June 30, 2010

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2010

The hot weather came early this year so I’ve been lolling out on the terrace for weeks now, with a book (well, increasingly a Kindle) in one hand and something cold and pink-colored (I’ve been bouncing back and forth between tangy cosmos and dry rosés) in the other.  But the summer solstice arrived last week and Independence Day is this coming weekend, which means the kick-back-and-relax season is officially here.  And so, below is my fourth annual list of theater-related books to keep you company on your lazy summer days and nights. This year, the list includes four novels and four memoirs:

Night at the Vulcan: by Ngaio Marsh.  Who doesn’t love a good-old fashioned British murder mystery?  This one is set in a London theater run by an Olivier-like actor-manager right after WWII.  Shortly after a mysterious ingénue joins the company, an unpopular actor is killed in his dressing room during a performance.  Only someone in the company could have done it and just about everyone had motive to do it.  Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn arrives to sort it all out.  But there is plenty of romance, rivalry and other backstage shenanigans to keep you riveted before he reveals the culprit.  

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth. Short-listed for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, this Medieval mystery centers around a monk who joins a band of traveling players in 14th century England.  It’s a terrific re-creation of the theater world at the time when some daring actors were beginning to move away from performing Church-sanctioned Bible stories in favor of plays that dealt with more secular concerns.  A film version starring Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe, and blandly renamed “The Reckoning,” came out in 2003 and is available on DVD.  But the book is far better, especially at conveying the almost religious calling that so many actors feel about their craft.

The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin.  Novels about the theater tend to divide into two camps:  backstage mysteries or comic romps, the latter often centered around a gay protagonist. This one is something different. It’s a lovely literary novel about a promising young actor trying to break into the New York theater scene in the mid-‘70s when groups like Manhattan Theatre Club and the Roundabout Theatre were just starting up. The plot centers around a romantic triangle but the true love affair here is with the theater itself.

Next Season by Michael Blakemore.  Theater lovers already know that he's a terrific director and now it turns out that Blakemore, whose
stage credits range from City of Angels to the recent revival of Blithe Spirit, is also a wonderful novelist. His story of a moderately talented actor who gets a job in a summer-stock type repertory company focuses not on the above-the-marquee names but on the journeymen who play the character roles and bit parts not for money or glamour but for love of the craft.  It’s one of the best theater novels I’ve ever read.

Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage by Richard Seff. Over his 60 years in the business, Seff has been an actor, an agent, a playwright, host of a radio show about the theater and a philanthropist (he funds a lifetime achievement award for character actors).  He tells stories about it all from his discovery of the young Chita Rivera to his writing the book for the cult musical Shine.  Reading this delightful memoir is like having a long gossipy lunch with a friend who knows everybody’s business and just how much of it to tell.

The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey by Robert Simonson.   PR guys are usually behind-the-scenes players but Simonson, the former editor of Playbill.com, puts the spotlight on one of the major publicists of Broadway’s Golden Age.  He has interviewed dozens of people who knew and worked with Debuskey, like the actress Ruby Dee and the producer Bernard Gersten, but he tells the story primarily from Debuskey’s perspective and often in his words. Simonson may be a bit too besotted with his subject but that doesn't overshadow the glimpses he offers into the even more dazzling heyday of New York theater.

A Year with The Producers: One Actor's Exhausting (But Worth It) Journey from Cats to Mel Brooks' Mega-Hit by Jeffry Denman.  Whenever I’ve seen him on stage, Denman, a veteran song-and-dance man who also choreographed the recent off-Broadway production of Yank!, radiates so much joy in what he's doing that I thought his book would be just as much fun.  And it almost is. As the subtitle makes clear, this is an account of the year that Denman spent being cast for, rehearsing and appearing in the ensemble of The Producers. It’s kind of a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-Are-Dead view of the show, whose star Nathan Lane only makes cameo appearances. No dirty linen is aired.  Denman thinks everyone—writer Mel Brooks, director Susan Stroman, the stage doorman—is great.  But that’s due less to sycophancy than to his—and his book's
innate buoyancy.

Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin & Carol Channing by James Kirkwood. The play Legends is legendary for its many-rumored backstage battles and for having toured around the country with two of Broadway's biggest-ever stars but never making it to the Great White Way. In this take-no-prisoners account of how it all happened (really, Kirkwood names names and tells stories about famous people that made me gasp out loud) the show’s playwright, who also wrote the book for A Chorus Line, gives his side of the saga.  If you can find a more naked account of what goes into making a show, email me immediately.

The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway by William Goldman. Yep.  It’s back again. I’ve said it in the past and I know I’ll be saying it in the future, I simply cannot imagine a theater reading list without Goldman’s classic account of the 1967-68 Broadway season.

Now, My husband K and I are going away for the weekend so there’ll be no Saturday post but I’ll be back next Wednesday.  In the meantime, Happy 4th of July and, of course, happy reading.


Janine said...

These are great reccomondations. Thanks! I will have to see if my library has any of them. Do you know if there is a movie version of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee?

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks, Janine. Glad you like the list. There isn't, as far as I can tell, a movie version of The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee or plans to make one. Which, I have to confess, is OK with me cause I'm not sure it would transfer to film with all its charm intact.

Anonymous said...

Good point, though sometimes it's hard to arrive to definite conclusions