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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.”

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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

harrypotter-book-cover2

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.)

lynn-nottage-of-sweat

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.”

the-humans-book-cover

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

wishful-drinking-book-cover

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

Hamiltonbookcover

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….”

great-comet-book

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.

by-women-possessed-book-cover

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.”

new-yorks-yiddish-theater-book-cover

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…”

becoming-meryl-streep-book-cover

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.

MasterOfCeremonies_comps_revise_42315_revise.indd

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)

rules-for-others-to-live-by

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

Potterbookstack

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.

Barbara Cook Memoir “Then and Now”: From Golden Age Ingenue to Alcoholic to “Living Landmark”

Cover_Barbara CookBarbara 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, “Then and Now” (HarperCollins.)

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. For nearly four decades now, Cook has been playing intimate clubs and performing in prestigious concert halls to great critical and popular acclaim. She has recorded 45 albums, she tells us, nine of them original cast recordings.

There is a fourth story about Barbara Cook between the lines – how an 88-year-old woman is not only still performing; she’s just written her first book. Yes, she worked with a collaborator, Tom Santopietro, but she’s told interviewers that he just helped organize it; she wrote every word.  If she likes to consider herself “a work in progress,”  the accolades make her sound like an institution. The New York Landmarks Conservancy even designated her a “living landmark.” (“A living landmark? I just want to keep working.”) Still, a landmark deserves respect, even if it may not be what it used to be.

The reverence with which the theater community treats this Tony-winning veteran of 19 Broadway shows will surely allow her to get away with some of the  irreverence in her book. She was disappointed, she writes, by both Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” and Ethel Merman in “Gypsy,” who were both, Cook implies, sleep-walking through their performances. Of Elaine Stritch, she writes: “It was all Elaine all the time. Me me me me.” Cook even enumerates what Cook considers the inappropriate times when Stritch, who had diabetes, gave herself an insulin shot in public. Cook is especially direct and hilarious in recounting her involvement with the notorious flop Carrie. The original producer told the director she wanted the show to resemble Grease. The director misunderstood, thinking the producer meant Greece, and presented it as a Greek tragedy, complete with costumes “with all kinds of classical era drapery.”

Her assessments usually come off as less catty than frank — in part because they are surrounded with encomiums to the talents of the people she’s criticizing, and in part because Cook herself is her most frequent target. Her bluntness extends to a surprising surfeit of four-letter words from this self-declared “dirty-mouthed old lady.”

“Then and Now” would have benefited from some more diligent editing. Any number of facts, comments and trite phrases are repeated again and again. The book also would have proven more generally useful had the author included brief overviews of the musicals she discusses, rather than apparently assuming that all her readers already knew all about them.

On the other hand, professional or would-be professional performers might find some gems scattered about, such as her description of how she mastered the technically demanding aria “Glitter and Be Gay” in the original production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”: She used self-hypnosis to calm her nerves, and unconsciously (she realized later) relied on her memory of listening as a teenager to a recording of Fay Bainter as Lady Macbeth opposite Orson Welles: “It was real yet highly emotive.”

“Concentrate on what you’re trying to say with this song; the words have to matter,” she says to the students of her master classes at schools like Juilliard. In a couple of pages in which she recounts the advice she gives, she observes “Oftentimes students come in and they just want you to know right away that they can SING in capital letters.They come on like singing machines. Then, slowly, slowly, slowly, I get them to be human beings again. It almost always works. It’s quite exciting and very moving.”

“Then and Now” is probably best appreciated as an accompaniment to the score of Barbara Cook’s life — her singing. Indeed, the plan was to build a one-woman show Off-Broadway around the memoir, directed by Tommy Tune, with Cook singing her signature songs and reading excerpts adapted by James Lapine.  That show was canceled — the official and polite version is that it is being postponed. But there was a tacit acknowledgement that it’s unlikely ever to happen, when Cook agreed to a less taxing arrangement —  three cabaret appearances at Feinstein’s/54 Below (on June 21, July 21 and July 23.)  Barbara Cook hasn’t been able to walk unassisted for about a year now (something not mentioned in her memoir.) She has health issues that have slowed her down. But, as she says and the world knows, she can still sing.


