July 2, 2016

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2016

The Tonys and all last season's other theater celebrations are now behind us, several original Hamilton cast members (including the show's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) are scheduled to take their final bows next week and the theater world—plus the rest of New York—is slipping into summer vacation mode. Which means that it's time for my annual list of books to keep theater lovers company through the lazy weeks of summer until Labor Day.

The selections this year are a real grab bag of choices from audiobooks and graphic novels to memoirs and mysteries. So you're likely to find something, whatever your mood or genre preference. I'm still finishing up a few of them myself and so I'm looking forward to luxuriating on our terrace (my husband K and I got new deckchairs this year) while reading them and sipping a cool drink (old-school Cosmos this year) and I hope the list helps make your summer just as pleasurable. In the meantime, Happy July 4th.

Being an Actor by Simon Callow   Best known as a character actor (he created the role of Mozart in the original 1984 London production of Amadeus) Callow is also a marvelous writer with more than a dozen books to his credit and this memoir of his earliest days in the theater is a total delight. Callow doesn't mind naming names (or burning bridges) but it's his picture of himself as a young actor struggling to master his craft in drama school and in touring companies around England that give the book its heart.

Hamilton The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter  Like everything else about Miranda's hip-hop musical about one of the formerly lesser known Founding Fathers, this book is a refreshing spin on an old form. It's basically a souvenir book but Miranda and his theater journalist friend McCarter provide a really intimate portrait of how Hamilton was created, with bios on and commentary from each of the main players and members of the production team, gorgeous photos and, best of all, the complete lyrics, annotated with humor, openness and a generosity of spirit by Miranda himself.

Macdeath by Cindy Brown  Part of a comic-mystery series built around an actress who also works part time as a private investigator, this murder mystery is set backstage at a theater company in Phoenix that is doing a production of the Scottish play. Its tongue sits firmly in its cheek and it's just the kind of easy read that's as yummy as a juicy popsicle on a hot summer afternoon.

The Marvels by Brian Selznick  London's Theatre Royal provides the backdrop for this graphic novel about a 13-year-old boy who runs away from school and seeks refuge with his uncle who lives in a mysterious house that is believed to have been owned—and is perhaps now haunted—by a legendary family of actors. Selznick won the  Caldecott Medal for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," which John Logan adapted for the 2011 movie directed by Martin Scorsese and so the artwork is superb. And the narrative, which begins in 1766 and ends in 1990, is surprisingly moving, even for people like me who don't usually read illustrated books.

 Matchbox Theatre: Thirty Short Entertainments by Michael Frayn  The versatile author of comedies like Noises Off and dramas like Copenhagen has created a gem of a book that, as advertised, features 30 sketches, all written in the form of dialogs that are funny, poignant and insightful about what it means to be human. They're great to read out loud with friends or to savor alone in the theater of your own imagination.

The New York Stories by John O’Hara  The midcentury writer John O'Hara wrote novels, a newspaper column, screenplays and even a couple of plays but he's probably best known for his short stories and this wonderful collection of tales centers around characters who are actors, musicians and their fellow travelers, some successful, most not but all desperate for a moment in the limelight. The audiobook version is an extra treat because the stories are read by a who’s who of terrific stage actors including Dylan Baker, Bobby Canaveral and Jan Maxwell.

Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway by Michael Riedel  Theater nerds probably already know many of the anecdotes that Riedel, the theater gossip columnist for the New York Post and co-host of the TV show "Theatre Talk," recounts in this history of Broadway from its grimy days in the 1970s through its current heyday as one of the most popular destination spots in the world. Still it's nice to have all the tales in one place and Riedel's relish for these stories is obvious and a bit contagious.

The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel  Few people know more about what it takes to make a Broadway musical than Viertel, the artistic director of the Encores! series that puts on concert versions of neglected shows and who has also worked as a critic, dramaturge and producer. So it is a real treat to read his book, which, using lots of examples from shows ranging from Oklahoma to Hamilton, breaks down the basic structure of a musical from the "I Want" song which gets the action going straight through to the climactic 11 o'clock number.

Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays by Terrence McNally  The Tony-winning playwright of such works as Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion and It's Only A Play has opted against a conventional memoir and, instead, looks back at his life through his work, writing brief introductions to the eight plays he's chosen to include in this collection. Although he does touch on some of his romantic relationships (including his early one with Edward Albee) and frayed friendships (with Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director Lynne Meadows) there's relatively little gossip) the primary focus is on the relationship between McNally and his plays and the result is a master class in playwriting.

As I said, it's an eclectic list.  I hope you find something there for you and if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to the suggestions from previous years:

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