July 3, 2021

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2021

 

After 16 long and scary months, the coronavirus seems to be in retreat. Over half of the country has now gotten at least one vaccination shot. And here in New York City, 60% of all adults are fully vaccinated. So Covid safety restrictions are being eased, a growing number of shows are announcing dates when they’ll open in the fall or earlier and a return to a semblance of normalcy almost seems within reach. Heck, I even went out last week to see my first show since March 2020.

But mainly I’ve been kicking back on my terrace as I usually do each summer, with a cocktail in one hand (I’m going old-school with Cosmos this year) and something good to read in the other—or sometimes a pair of buds in my ear to listen to an audiobook. And, as usual, I’ve put together a list of suggestions for those of you also looking for something theater-related to read over the coming (hopefully) more relaxed weeks of summer. 

And this year, I've got something a little extra for you too: my friend James Marino who heads up BroadwayRadio invited me to record a special episode of “Today on Broadway” to talk about some of the choices I included this year. We also interviewed one of the authors on the list, Eddie Shapiro, to discuss "A Wonderful Guy," his terrific collection of conversations with some of Broadway’s best leading men. You can listen to all of it by clicking here. 

But right now here, in alphabetical order, is this year’s eclectic list of books (half of them novels) that I think will keep just about any theater lover good company through Labor Day.


A is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies from A to Z by John Robert Allman: This delightful picture book profiles some of Broadway’s top leading ladies with rhymes and colorful drawings.  It’s aimed at young kids but it’s also a treat for us grown-up theater lovers too.

A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke: The undeniable parallels between both the author’s tabloid divorce from his movie-star wife Uma Thurman and his portrayal of Hotspur in Lincoln Center’s starry 2003 production of Henry IV may be what draw readers to this novel but the real delights are the dynamic prose and obvious passion for the craft of acting that Hawke packs into this winner. He also obviously had fun narrating the audiobook version of this roman à clef and listening to him read it puts the cherry on top of a very yummy sundae.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: Drawn from Evaristo’s experience as the co-founder of Britain’s Theatre of Black Women in the 1980s, these interlocking stories center around 12 characters, many of them actors, directors and playwrights, as they grapple with such societal issues as racism and patriarchy and such intimate ones as friendship and gender identity. Although it won the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction in 2019, some critics have complained about Evaristo’s unconventional punctuation but once again I listened to the audio version and I was inspired by these stories of women determined to succeed on their own terms.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: Only the bare facts are known about William Shakespeare’s personal life but this lush, literary novel imagines the love story between him and his wife Anne Hathaway (called Agnes here, as the author says Hathaway’s father called her in his will). At the tale's center is the grief the couple shared over the loss of their only son and the subsequent creation of one of the Bard’s greatest works. Also included is a bravura set-piece tracing the journey of the bubonic plague from an Egyptian port city to the village of Stratford-upon-Avon that eerily echoes our own recent pandemic experience. 

Lilyville: Mother, Daughter and Other Roles I’ve Played by Tovah Feldshuh: Readers looking for backstage gossip about the many theatrical productions, movies and television shows that this four time Tony-nominated actress has done in her five-decade career may be disappointed to find that this memoir is more focused on the relationship that she had with her mother. But as fans who have attended her concerts will attest, Feldshuh is a great raconteur and listeners to the audiobook version will get the extra bonus of hearing her occasionally break out into song. 

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris: I’m friendly with Harris and so I was predisposed to touting his book but now having read it, I can say that it stands on its own merit. It’s an impressive warts-and-all survey of the life of the remarkable performer and director who was famous for more than six decades and literally (and I mean that in the literal sense) knew everyone who was anyone in show business (and elsewhere). And this bio, based on over 200 interviews with Nichols’ closest friends (from Elaine May and Gloria Steinem to Lorne Michaels and Stephen Sondheim) will make you feel as though you know him too.