Click on the cover to find out more about the book, or to purchase it.

The anecdotes that Cook recounts in the 2016 video below are almost verbatim in her memoir.

#Hamiltome Published Today

Hamiltonbookcover

“Hamilton The Revolution,” published April 12, 2016, has a long subtitle on the frontispiece in the style of 18th century literature: “Being the complete libretto of the Broadway Musical, with a true account of its Creation. And Concise remarks on Hip-Hop, The Power of Stories, and The New America.”  It is a souvenir book for fans. But it is a handsome souvenir book, and — like the show and its creators — one with impressive ambition.

Indeed, it is ambitious enough so that calling it a souvenir book is as reductive and misleading as calling “Hamilton” a hip-hop musical. Neither description is inaccurate; they just don’t give the full flavor. At the most superficial level, “Hamilton the Revolution,”  nearly 300 pages long and the size of a coffee table book, does not use the usual thin glossy paper stock; it was printed (in China) on a heavier, matte paper that I suspect is supposed to remind us of parchment, or at least an old-fashioned sturdy kind of newsprint — in other words, a historical document.  It is one of the subtler means by which the authors encourage us to see “Hamilton” not just as a musical about history, but as a musical that is making history.

“Hamilton the Revolution” contains the complete libretto, written  by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book, lyrics and music for the musical, and stars as Alexander Hamilton.  Most of his songs are printed against a dramatic background of a vivid photograph from a moment in the show.  But Miranda has also annotated each song extensively, the annotations (written in smaller print in the margins) ranging from enlightening to boastful to arcane to entertaining. (“I know every word that rhymes with Burr. It’s a long list. I tried to use all of them in this show. The ‘Rhymes with Hamilton’ list is nonexistent, so.”)

In a song from the show that is not on the album, “Tomorrow There’ll Be More Of Us,” Eliza tells her husband Hamilton that his good friend John Laurens has died in battle. He’s silent, and then says, “I have so much work to do.”  Hamilton’s annotation for this line (by no means his most lengthy note) is as follows:

“Here’s the thing about Hamilton’s response: It’s more telling when he’s quiet than when he has something to say. This was true of the historical Hamilton as well. We have very little written record of the grieving for Laurens. For a man who had an opinion on everything, for him to hold back betrays genuine, life-changing grief. It is possible that Hamilton and Laurens were lovers at some point — Hamilton’s letters to Laurens are every bit as flirtatious as his letters to the opposite sex, if not more so. If this is the case, the silence betrays an even more profound loss.”

This stab at history is present in the “making of the musical” chapters as well, which alternate with the libretto and are written by Jeremy McCarter, a former theater critic for New York Magazine who joined the staff of the Public Theater.  In his  introduction, McCarter includes this claim:”Alexander Hamilton would have admired the unifying power of the show based on his life, and would have felt vindication…The widely acclaimed musical that draws from the breadth of America’s culture and shows its audience what we share doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution. It continues it.”

The text is on firmer ground when it strays from such cultural, historical or political analysis and speculation — self-congratulatory or otherwise — and instead takes us through the concrete details in the development of the musical. The making-of chapters go more or less chronologically, from the spark of the idea for the musical and the debut song in front of President Obama at the White House to the show’s opening on Broadway six years later, with an epilogue about a special performance of “Hamilton” as a Democratic fundraiser, with President Obama as host. (“…six years after Lin had gotten a boost from his association with the White House, the White House was, improbably, getting a boost from Lin.”)  Throughout the chronology, McCarter provides profiles of the people involved in the making of the show, from producers to creative team to cast members.

Click on any photograph by Frank Ockenfels to see it enlarged.

