July 4, 2009

Summer Reading

Happy Fourth of July. Which means that, regardless of how unseasonable the weather has been, summer is really here. And for me that means time to kick back on the terrace with a good glass of wine (I’m still partial to dry rosés) in one hand and a good book (I’ll always be partial to reading about theater) in the other. I’m guessing your summer plans include something similar and so here is my annual list of suggestions to read in the weeks between now and Labor Day. We’ve been through such a tough time (failing banks, falling incomes, the premature closings of 33 Variations and Reasons to Be Pretty) that I thought we all needed a break, some flights of fantasy. So this year’s list is nearly all fiction. They’re not perfect novels but they are the kind of light entertainments that are just right for summer. And they will take you into worlds where everyone loves theater and where most of the endings are happy ones:

1. The Understudy: A Novel by David Nicholls. Don’t confuse this novel with "The Understudy," the 1975 book by Elia Kazan, who not only directed the original productions of Death of A Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire but also wrote bestselling books. Kazan’s "Understudy" is a serious, Bellowesque story about the conflicted relationship between an aging actor and his protégé. Nicholls’ book is an amusing Nick Hornby-style romp about an underachieving British actor whose career highlights are playing a squirrel in a series of educational films for kids and serving as stand-by for a Jude Law-like superstar who’s playing the lead in a West End production. The story is part showbiz fairytale (will the understudy get a show-must-go-on break?) part romantic comedy (will the beautiful wife of the philandering star fall in love with our hero?) part slacker-comes-of-age story (can he finally make his young daughter proud of him?) and a total delight.

2. Violencia!: A Musical Novel by Bruce Jay Friedman. Friedman usually writes satirical stories about Hollywood but this time he’s turned the spotlight on Broadway and he’s produced a doozy. The plot centers around an ordinary guy who earns his living writing a newsletter about the homicide unit in a police precinct. He is swept into the glamorous world of show business when a no-talent composer decides the newsletter will make a great musical and drafts him to write the book for it. Their collaborators include a high-strung director, an aging and totally miscast star and a suspiciously funded producer. “Violenica,” the musical they cobble together (“Bi Guys Can Be Nice Guys” is one of its big numbers), is a show that only Max Bialystock could love and Friedman has a ball following its development from meet-and-greet dinners in Broadway hangouts to a disastrous out-of-town tryout. The mounting inanities
did wear thin for me after a while but the book’s affection for show people kept me reading.

3. Jewish Thighs on Broadway: Misadventures of a Little Trouper by Penny Orloff. It’s apparently so hard to make it in showbiz that lots of theater folks get a kick out of making fun of themselves for trying. Orloff goes for the big yucks with this adaptation of her one-woman show about a zaftig actress who dreams of getting a part that gets her off the dinner-theater circuit, of finding a rich dessert that doesn’t increase the width of her already-ample thighs and of meeting a Mr. Right who will love her enough to make her first two wishes irrelevant. She’s got a meddling Jewish mother, a near-perfect sister and a haimish sensibility. It’s chick lit for theater lovers.

4. Serendipity: A Novel by Louise Shaffer
. An Emmy winner for her work in the daytime drama “Ryan’s Hope,” Shaffer has spent much of the last 30 years working on TV soap operas but she got her start as an understudy and bit part player on Broadway and her heart is obviously still there. This family saga’s main protagonist, Carrie Manning, isn’t in the business but her grandmother is a legendary Broadway star (kind of like Mary Martin) and her father was a genius writer and director of shows (kind of like Moss Hart). Their stories—and a lot of family secrets—unfold in a series of flashbacks. The revelations wouldn’t be out of place on one of Shaffer’s old daytime soaps but it’s still fun to read the parts set in the late ‘60s when Broadway stars and their spouses were objects of universal fascination.

5. Seen It All and Done the Rest: A Novel by Pearl Cleage
. The drama in this novel centers around the issue of gentrification in Atlanta’s black neighborhoods but it’s on this list (and in the window of the Drama Bookshop) because its lead character, Josephine Evans, is an African-American actress who has built a 30-year career performing in Europe. The story kicks off when mounting European resentment against the Iraq War and everything American causes Josephine to be fired from her job as the resident star of a classical repertory company in Amsterdam. She returns home to Atlanta until she can force them to take her back or figure out what to do next and she spends most of her time there fighting developers and trying to help her granddaughter who’s become embroiled in a sex scandal. I could have done with less real estate and even less sex in favor of more theater stuff. Even so, it’s hard not to appreciate the fact that there aren’t a lot of other novels where Euripides and Ntozake Shange get equal billing.

6. Attack of the Theater People by Marc Acito
. The fact that Marian Seldes has a cameo role is just one of the charms of this frothy comic novel about an aspiring young actor who gets mixed up in an insider trading scandal. Having been kicked out of Julliard for not being serious enough, Edward Zanni gets a job working children’s parties for rich families, which still gives him time to practice his craft with a Brecht-inspired company based in Hoboken and to stir up all kinds of mayhem. Fans of Acito’s earlier novel, “How I Paid For College,” will find all the same elements they loved in the first book—Eddie’s wacky family, his multi-culti posse of supportive friends, show biz references galore, great one-liners and a narrative that moves faster than an Andy Blankenbuehler dance number. Plus there’s a gay love story.

7. The Best Revenge: A Novel of Broadway by Sol Stein
. What if Don Corleone had been a show queen? If he had been, he might have ended up in this backstage story about a Broadway producer who is unable to raise money for a show he is certain will be a hit and so turns to some mafia connections for a favor he knows they won't refuse. It’s written in the hardboiled style of classic crime fiction and it’s nice to find a macho novel about Broadway

8. The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway by William Goldman.
No, this isn’t a novel. And yes, this was on last year’s list. But I simply can’t imagine a theater reading list without Goldman’s account of the 1967-68 Broadway season. It is the über theater book and every theater lover should read it. If you already have, read it again.

Happy reading. And feel free to suggest some of your favorite theater books since having read these, I’ll be on the lookout for some new ones to try. Great rosé recommendations will also be welcomed.

3 comments:

Esther said...

Wow, great list! I've never heard of any of them, except for "The Season" and Marc Acito book, (which I've read and liked.)

Have you read "The Stuff of Dreams: Behind the Scenes of An American Community Theater," by Leah Hager Cohen? I haven't read it but I've heard about it. I think it came out about eight or nine years ago. It's about a community theater in suburban Boston that decides to put on M. Butterfly.

I have a few plays that I want to read this summer - ones I've seen on stage recently and enjoyed: God of Carnage, Dividing the Estate, Reasons to be Pretty, Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Esther, I hadn't heard of The Stuff of Dreams but it sounds terrific. It seems to be out of print but I just ordered a used copy from Amazon. So, thanks for the tip and happy reading.

Philip said...

Terrific list! I definitely will read the Goldman book... and "The Understudy" sounds like fun too.