July 3, 2013

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2013

Summer is my favorite time of the year. And one of the things I love about it is sharing this annual list of books for theater lovers to read at the beach, under a tree or, perhaps like me, on a city terrace while sipping something cool, crisp and refreshing (Prosecco is my drink of choice this summer). The books this year are a bit more eclectic than usual, which I hope means there will be something to suit your theatrical interests whatever they may be:

Showbiz, A Novel by Ruby Preston. If you’re still in “Smash” withdrawal, this may be the one for you. For Showbiz is a mash-up of fiction (the murder of a theater critic) Broadway legends (an ogre-like producer named Margolies borrows the birth name and personality of David Merrick) and the contemporary Broadway scene (everyone is competing for Hollywood stars to anchor their shows). It follows the professional and amorous adventures of a young producer named Scarlett Savoy as she tries to solve the whodunit and put on her first show. Just as with “Smash,” true insiders may wince at some of the details (I mean does anyone really call the restaurant Angus McIndoe, “The Angus"?) but the story is still a romp and Preston has already written a sequel called Staged. (You can find it here.)
The Year of the King: An Actor's Diary and Sketchbook by Antony Sher. The South African-born actor is as accomplished a visual artist as he is a theatrical one and both of his talents are on vivid display in this illustrated memoir of the year 1984, from the time he was approached to star in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard III straight through to the triumphant opening night. It would be hard to find a finer book about the process an actor uses—or the angst he sometimes goes through—to create a memorable role. The book is also filled with cozy anecdotes about his friends and acquaintances (Michael Gambon, Laurence Olivier) and the pen and ink drawings that Sher made as he tried to envision his image of Richard. (You can find it here.)

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin. The main characters in this literary novel are Catherine, a young heiress trying to make a name for herself in the New York theater world; and Harry, a former OSS officer struggling to save his family business from the mob after returning home from World War II. Their love affair plays out over 700-pages and the parts devoted to the theater are smaller than I wanted them to be but the writing is gorgeous. If beautiful prose is your thing, this could be an enchanting way to while away lazy summer afternoons. (You can find it here.) 

Jack Be NImble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director by Jack O'Brien. As his Tonys for Hairspray, Henry IV and The Coast of Utopia show, O’Brien is a hell of a director.  But who knew he was an equally gifted writer? I’m only half-way through this myself but O'Brien’s coming-of-age-in-the-theater memoir is shaping up to be one of the best books of any kind I’ve read this year. The heart of the book is his relationship as general factotum to the director Ellis Rabb, who founded the APA, the repertory company that took serious theater to cities across the country in the ‘60s before regional theaters were common. It’s a wonderful look back at an almost-forgotten time in American theater.  And it’s a great yarn too cause O’Brien doesn’t hold back; gossip is shared, secrets are told and the whole thing is a delight. (You can find it here.)
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. To be honest, this isn’t technically a book about theater but its fictional account of the teenage ballerina who posed for Edgar Degas’ famous statue, is the source material for the same story that will be told in Little Dancer, the new Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical that is scheduled to debut at the Kennedy Center in Fall 2014 in a production directed by Susan Stroman.  It’s also a heartrending look at how difficult life could be for young girls who aspired to be on the stage in the 19th century. (You can find it here.)

The Making of Cabaret by Keith Garebian. Based on interviews with the show’s creators, this detailed chronicle tracks the evolution of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s now-classic musical from its origins in the stories Christopher Isherwood wrote about his time in Weimar Germany through the original 1966 Broadway production—and beyond, including the 1972 movie version with Liza Minnelli and the landmark 1998 Broadway revival with the late Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming as the MC. Along the way, Garebian makes informative detours into such topics as the history of European cabarets. It's catnip for theater history junkies. (You can find it here.)

Bad Publicity by Joanne Sydney Lessner. Isobel Spice, the heroine of this mystery series, is a struggling actress who makes ends meet by taking temp jobs.  As luck would have it—and fiction demands—people keep turning up dead wherever she’s assigned and so, in between auditions, she helps suss out who the killer is. There are more red herrings in this book than you’ll find pickled at a kosher deli but Lessner, herself an actress (and, full disclosure, a friend) has a good time tossing in bits of theater lore as well. (You can find it here.)

Great Moments in the Theatre by Benedict Nightingale. Who doesn’t love lists?  And who better to put one together on the most significant productions in theater history than Nightingale, the longtime chief theater critic for The London Times?  The first production cited is The Oresteia back in 548 B.C. but the book quickly moves on to Richard Burbage’s Hamlet in 1601 (the Hamlets of David Garrick in 1742, Sarah Bernhardt in 1899 and Simon Russell Beale in 2000 get their own chapters too). Productions in Dublin, Madrid, Moscow, Paris, St. Petersburg and New York are noted but most of the shows discussed first appeared in London, including Mark Rylance’s performance in Jerusalem, which ends the book. Nightingale deftly weaves erudite scholarship, backstage gossip and personal memories into short, easily digestible chapters that can be read sequentially or at random. (You can find it here.)

And to keep things easy, here are the links to my previous summer reading suggestions:




Ronni said...

I just discovered your blog. I, too, am a person who loves theater and books, so I definitely want to try some of your suggestions. However, I wanted to let you know that the musical "Little Dancer" is not based on "The Painted Girls" or on any other existing work. It is a completely original script. I was lucky enough to attend an early presentation of the show, so I am certain this is the case. It's going to be FABULOUS

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for letting me know, Ronnie. And I look forward to seeing the show.