July 2, 2011

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2011

The thermometer has been hitting the 80s for weeks now and the summer solstice came almost a fortnight ago but the lazy days of summer officially begin this Fourth of July weekend.  Workman have been refortifying our terrace, which means I haven’t been able to hang out there as I love to do during hot days and balmy evenings but that hasn’t stopped me from reading lots of books, imbibing lots of summer drinks (my husband K has been mixing up some yummy cocktails made with St-Germain) or putting together my fifth (!) annual list of books for theater lovers to enjoy over the next eight weeks of summer. Like last year, the majority of the suggestions are novels but there are a few nifty nonfiction reads too. So, happy reading and happy summer.

Stagestruck by Peter Lovesey. Few things are more relaxing than curling up with a good old-fashioned British mystery on a summer afternoon. This year’s recommendation is an updated spin on the old familiar tropes: the idiosyncratic detective, the isolated group of suspects—each with a good motive for the murder, and the requisite red herrings are all there but so are cell phones, laptops and social networking. Plus, there's a theater ghost.

The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber. Imagine "The Da Vinci Code," only the object of the mysterious treasure hunt isn’t the Holy Grail but a long-lost Shakespeare manuscript. There are the usual hidden clues and improbable coincidences typical of the genre but this is still a page turner even if you don’t know your Mercutio from your Malvolio.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips. The question of who really wrote Shakespeare is an evergreen in scholarly circles and with mystery writers looking for a good MacGuffin.  But no one has mined the subject to better effect than Phillips, who has not only written a real romp of a novel but included a complete faux Shakespeare play as well.

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller.  Some people will see this as a 9/11 novel but those of us who love theater will cherish this story about a young playwright whose lover died in the attacks and an actor whose wife is terminally ill as a sensitive portrayal of the connection that every great artist draws between art and life.

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor.  There are two theater books by this name.  One is a memoir by the former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. But this one is a lyrical novel based on the real-life but ill-fated romance of the Irish playwright J.M. Synge and Molly Allgood, the actress who was his muse.

Patti LuPone: A Memoir by Patti LuPone.  She is now not only the reigning diva of musical theater but a damn good raconteur too.  LuPone's chatty memoir hits all the highlights of her career—her student days at Juilliard, the itinerant years in John Houseman’s Acting Company, her breakthrough in Evita, her firing from Sunset Boulevard, the later triumphs in Sweeney Todd and Gypsy.  And being Patti, she doesn’t hesitate to name (or call names) the people who’ve gotten on her bad side along the way.  This is a terrific read but the audiobook version, which Patti reads herself, is even more fun.
Must You Go? by Antonia Fraser. The title comes from the question that the playwright Harold Pinter asked the historian Antonia Fraser on the night that they met at a party, fell instantly in love, and later scandalized Britain by divorcing their spouses (she was the mother of six at the time) and setting up house together. Their passion for one another never cooled and over the next three decades, until his death in 2008, they were the most glamorous couple in the theater world and hobnobbed with boldface names around the globe, all of which Fraser details in this moving memoir, drawn from the diary entries she wrote throughout those years.

Theater Geek by Mickey Rapkin.  What’s more summery than summer camp? Rapkin, a writer and self-confessed theater geek, followed three talented kids in their final summer at Stagedoor Manor, probably the most famous theater camp in the country.  Instead of campfire songs, the kids there sing show tunes—and they do it very well. Robert Downey, Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jon Cryer are among the most famous grads.  Rapkin’s writing is only so-so but the stories he tells are, as Variety might have said in the old days, boffo.

And, just in case you still haven’t gotten round to it, here’s a bonus read: The Season by William Goldman.  Some people are saying that Goldman’s behind-the-scenes account of the 1967-68 Broadway season is outdated. That's a matter of debate but there's no question about the fact that if you haven’t read it, you should.  After all, we don’t harpoon whales anymore and “Moby-Dick” still works.

Finally, here are the links to my previous summer reading lists:

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