We learn, for example, that the show’s music director and orchestrator, Alex Lacamoire, is hard of hearing. We also learn that on hearing Miranda’s initial take on the song “You’ll Be Back,” a humorous love song by King George III towards the colonies, Lacamoire thought it sounded “Beatlesque” and so he embedded “nods” and “homages” to several Beatles songs in the orchestration. (In the annotation to the song “You’ll Be Back,” Miranda tells us that the actor Hugh Laurie suggested the title phrase to him.)

“Hamilton the Revolution” is strongest, in fact, when detailing the homages and influences embedded in “Hamilton” — and the advice that Miranda sought from theater greats like composers John Kander and Stephen Sondheim.  Director Tommy Kail is quoted at one point as saying: “The four grandparents of the show are Sweeney Todd, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Gypsy”  — and although it sounds as if he just said this off-the-cuff to McCarter, his reasoning is interesting and even persuasive. Elsewhere we’re told how much of the show is rooted in, or at least borrows from, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Big Pun, the Notorious B.I.G., even Harry Potter and the TV series “Parks and Recreation” and “My So-Called Life.”  This abundance of  parentage (or grandparentage) surely helps lead McCarter to observe that, “however innovative” the musical is, it is “in fact, traditional.”  That is what struck me about the musical from the first time I saw it, Off-Broadway, and what paradoxically makes it so satisfying. More than a year ago, I wrote: “So much of what makes Hamilton groundbreaking is its return to familiar theatrical ground from the past, in a way that makes it feel freshly sown. There are not just allusions to musical greats….there is a hewing to theatrical convention.”

This is one of the reasons why I find ridiculous the current apparent backlash against the show, newly vocal critics finding it insufficiently….revolutionary.  Miranda set out to make a musical out of a specific history book about a specific man, and did this exceedingly well. It’s hardly his fault that fans have elevated him to the musical messiah. On the other hand, nobody forced him to name this book  “Hamilton The Revolution.” It could just as easily have been entitled “Hamilton: Tradition Renewed”– although who would have bought it then?

Click on cover above to learn more about the book and/or to purchase it.

Master of Ceremonies by Joel Grey: Life’s Not Just a Cabaret

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.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Born as Joel David Katz in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932, Grey is most vivid in “Master of Ceremonies” describing his extended family, including his beloved immigrant grandfather, a fruit peddler, his intimidating gaggle of aunts, and his elegant, self-centered mother who favored Joel over his younger brother because she sensed he would be a star. Joel’s most affectionate portrait is of his father, Mickey Katz.

An interesting line can be drawn directly from Mickey Katz’s career to his son’s biggest success. Katz was a big band musician much valued for his affable nature and sense of humor. For fun, he began writing Yiddish spoofs of popular songs of the day. This improbably resulted in a hit record and catapulted him to national stardom, including a touring revue he called the Borscht Capades. Mickey’s son Joel  had already been acting professionally for some eight years when at age 17 he joined the Borscht Capades — without ever having sung, danced nor even spoken a word of Yiddish (“Aunt Jeannie translated the lyrics….”) Joel asked Mickey not to introduce him as his son, so Mickey called him Joel Kaye. Joel’s performance led to a spot on Eddie Cantor’s TV show, which led to representation by the William Morris Agency, which built a nightclub act for him. They renamed him Joel Grey, since “Joel Kaye” was too close to “Danny Kaye,” a star performer who shared his energy and over-the-top shenanigans.

At 18, Joel Grey became a successful nightclub entertainer — which he quickly grew to loathe, since his aim from childhood was to be a serious theater actor.  But it was his memory of a fellow nightclub comic, older and more successful — which is to say, crude, bigoted, and “totally corrupt, desperate for adoration, willing to do anything” — that informed Joel Grey’s performance as the Emcee in “Cabaret” on Broadway in 1966, in the 1972 movie, and then in a 1987 revival.

