July 5, 2014

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2014

The Fourth of July was yesterday so that means summer is definitely here.  Which also means it’s time for my annual list of books to keep theater lovers company through the remaining eight lazy weeks until Labor Day. The selections this year are all novels and memoirs, just the kind of easy reading to do while you’re kicking back at the beach, in the backyard or, in my case, sitting on the terrace with a cool drink nearby (my husband K is into making sangria this year). I hope you’ll enjoy these reads as much as I’ve enjoyed finding them for you: 

Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark: A Novel by David Hewson and Richard Armitage. Rewriting Shakespeare has become a cottage industry; Amazon lists at least a half-dozen novelizations of Hamlet alone. But this latest one is so cleverly done I almost forgot that I knew how the story ends. Not all of the backstories the authors devise—turning Polonius from a foolish busybody into a Machiavellian manipulator, making Hamlet and Ophelia secret lovers—worked for me but this is fan fiction of the highest order. It’s only available as an audiobook but A.J. Harley is an elegant narrator and who doesn’t like to hear a good story well told?

The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble. No doubt borrowing from her own early years as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and 15-year marriage to an actor, Drabble tells the story of Emma, a restless young mother with two small children who is forced to leave London when her husband is hired for a season with a celebrated repertory company in residence in rural Hereford. Emma encounters all the usual backstage suspects, as well as the temptation of an affair with the company’s charismatic leader. This deliciously high-brow soap, which first came out in 1964, was out of print for a while but it’s now available as a download on both Amazon and iTunes. 
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón.  Four summers ago, The New Yorker named Alarcón one of the 20 most promising writers under 40 and so this novel sits high up on the literary food chain. Alarcón, who was born in Lima, Peru, but grew up in Birmingham, Ala., centers his tale around a young South American actor who joins a guerrilla theater troupe that travels through the countryside performing a politically provocative play. Then, unexpectedly, he finds himself playing a different kind of role in a real-life drama. The writing is languid, the narrative is quixotic but the belief in the power of theater is spellbinding. 

Little Did I Know by Mitchell Maxwell. It’s Andy Hardy meets “Chinatown” in this noirish novel about a freshly-minted college grad and his pals who open a summer stock theater in a New England town dominated by a powerful rich man, his floozy wife and a mysterious crime. It takes a while for this novel to get going (I'm only half way through) and there’s more noir than suits my taste but the let’s-put-on-a-show parts provide a fun, if idealistic, look a at what makes people fall in love with making theater.
Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle.  These are really YA novels but more and more adults are reading kids’ books and this series is tailor-made for us grown-up theater geeks. They chronicle the adventures of Nate Foster, a middle-school misfit with a passion for musicals and a more than passable singing voice. With the help of his best friend Libby, he sneaks away from his small Pennsylvania hometown to a New York audition for a musical version of “E.T.” In the process, he meets all kinds of showbiz types, learns what goes into making a Broadway show and finds the courage to be himself.  The result are books that are equally heartwarming and hilarious. 

Carpets and Other Banana Skins: The Autobiography by Rupert Everett. As charming on the page as he is on the stage and the screen, Everett has written a piquant tell-all about his early years as a young actor in the 1970s and ‘80s.  He holds back little and his stories range from his days as a newbie in drama school and a regional rep company to his experiences on the celebrity party scene and as a rent boy for famous clients such as Ian McKellan. There’s lots of other nigh-profile name dropping too but it’s done with finesse, and Everett is such an excellent writer that his book is a guilt-free pleasure.

Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History by Glen Berger. The mega-expensive and problem-plagued musical may now be closed but this account of how it came to be is still entertaining. Berger, who was there from the beginning as Julie Taymor’s co-writer, is somewhat self-serving but he kept notes throughout the process and has turned them into a classic tale of theatrical hubris that’s hard for any theater junkie to resist.

Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro.  Celebrity interviews are a dime a dozen but I’ve never come across any as revealing as those in this collection of interviews with 20 of Broadway's biggest stars including Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald and Idina Menzel. In long, anecdote-rich conversations, these talented women talk honestly about the joys of being on stage, the difficulties of balancing family life with a career in the theater, the challenges of being a woman in a field still dominated by men, the realities of aging. If you only have time for one book this summer, make it this one.  

On the other hand, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to the suggestions from previous years:


Anonymous said...

I do appreciate your annual summer reading lists.

One title that has never made your lists, but which I consider to be a classic no less (and arguably even more) essential than "The Season," is Moss Hart's "Act One." If you haven't read it yet, you just might not yet have read your all-time favorite theater book.

broadwayandme said...

Thanks for the kind words and for leaving a comment. You're right about "Act One," which is one of my all-time favorite books in any genre. I tend to share the books I've read over the previous year and since I read that one so long ago, it's never made the list. But I'll try to remember to rectify that next year.