July 2, 2008

Summer Reading '08

Time flies. Particularly summer time. But my husband K and I have set up our terrace and I’m spending as many hours as possible out there, often with a book (usually about theater) in one hand and a glass of wine (preferably a dry rosé) in the other. Your favorite summer kickback spot may be a blanket at the beach, a hammock in the yard, a chair on the porch or a spot of grass under a tree in the park. Wherever it is, below is my annual list of reading suggestions to keep any theater lover good company in the weeks between the 4th of July and Labor Day:

1. Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood by Arthur Laurents.
Throughout his nearly 70-year career, Laurents has had a reputation for calling them as he sees them. And, having worked on such iconic musicals as West Side Story, Gypsy and La Cage aux Folles, in addition to such memorable movies as “Anastasia”, “Turning Point” and “The Way We Were”, he’s seen a lot. He’s also known just about every other creative genius who worked on the stage or screen over the past eight decades and, of course, he’s a superb storyteller. Laurents published this book in 2000 when he was 82; he turns 90 this month and although he’s been busy directing the current Broadway revival of Gypsy and preparing a new production of West Side Story, I’m selfishly hoping he’s also working on a sequel to this warts-and-all account of Broadway at its best.

2. Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews. Many celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten but it’s clear that Andrews wrote this one herself. And the book, which came out this spring, makes it equally clear that she’s as gifted on the page as she has always been on the stage. And don’t be scared off by the reference to her “early years.” There is quite a bit of family stuff but Andrews began performing professionally before she was 12 and was starring as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady before she was 21. So her early memories are filled with wonderful anecdotes about the people she worked with, including Rex Harrison, Noel Coward, and Richard Burton. But what really makes this book special is its detailed and intimate look at all the hard work that goes into making a performance look effortless—including a diet tip from the great Moss Hart.

3. Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies by Ted Chapin. During his last year in college, Chapin persuaded his professors to let him do a senior project on the development of a new Broadway musical. The show was Follies and, although he waited over 30 years before turning his school notes into a book in 2003, he gives a vibrant, fly-on-the-wall account of what happened as Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince and Michael Bennett created that legendary production, from the first table reading straight through to opening night. I have a small acquaintance with Chapin but that’s not why I’m recommending his book. I’m doing it because it offers a unique look at three indisputable masters of the form as they’re in the heat of charting a new course for it. Chapin got top marks for his senior project and this book deserves them too.

4. Three Girls and Their Brother: A Novel by Theresa Rebeck. This lively comic novel, which came out earlier this year, has been billed as a satiric look at the culture’s current obsession with fame and it does tell the story of an hilariously tumultuous year in the life of the gorgeous granddaughters of a renowned literary critic after their photo appears in "The New Yorker," leading to their becoming top fashion models and hot commodities on the celebrity circuit. Rebeck, the author of such plays as Mauritius and Omnium Gatherum, which she co-wrote with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, has a lot of fun with the vagaries of fashion shoots, TV interview shows and the movie business but the best part of the book is her also-amusing but totally affectionate look at the off-Broadway theater world when the youngest girl tries her hand at doing a play and falls in love, as Rebeck clearly has, with stage life.

5. Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life, Love, and Musical Theatre by Seth Rudetsky. Does this man ever sleep? In addition to playing in and conducting Broadway orchestras, acting (he was one of the bathhouse guys in the recent revival of The Ritz), hosting the radio show “Seth's Big Fat Broadway” on Sirius Satellite Radio, and “Seth's Broadway Chatterbox, a weekly live talk show at the cabaret club Don’t Tell Mama, volunteering for such events as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and serving as the vocal coach to the contestants on TV’s “Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods,” Rudetsky published his first novel last year. His delightful roman á clef is, of course, a showbiz tale—chocked full of insider stuff about putting on a show—but it’s also a sweet gay love story.

6. Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theater by John Bush Jones. There are lots of histories of the Broadway musical around but what sets this one apart is its thought-provoking analysis of how shows over the years reflected and refracted the political issues and social trends of their times. Jones, a retired theater professor at Brandeis University, saw his first musical when he was just five years old and, as he says in his dedication, he has never lost his love for them. His perceptive account of the ups and downs of African-Americans in musicals is worth the price of the book. But this survey, published in 2003, is equally fascinating about how cocky patriotism and wary xenophobia influenced George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones at the turn of the last century, while the uneasiness about the growing power of big business informed Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown at the beginning of this one, You may not buy all of Jones's arguments but you’ll be intrigued by all of them.

7. Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960's Ignited a New American Theater by David Crespy. The names Al Carmines, Joe Cino and Ellen Stewart aren’t as familiar to the average theatergoer today as they should be and this terrific little book makes it clear why every theater lover should not only know them but be grateful to them. All three were pioneers in the experimental theater movement that came of age in Greenwich Village during the late 1950s and early 1960s and that provided the training ground for such playwrights as Edward Albee, Amiri Baraka who was then known as LeRoi Jones, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson. Crespy, a playwright and professor of theatre at the University of Missouri, published his book in 2003 and includes a chapter about contemporary companies that are still pushing the envelope but it’s his colorful narrative of those early days that makes this book a treat.

8. The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway by William Goldman. Yes; this was on last year’s list but as I said then, no theater reading list is complete without this award-winning playwright and screenwriter's inside account of the 1967-68 Broadway season. It is the “Moby Dick” of theater books and every self-respecting theater lover should read it—at least twice.

Happy reading. I’m taking the holiday weekend off, so Happy 4th too. And whatever your choice of liquid refreshment, have an extra glass for Broadway, and for me.


Anonymous said...

I'd also recommend Charles Strouse's candid, moving memoir Put on a Happy Face (it's only been out a few weeks), full of showbiz goodies about the making of Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy (starring Sammy Davis Jr), Annie, and lots more, with at least one horrific anecdote about Arthur Laurents and a shocking bit of race hate directed at Strouse when he drove Butterfly McQueen around through the segregated South.

--James Wolcott

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks for the great recommendations. I'm always looking for good reads for long flights.

Glad to see Julie Andrews' memoirs has made your list. I'm about halfway through and absolutely riveted. Now if we could only get her to return again to Broadway.

Esther said...

I hope you and K have a wonderful Fourth of July weekend. Thanks for all the reading suggestions. I just finished Broadway Nights, and I loved it. I hope Seth finds the time to write a sequel!

jan@broadwayandme said...

My apologies to all of you for my belated response to your always appreciated comments. And James, special thanks to you for the Strouse recommendation. His memoir has been on my reading pile for the past month but since I didn't get around to reading it before posting, I didn't include it. I'm glad your comment made up for that.

Dorian said...

I'd love to read some of these, actually. Unfortunately, the bookstore in my hometown is somewhat lacking in theatre-related literature.

Julie Andrews has in fact written at least one children's book, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. It's utterly charming. I owned it and read it often right up until I lost it (along with my entire 300+ collection of books) when I was twelve.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Dorian, I was so sad to read about the loss of your books, especially at such a young age. But you can get the books I suggested, as well as any others you'd like at Amazon.com. And if you click on the titles of any of the books listed on this post, it will take you right to that Amazon page. So good luck and happy reading. jan

Anonymous said...

Another great read is Letters from Backstage by Michael Kostroff.

Its one man's story of being on tour with The Producers and Les Mis. Its hilarious, sad, heartwarming all at once, and it really puts you in the mood to see a show (as if anyone was ever not in the mood to see a show...)

jan@broadwayandme said...

Improbable Fiction, thanks for this terrific-sounding suggestion. I immediately put it in my Amazon.com cart and am really looking forward to reading it. Thanks, too, for reading B&M. jan