By the time he gained international fame as the pan-sexually decadent, lewd character of the Emcee, Grey had (more or less) put his own outlaw sexuality behind him. He had had sexual experiences with boys from a young age, he tells us, climaxing with a sexual affair at age 16 with the 25-year-old cantor at their family’s synagogue — who insisted Grey engage in a threesome with the cantor’s new bride. (This was in 1948!) When the bride annulled the marriage and threatened to name Grey in court as co-respondent, he felt forced to tell his parents. His father was understanding. His mother said “You disgust me.”

Grey spends much time in the book on his 24-year marriage to Jo Wilder, an actress with whom he says he truly fell in love, and who fulfilled his dream of a happy family. Grey manipulated Jo into giving up her own career, something he says he regrets, and he also seemed to treat her like a dress-up doll, something he might not even realize. (He recounts a series of high-fashion designers whom he hired to dress her on special occasions, over her objections.)  He didn’t tell her about his past experiences with men until more than two decades into his marriage; she divorced him not long afterwards.

Joel Grey is a delightful performer. He is an impressive survivor. By the evidence of this book, he is also a charming, candid, flawed but decent human being. But when a stranger interrupted my reading of “Master of Ceremonies” on the subway to ask me how it was, I reluctantly had to admit to her, and to myself,  that I found it disappointing as a theatrical memoir.

My standards are surely too high. I can blame this on “Act One,” playwright and producer Moss Hart’s memoir, which (much like Grey’s) describes a conventional lower middle class Jewish upbringing, a childhood sparked by a love of theater that turns into an adult conflagration, and then a first big against-the-odds theatrical success. But every page of Hart’s 1959 book is fascinating or funny or suspenseful, or all three. “Act One” holds up even though we have now been told that some of it was surely altered from what really happened in order to make a better story. It is a storyteller’s memoir.

It is hard to see the sense behind some of Joel Grey’s choices in “Master of Ceremonies.” There is as much space devoted to name-dropping of celebrities and his bit parts in little-remembered films as to his starring roles on Broadway. (“Wicked” gets a sentence. He goes into some engaging detail about his performance as the replacement lead in “The Normal Heart” Off-Broadway — what it meant to him as a closeted gay man to play an out gay man —  but says nothing about his direction of it on Broadway.) There is no mention at all of his respected second career as a photographer.  The pages on “Cabaret” on stage (maybe 12 in all, out of a 240-page book) are among the only ones in which he talks about his craft (as opposed to his career) as a theater artist — and they’re engrossing.

A possible clue to why I found “Master of Ceremonies” wanting may occur near the end of the book, when he tells us his mother Grace died at age 92, and left a diary that he had known nothing about.
“I opened it to the first page. I could quickly see her full venom…” He closes it quickly and asks his therapist to read it for him. “A week later, she advised me to throw it away, which I did without reading another word.”
Would a compulsive storyteller like Moss Hart have thrown out his mother’s diary without reading it?


Buy Masters of Ceremonies

Theater Books of 2015 To Read in 2016

Theaterbooks2015

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
Embracing impermanence
Improvisation
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.”

Scripts

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.

 

Coffee-table books worth reading

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.”

Hamilton Bonus

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.


There is also of course:

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.

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write…Sarah Ruhl’s Tweets on Theater

sarahruhlSarah Ruhl is the only playwright who’s an author of one of the 100 Notable Books of 2014 selected by the New York Times – and the book they selected is not a play.  It is “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater” — and 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.”)

The book has received what may be the greatest raves of Sarah Ruhl’s writing career — “compulsory reading for fans and practitioners alike” (American Theatre); “a work of profound moral organization” whose “deeper purpose is to define the artist’s relationship to truth and to demonstrate how, from within the correctness of the artistic process, life can be meaningfully understood.” (New York Times Book Review) — a sentence I didn’t meaningfully understand.