Musical Misfires: Three Decades of Broadway Musical Heartbreak by Mark A. Robinson and Thomas S. Hischak: Just about every one of the over 100 shows featured in this survey of musicals that opened between 1989 and 2019 will have its champions (I’m here for you Passion) but none of them caught on with the wider public. As the authors note these shows opened in the era when the old guard who made musicals were passing away and the cost of mounting a show on Broadway was rising into eight figures making the odds of success higher than they had ever been. There are explanations about what went wrong for each of the shows but instead of being depressing, their struggles are evidence of the continuing determination to tell stories with music.  The book is currently only available as a Kindle download but it's good enough to justify downloading that app on your smartphone. 

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan: If romance novels are your thing, this one which centers around Kay Swift, the great love of George Gershwin’s life, may be for you. It serves up a fictional account of the couple’s 12-year relationship during which Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira wrote their biggest Broadway hits and their masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Meanwhile Swift, also an accomplished musician, composed four Broadway shows including Fine and Dandy which produced “Can’t We Be Friends,” the breakout song she wrote with her husband the financier James Warburg. The novel also details how Swift eventually divorced Warburg but—80-year spoiler alert—failed to marry Gershwin before his premature death in 1937 at the age of just 38. 

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls: An amateur production of Romeo and Juliet provides the background for this bittersweet novel that flashes back to the love story between two teens who are trying to figure out who they are and then returns to the present to look at who they’ve become.  Along the way it makes small detours into the lives of their troubled parents as well as those of the eccentrics and misfits who make up the theater company putting on their show. They’re all good company and give good testament to the power of art.

The Understudy by Ellen Tovatt Leary: A former actress who spent most of her career in the 1970s as an understudy, Leary conveniently sets her story in a world before cellphones so that just the right kinds of misunderstanding can happen. With one how-did-this-get-into-the-story exception, this is an amiable fantasy version of what every young actress hopes her life will be and it goes down as easy as a gin and tonic on a hot summer’s day. 

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman: Part of this gentle satire about the agonies and ecstasies of being an artist take place in Los Angeles but the best parts are set in the New York theater world that Silverman, the author of such provocative plays as The Moors and Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties, knows well. And it’s great fun trying to figure out the real-life counterparts to her colorful cast of characters.

A Wonderful Guy: Conversations with the Great Men of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro: A companion to Shapiro’s previous book "Nothing Like A Dame," this one focuses on 19 of Broadway’s leading musical male stars ranging from Joel Grey to Jonathan Groff. The men are funny, insightful and sometimes even painfully honest about their profession and their love of it.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now over 150 suggestions from previous years:

2020:




June 12, 2021

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama: News About This Year's Winner—And About My New Podcast on Winners of Yesteryear

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday and the winner for the drama prize was Katori Hall for her terrific play The Hot Wing King.

I had several dogs in this fight. Like most theater lovers, I'm always eager to see which new work will join the pantheon of plays and musicals that epitomize their time. And Hall's dramedy certainly does that. 

Using sensitivity, humor and some Luther Vandross songs, Hall shatters all kinds of stereotypes as she filters the image of Black masculinity through the experiences of a group of gay men preparing for a local barbecue contest while dealing with issues that run the gamut from what it means to be a father to how to cope with overzealous policing (click hear to listen to an interview I did with Hall about the show last spring). The win makes Hall the ninth African-American and the 16th woman to receive the honor.

I was also interested in the outcome of this year's Pulitzers because, for the second time, I had the honor of sitting on the jury that sorted through nearly 90 plays and musicals to recommend the top three finalists to the Pulitzer board. 

The board's members make the ultimate decision about who gets the awards from the one for news (this year Minneapolis’ Star Tribune for its coverage of the death of George Floyd; plus a special commendation for Darnella Frazier who took the video that showed the world how brutality he was killed) to the one for music (Cuban-American composer Tania León's ode to the pioneering feminist Susan B. Anthony) and of course the one for drama.

But I have to confess that my main rooting interest in this year's drama award rests in the fact that I've been working on a new podcast about all the plays and musicals that have won a Pulitzer over the past century. It’s called "All the Drama." 

