September 26, 2007

Volumes of Memories in the "Best Plays"

My copy of "The Best Plays Theater Yearbook, 2005-2006" arrived a couple of weeks ago and I've been happily reading bits and pieces of it ever since. If you're not familiar with the book, and you love theater, you should be. For the past 87 years, the "Best Plays" editors and their advisory boards have selected the 10 best shows of the season. And about 50 years ago, they started cramming everything else they could think of about theater in the U.S. into this one handy book. The latest volume sells for a whopping $49.95 but hell, that's just 1/9 the price of a premium ticket to Young Frankenstein and the book is discounted on .

Each volume begins with a recap of the season including news events and major trends. Incisive essays on each of the 10 anointed plays, written by some of the country’s leading critics and dramaturges, follow. (This year's honor roll of plays includes: Grey Gardens, The History Boys, In the Continuum, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Rabbit Hole, Red Light Winter, Shining City, Stuff Happens, and Third). Then there are complete credits for every new show that opened on Broadway or off-Broadway, listings of major off-off Broadway productions and those for the major regional theaters as well. There's also a review of holdover productions from previous seasons and a really nifty list of every replacement for every role of every Broadway show that played during the season, including the casts of first national tours. The winners of all the year's major theatrical awards are noted and other goodies include a rundown of every Broadway or off-Broadway show that ever played 500 performances or more, plus an index of all the best plays from 1894 to the present. In other words, it's a theater lover's wet dream.

Even better, though, is reading through old volumes of the series. The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has all 86 of the earlier ones and spending a rainy morning going through them, as I did this past weekend, is like taking a time machine back to the days when the shows we now consider classics and the writers we revere as icons were simply fresh and promising. It amused me to discover that the people who loved theater back then were just as cranky as many of us who love it now. "The theater season of 1927-1928 will probably be remembered in New York, should occasion arise to remember it, as one that started promisingly and faded hopelessly," wrote Burns Mantle (is that a great name or what?) who created the series in 1919.
"You can count its outstanding successes on the fingers of two hands. It would require the seeds of a watermelon to tally its failures." After the book's initial success, Mantle went back and chose the best plays from 1894-1918 and then edited the annuals until his death in 1948.

Mantle was succeeded briefly by his longtime assistant John Chapman but it was Louis Kronenberger, the esteemed Time magazine theater critic, who, when he took over in 1952, re-created the book as it now is. Kronenberger shortened the excerpts from the plays that had taken up so much space in the earlier volumes to make room for information on off-Broadway shows, Variety's hits and flops list, photos of the productions and drawings by Al Hirschfeld (which the artist continued to contribute until his death in 2003.) But Kronenberger could be just as entertainingly acerbic as Burns had been. "All in all, however, it was a depressingly bad season" he wrote in the 1956-57 recap, after making an exception for Eugene O'Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And, he continued, "It would be no less foolish than fraudulent to claim real merit for all the best plays." The shows he was badmouthing included Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables, Robert Alan Arthur's A Very Special Baby, Lillian Hellman's adaptation of Voltaire for Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Arthur Laurent's A Clearing in the Woods, Jean Anouilh's The Waltz of the Toreadors, Graham Greene's The Potting Shed, Gore Vidal's Visit to A Small Planet, Tennessee William's Orpheus Descending, and O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten.

There are some titles on the complete "Best Plays" roster that I'd never heard of. And the list isn't infallible. Neither the groundbreaking West Side Story nor South Pacific, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 and is being revived in the spring with Kelli O'Hara, made the cut. But it's amazing to see how many of the shows I'd still put on the list and even more amazing to have the whole history of Broadway within such easy reach.

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Appreciate the heads-up. I should invest in these!