Stage Kiss

Stage Kiss

The Oldest Boy

The Oldest Boy

The reviews can be viewed as ironic, because the playwright of “The Clean House” and “In The Next Room,” and, most recently, Stage Kiss (which I loved) and The Oldest Boy (which I found beautifully rendered), makes clear that she only wrote these essays because she was temporarily unable to write plays.

The first essay (1. On Interruptions) apologizes for the brevity of the essays, and explains how they came to be: She gave birth to twins. The last two paragraphs of that first essay:

“There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby’s diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin) and finally I came to the thought: all right, then, annihilate me, that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.

“I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

It occurred to me right away how that last sentence would literally fit as a Tweet, with just a little tweaking:

“At the end of the day,writing has very little to do w/ writing,& much to do with life.And life,by definition,is not an intrusion.”

And as I read her book, I realized how many Tweets they contained, enough to fill the running time of the average play.

I need to make three points here:

1. This is not meant as snarky put-down. I Tweet every day.

Sarah Ruhl essay book cover2. This is not a way of arguing that her book is too quirky to be treated so seriously. (Essay number 61 explains that she hates the words “quirky” and “whimsy” — two words frequently applied to her plays as well.)  It’s true I savored most the personal stories she works into the essays. Her longest essay, at seven pages (80. Is playwriting teachable? the example of Paula Vogel), is one of my favorite. It really just tells the story of how she became a playwright,  and her relationship with her teacher at Brown University, the playwright Paula Vogel; it offers tasty tidbits of Ruhl’s life and (forgive me) her whimsical nature —  how, for example, she named her twins Hope and William because these were the streets in Providence, Rhode Island at the intersection of which she met her husband. But it would be hard for me to deny what the American Theatre review claims — that, in spite of the book’s “fragmentary nature, it presents a surprisingly clear portrait of the author’s worldview” as “a true aesthete, a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, and that rarest of creatures: a writer who is both an optimist and an idealist.”

3. Sarah Ruhl does not Tweet. I know this not just because you can’t find her on Twitter, but because of her reaction when she watched the audience at the Tony Awards during the commercial breaks. “What were these rarefied creatures doing? They were texting. And I thought, The age of experience is truly over; we are entering the age of commentary.” (71. The age of commentary.) But most of them were probably Tweeting – and sharing their experience with their followers. In other essays, Ruhl admits to being schoolmarmish at times; this is one of those times.

Still…

Recalling the time when a fire alarm drove audience and actors of her “Passion Play” onto the street – where the actors finished performing the play – she writes that it made her remember:

Theater is at its roots some very brave people mutually consenting to a make-believe world, with nothing but language to rest on.

She longs for a time when theater was less rational, when theaters didn’t look and smell like airports…

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.

…when theater makers didn’t focus on commercial success

Failure loosens the mind; perfection stills the heart. More failure! More demand for failure! More bad plays! Less perfection! More ugliness! More grace!

From Essay 74. Theater is a preparation for death:

Every night when a curtain comes down, a world dies. The world of present relation dies, and one mourns the end by applauding

As I read on, I began to see that nearly every one of her essays had a Tweet in it.

From 82. A love note to dramaturges

We need you to fight the mania for clarity and help create a mania for beauty instead.

From 85 What about all that office space?

Marketing people have jobs and health insurance and chairs, but artists generally don’t.

From 90. Oh the proscenium and oh the curtain

If a world without curtains is a world without illusions, then perhaps we should hold onto the curtains.

From 98. The audience is not a camera; or, how to protect your audience from death.

Regard with suspicion any idea that seems cool.

The cool idea in this essay was that to make the bleachers where the audience sat move back suddenly and without warning. The mechanism had been put in place before Ruhl realized it might   fall through the floor (which had holes in it) and kill everybody.

Some of her essays can be shaped into Tweets:

What theater making shares w/ parenting:
Dealing w/ irrational people day and night
Embracing impermanence
Improvisation
Both are embodied art forms

For more about the book and the playwright, check out this interview with Sarah Ruhl by Polly Carl in Howlround.