Each episode will start off with the story of one of the winning shows along with some background on its creator(s) and then I'll talk with someone who's familiar with the show for their thoughts about what made it stand out in its time and how relevant it remains (or not) in ours.

BroadwayRadio had planned to start this monthly series back in April when the Pulitzer announcements were originally scheduled. When they got moved into June so that board members would have more time to get vaccinated—hope you are too—so that they could meet in person, we decided to release the early episodes as a bonus for BroadwayRadio’s Patreon subscribers (you can become one by clicking here)

We'll continue to give the subscribers a jumpstart on future episodes too, including the one for this month on Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody, the first play by an African-American to win the Pulitzer.  

But now that the news about this year's winner is out, I'm delighted that  the first episode of "All The Drama" is now available to the public too. The episode is on Why Marry?, a comedy that was the very first play to win a Pulitzer back in 1918. You can find the episode in the BroadwayRadio feed wherever you listen to podcasts or by clicking here. 

I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it. And I also hope that you'll check back for future episodes including the one that we'll release next month on the 2004 winner I Am My Own Wife that features a great conversation I had with its playwright Doug Wright.

April 23, 2021

Finally, A Few Reasons to Celebrate: Shakespeare's Birthday, Covid Vaccinations


People are getting vaccinated, some at a new site right in the middle of New York City's Theater District (click here to read more about that). Meanwhile, theaters are taking steps to reopen with distantly spaced performances, outdoor productions and even more robust plans for the fall. It’s still too soon to declare an end to this dreadful pandemic but I’m already looking forward to the creative work that it will inspire, the changes in what stories will be told, how they'll be told and the people who will get to tell them. As most theater lovers know, Shakespeare, whose 457th birthday we celebrate today, wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra when the plague forced London theaters to close in 1606 (click here for more on that). So who knows what imaginative gifts await us? In the meantime, Happy Birthday to the Bard, and do keep wearing your masks. 


April 17, 2021

Introducing My New "All the Drama" podcast


As some of you know, I’m a contributor to BroadwayRadio and over the past few years, I’ve hosted “Stagecraft,” a show that talks to playwrights and musical book writers about their recent shows (click here to check out some of those episodes). I’ve also occasionally participated in “This Week on Broadway,” the network’s flagship Sunday show that, in normal times, reviews new productions and in recent times, has talked with all kinds of theater folks about the projects they’ve been developing while the theaters have been closed. But now I’ve got something else to share. 

I’m starting a brand new podcast called “All the Drama” that will go in-depth on all the shows that have won the Pulitzer Prize over the last 100+ years. Each episode will explore one of those plays or musicals (10 of the latter have won the prize). I’ll tell you a little about the show and the person (or persons) who created it and I’ll talk to people who have insights into why that show is so special and how it fits into the theatrical canon. 

The first episode on a comedy called Why Marry?, which was the very first show to win a Pulitzer back in 1918, is being released today to our Patreon subscribers (so please consider signing up for that at patreon.com/broadwayradio). A second on the 2004 winner I Am My Own Wife, including a conversation with its playwright Doug Wright, will be available for the Patreon folks next month. We’ll release both of those to the general public and begin our regular schedule when the Pulitzers are announced in June.  

I’m really excited about this so I hope you’ll join me on this new journey through the very best American shows ever produced. 


March 27, 2021

World Theatre Day

Even, or maybe especially, in these pandemic times, it's time to put on a good face and celebrate the theater that we all continue to love:



 


March 11, 2021

A Theatrical Anniversary None of Us Wanted

A year ago today, I was gearing up for the intense out-every-night theatergoing of awards season and, as I told my friend David Gordon who has been publishing a chronicle of this past pandemic year on the Theatermania site (click here to read some of it), I had already scheduled tickets for more than two dozen plays over the coming five weeks and was busy setting up others. Yet, I was also a bit nervous about this strange new virus that seemed to be spreading rapidly. And I wasn’t the only anxious one. Everywhere I went, the scent of Purell hung heavy in the air and friends made uneasy jokes about how often we all were washing our hands. 

