a free copy of the book “The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway“(Sterling Publishing, 2016), which traces the improbable evolution of the musical, “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” that began with an unknown cast in tiny, experimental Ars Nova, an 87-seat Off-Off Broadway house, and wound up at Broadway’s 1,200-seat Imperial Theater, starring Josh Groban.

I describe the book in some detail here. It includes a CD with five of the songs

To enter the contest, please answer the following question:

What is the best book about the theater, and why?

1. Please put your answer in the comments at the bottom of this blog post, because the winner will be chosen through Random.org based on the order of your reply, not its content.
But you must answer the question, complete with description and explanation, or your entry will excluded from consideration.

Update: To clarify:  I’m asking for a non-fiction book about the theater — a memoir, a history, a textbook…anything but a script, libretto, fiction.

2. This contest ends Monday, March 20, 2017  at midnight Eastern Time, and I will make the drawing no later than noon the next day. I will  e-mail the winner at the e-mail  address that’s automatically included in the responses.  If I don’t get an e-mail back from you within 24 hours, I will choose another winner. The book will be mailed to you at an address in the United States or Canada.
(3. All submissions have to be approved, so you won’t necessarily see your entry right away: Please be patient, and don’t submit more than once.)

Great Comet book Spread 1

The Great Comet: The Journey of A New Musical To Broadway. Book

Comet 3D Cover Image

As Lin-Manuel Miranda did with “Hamilton,” so Dave Malloy came up with the idea for his innovative hit Broadway musical, “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” while reading a book under the tropical sun. But Malloy wasn’t on vacation; he was working as a piano player on a cruise ship, which gave him enough spare time to plow through Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Both musicals, then, began with a book. Each is now also the subject of a similar elaborate coffee table book, oversized and authorized. (Hamilton’s was “Hamilton the Revolution.”)

The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway“(Sterling Publishing, 2016) traces the improbable evolution of a musical that began with an unknown cast in tiny, experimental Ars Nova, an 87-seat Off-Off Broadway house, and wound up at Broadway’s 1,200-seat Imperial Theater, starring Josh Groban (He leaves July, 2017)

The book’s 212 pages includes the full libretto of the musical, annotated by Malloy; some full-page, full-color photographic spreads; and 18 chapters, each written by a different key player in the show – author, director, producers, designers, stars. As an extra treat and inducement, a CD with five of the songs is placed snugly in a pocket in the inside back cover.

Such an elaborate book can be said to function – much the way the show itself does – as a counterargument to our society’s growing digital dominance. This is a book that is only available in hardcover. (at least for the moment.)

In his chapter, Malloy details his inspiration for the musical. He chose to dramatize 70 pages from Tolstoy’s novel (Volume 2, chapter 5 – or, if your edition isn’t divided up that way, Book 8.) In order not to retain Tolstoy’s “voice” – “I’ve often joked that in Tolstoy I had the best collaborator” – he put the entire novel in a Word document, “and just started whittling away…..the experiment was to put a novel onstage” – which is why there are few rhymes in the lyrics.
He was also greatly inspired by a recent visit he had made through a tangle of desolate back alleys to a raucous bar in Moscow. He wanted to recreate that feel. Set designer Mimi Lien got to work. For the interior (as she explains in her chapter), “I wanted everyone to feel like they were walking into a velvet-lined Faberge egg.” But she wanted to contrast this “lush, czarist Russia” with the feel of the back alleys through which Malloy had navigated to get to the Moscow bar. Lien saw this as stark “post-Cold War era,” which is why she transformed the hallway of the Imperial into ugly grey concrete decorated with ugly Russian posters. She saw this contrast as literally the contrast between war and peace – Tolstoy’s theme.

Lien adjusted her set design for its many venues, which included two different runs in a custom-built circus tent, one downtown in the Meat Market district, the other in the theater district. Commercial producer Howard Kagan explains how they came up with the tent — they couldn’t find a theater or any other already-built real estate in New York that could accommodate them — including a location where the local community board would approve both the performance and a fully-operating restaurant.
Not all the chapters are as intriguing. The book could have benefited from more aggressive editing to cut down on the repetition and gushing prose. (the book obviously went to press before the dispute between Arg Nova and the commercial producer over billing in the Playbill, although I somehow doubt this would have made it into the text.)

Malloy’s annotations of his script are erudite and sometimes technical. He reprints passages from Tolstoy’s novel that he adapted, or lifted outright, in the lyrics. He occasionally explains his musical influences, which range from Bjork to Les Miserables – and that’s just in one song (“Natasha Lost.”)
The annotations are occasionally more entertaining. Next to the text of the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov, he gives a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the duel in Hamilton, adding: “Who knew that Broadway would become such a duelfest.”
I enjoyed Malloy‘s comment on my favorite melody in the show, “Charming,” when Helene’s chorus is a rocking, tuneful “Charmante, Charmante.” It turns out she is mispronouncing the French word. “This very sly and subtle character touch was originally a result of my not having done very well in high school French,” Malloy writes, “and then later liking the supercool rhythm in the melody too much to change it. And Helene is a bit of a dilettante, and it’s actually pretty hilarious to me that she is so confidently butchering the French in the chorus of her big son, so….in the end, this works for me!”

In the end, The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway” will likely work for the bulk of its readers, those already fans of the musical.

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

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?”

hir-book-cover

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.

book-on-broadway_spotco

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

book-the-secret-life-of-the-american-musical_jack-viertel

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

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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.”

Harry Potter Play sells two million copies in two days

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The script of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two,” currently playing in London, sold more than 2 million print copies in North America in its first two days of publication. The play is described succinctly as  “The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later.”

Click on cover to learn more, or to purchase.
J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling

In its latest hourly update, Amazon lists the play, based on a J.K. Rowling story and co-written by Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, as the number 1 bestseller overall.

It also puts the play in all three top slots for their “Dramas and Plays” list of bestsellers, and then again in the sixth slot. (for the various editions, such as hardcover and Kindle.)

It’s interesting to see what evergreen bestselling play scripts it has pushed down the list. (The specific editions that sell the best tend to be the least expensive.)
4. The Crucible by Arthur Miller

5. Macbeth by William Shakespeare

6. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child again.

7. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

8. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

9. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

10. Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller

 

The only other theater-related book in the top 100 bestselling books overall is, of course, Hamilton: The Revolution, holding steady as number 38.

 

Scene from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theater in London.

Scene from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theater in London.