Still my theatergoing buddy Bill and I met up at the Greenwich House Theater in the Village to see a preview of the Ars Nova production of the now-ironically named Oratorio for Living Things. We showgoers were forced to wait in the lobby until right before curtain time and were then ushered into a small space that had been outfitted with temporary risers. I remember watching the 94-year-old critic William Wolf and his wife Lillian clamber up to their seats as I thought about what intrepid theater lovers they were. But my nervousness intensified when the show began because the performers meandered through the audience as they sang and I couldn’t help wondering if that were safe for any of us.  

That was the last time I was in a theater. Bill and I were supposed to go to Playwrights Horizons to see Unknown Soldier, the late Michael Friedman’s final work, the next night, March 12, but I called and told him I had become too uneasy to sit in a theater. Later that day, Broadway shut down, supposedly only for a month. Smaller theaters around the city quickly did the same. Two weeks later, Bill Wolf died from complications brought on by the virus. Over the past 12 months, the virus has killed more than half a million other Americans, nearly one out of ten of them New Yorkers. 

So the theaters have remained closed and the pandemic has devastated New York’s theater community. The playwright Terrence McNally died from the virus. The actors Mark Blum and Nick Cordero died. Danny Burstein almost died and then lost his wife Rebecca Luker. And thousands of people were put out of work—not only actors, musicians and designers but those that work in the shops that make costumes and props and in the restaurants and bars that theatergoers frequented after seeing shows. By some estimates, 50,000 theater-related jobs were lost.

But theater folks like Rosie O’Donnell and Seth Rudetsky rallied to the call, organizing online fundraisers for groups like The Actors Fund, which has distributed more than $20 million to some 15,000 people this past year. Others celebrated Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday with a star-studded concert that uplifted more than just that master of the musical.  And still others wrote and recorded monologues and mini-plays chronicling the toll of the epidemic or exploring the racial fissures in the country revealed by last summer’s brutal suffocation of George Floyd by a white cop whose murder trial began this week. 

As the weeks went by, the productions got more and more sophisticated. Some companies like the Mint Theater raided their archives and streamed previously recorded productions for free. Others like New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre, Chicago’s Steppenwolf and London’s Old Vic created entire digital seasons. There’s been a revival of audioplays. And the platform TikTok has even got into the act with a few group-created musicals. Some of it has been so-so; some of it has been great. My blogger pal Jonathan Mandell has assembled a list of some of the very best, which you can find my clicking here.

It’s still too soon to know when we’ll all be able to return in person to the theater again but the possibility seems closer. People, including Sondheim, are getting vaccinated. Joe Biden’s economic recovery package has passed, providing money for individuals and venues to keep going until everyone is back on their feet. 

And this week has brought the announcement that a few Broadway theaters will open in April for performances as part of the city’s NY PopsUp program, which is designed to bring live entertainment back to the city. Venues with flexible spaces that can accommodate distanced seating are scheduling productions for this spring. Commercial producers are predicting that Broadway may open its doors in the fall and tickets for touring shows have begun to go on sale. Meanwhile Tony voting is underway.  

I haven’t written much here over the past year but I have tried to keep up with events in a special magazine, Theater in the Season of the Coronavirus, that I set up on the Flipboard site and I hope you will check it out, which you can do by clicking here.  I hope, too, that by this time next year, we’ll all be back in our seats in our favorite theaters and perhaps, if the theater gods smile on us, we can even do it without needing to wear masks.


February 15, 2021

Black History Portrayed in Civil Rights Plays


We’re in the middle of African American History Month, a commemoration made all the more urgent by the events of last summer that were prompted by the police murders of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, which prompted a growing recognition not only that Black Lives Matter but that such concerns must translate into restorative action if this country is ever to live up to its ideals. 

The theater community has its own work to do in this area—we need more Black and Brown writers, directors, designers, stage manager, board members—but over the years, playwrights, both Black and white, have attempted to wrestle with some of the issues centered around race, particularly through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement.  Below is a list of some of those shows (with late entries highlighted in red) and I’d welcome any additional Movement-centered titles you might have:

All the Way by Robert Schenkkan
This 2014 Tony winner chronicles Lyndon Johnson’s campaign to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and win the presidency in his own right following JFK’s assassination.
 
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin
Loosely based on the murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of the white racists who killed him, this drama focuses on the reactions of both the white and Black resident in a small southern town in which a white man has twice killed black men.

Broadbend, Arkansas book and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, Harrison David Rivers and music by Ted Shen
A working class father’s struggle to balance the needs of his family and his desire to join the Civil Rights Movement is at the heart of this chamber musical about two generations of a southern family.

Caroline, or Change book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori
The lives of a southern Jewish family, their Black maid and her teenage daughter who is drawn to the activism of the Movement rub against one another in this ambitious musical.

Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morriseau
The hot summers of racial unrest in northern cities provide the backdrop for Morriseau’s drama about the owners of an underground nightclub who are brought into the struggles when a white woman seeks refuge in their place from angry demonstrators.
  
Fireflies by Donja R. Love
Set in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the church in Birmingham that killed four young girls, this two-hander charts the personal toll that the struggle for equality takes on the lives of a charismatic young civil rights leader and his wife.

Freedom Riders by Richard Allen and Taran Gray
This musical account of the seven-month campaign to desegregate interstate buses in the south centers around Movement leaders John Lewis and Diane Nash and John Seigenthaler, the white Kennedy administration official who led the negotiations with the recalcitrant southern governors.

From the Mississippi Delta by Endesha Ida Mae Holland
Based on Holland’s memoir of the same name, this play tells the story of a young woman who by the age of 16 is a former inmate and an unwed mother but finds salvation through SNCC, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which recruited young people for civil rights campaigns.

The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson
Three civil rights leaders battle local segregationists, the FBI and their own personal demons as they offer competing strategies for how to protest the case of a young mother arrested for taking her 4-year-old into a whites-only bathroom when the “colored” bathroom was out of order.

Hairspray with book and lyrics by Mark O’Donnell  and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
In this adaptation of the John Waters cult film, a chubby white teen finds love and purpose when she gains a spot on a popular TV show after a Black classmate teachers her how to dance and she then leads a campaign to integrate the show. 

Hallelujah, Baby! with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden
A talented and ambitious singer is torn between two men: a white guy who can open doors for her and a Black civil rights worker who challenges her priorities.

Little Rock by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj
The travails of the nine Black students who integrated the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas are recounted in this docudrama that also mixes in the music that helped to hearten those courageous young pioneers, who, as the play reminds us, were just kids.

The Man in Room 306 by Craig Alan Edwards
Set on the eve of Martin Luther King’s death, this one-man show attempts to reveal the man behind the icon as King meditates on his life from his relationship with his father to his troubles with the FBI and muses about other roads he might have taken.

The Meeting by Jeff Stetson
This two-hander imagines a meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shortly before Malcolm’s real-life assassination in which the two leaders debate the best way to advance the rights of Black people.

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall
Here MLK engages in a conversation with a mysterious woman he finds in his Memphis motel room. He thinks their back-and-forth may result in a romantic interlude but she turns out to be the angel of death with whom he must confront his legacy.
 
The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years by Pearl Cleage
On the surface a romantic comedy centered around a cotillion for wealthy Black families, Cleage’s play takes a serious look at the class divisions within the Black community at the time of the Civil Rights Movement.
 
Party People by UNIVERSES
The Black Power movement takes centerstage as this docudrama chronicles the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party in the ‘60s.
 
Too Heavy for Your Pocket by Jireh Brion Holder
A poor country boy who has dreamed of a better life is faced with the choice of how best to achieve it: accepting a full scholarship to Fisk University or becoming a Freedom Rider.

Waiting to be Invited by S.M. Shephard-Massat
Four middle-aged female factory workers try to work up the courage to test their newly acquired right to eat at a previously "whites only" restaurant inside an Atlanta department store.