July 4, 2015

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2015

Some people claim Memorial Day as the beginning of summer. Other say the season starts when the school year ends and people begin to skip out from work early on Fridays. Sticklers insist that summer arrives with the summer solstice. But just about everyone agrees that the Fourth of July means it’s time to slow down, kick back and relax a bit. For me, that means the time to do two of my favorite things: (1) sitting out on our terrace, reading, snoozing and sipping cocktails as the sun goes down and (2) putting together the latest of my annual summer reading list of books about the theater. This year’s selections are all biographies, oral histories and other non-fiction about the theatrical world that should keep you good company from now until Labor Day. So happy reading and, of course, Happy Fourth of July:

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl. The author of at least a dozen plays, including The Clean House and Stage Kiss, and the mother of three, Ruhl has somehow found time to craft this marvelous collection of mini essays (some running only a couple of sentences) that examine what it means to be a playwright and a parent in the 21st century. Her musings range from the way mothers, from the child-slaying Medea to the suicidal mom in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, are portrayed onstage to a loving tribute to her mentor Paula Vogel. The writing and thinking in this book are as fresh and insightful as they are in her plays and I highlighted so many lines that my copy now looks as though some yellow-blooded creature hemorrhaged all over it.

Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart:  After I posted last year’s list, a reader left a comment suggesting that I read this memoir about the early career of the legendary playwright and director Moss Hart. As it turns out, not only had I already read it but this is one of my favorite books of any kind and I don't know why I haven't put it on one of these lists before now. His biographers point out that Hart, who wrote such classics as The Man Who Came to Dinner and Lady in the Dark and directed such iconic shows as My Fair Lady and Camelot, romanticized his rise from office boy to toast of the town but this often hilarious tale, which centers around his first collaboration with the veteran showmaker George S. Kaufman, is filled with famous names, funny stories and a love for the theater that is totally enchanting and far more entertaining than last year's stage adaptation.

Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way by Stewart F. Lane. Broadway is often called The Great White Way but black performers have been there, acting, singing, dancing and creating shows right from the start, as Lane, himself a six-time Tony-winning producer, chronicles in this terrific pictorial history. He brings the story right up to Cicely Tyson’s Tony-winning performance in the 2013 revival of The Trip to Bountiful but the best chapters are the early ones that focus on the challenges faced by 19th century all-black companies like the one lead by Ira Aldridge, the first African-American to play Othello on a professional stage;  the indignities of the minstrel shows that required performers to wear blackface and the rise of the much-imitated jazz-inflected musicals of the 1920s. It’s all a great read and great preparation for the eagerly anticipated new musical Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Follows, which will be directed by George C. Wolfe, choreographed by Savion Glover and starring Audra McDonald

Elia Kazan A Life: If Moss Hart’s book is the best ever written about a life in the theater (and it is) then Kazan’s memoir is a close runner-up. A member of the influential Group Theatre in the ‘30s and the dominant Broadway director from the ‘40s through the ‘60s who helmed the original productions of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan, who died in 2003 at the age of 94, was present at the creation of our modern dramatic theater. He was also a great writer and his memoir provides a no-holds-barred look at the rivalries among such Group heavyweights as Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets and Stella Adler; Kazan’s symbiotic relationships with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, his fateful decision to name names before Eugene McCarthy’s red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee and his discovery and/or nurturing of such then-young talents as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty.

Stage Blood: Five Tempestuous Years in the Early Life of the National Theatre by Michael Blakemore. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold but, as the subtitle suggests, you can still feel the heat of Blakemore’s fury as he describes his years as a director for London’s National Theatre under his mercurial mentor Laurence Olivier, who founded the company in 1963, and his detested nemesis Peter Hall, who ran it from 1973 to 1988. Blakemore still clearly smarts from what he considers to be his unfair treatment at the National and his whining about one perceived insult after another can get tiresome. Luckily, he also lards the book with lots of rich details about how shows get put together at one of the world’s greatest theaters and that’s catnip for any theater junkie.

Theatreland: A Journey Through the Heart of London's Theatreby Paul Ibell. This grab-bag of history, gossip and other tidbits tracks the London theater world from the days of Shakespeare’s original Globe theater right through to what was going on in the West End in 2009, when the book was published. Ibell has amusing stories to tell about everything from theatrical dynasties like the Redgraves to theatrical hangouts like the Hotel Savoy. And although his references to the shows on the boards in 2009 may date the book, the backstage stories are timeless, and it all adds up to a fun read, particularly if you’re planning a trip to London any time soon.

The Untold Stories of Broadway: Tales From the World's Most Famous Theaters by Jennifer Ashley Tepper. She now runs 54 Below, the cabaret spot that has become a clubhouse for Broadway performers, but Tepper’s true vocation is theater enthusiast of the highest order. Over the past few years, she’s made it her business to interview almost everyone who has had anything to do with the New York theater world and turned what they told her into a two-volume oral history of Broadway from its golden years after World War II, right up to the present. Adding to the fun is the fact that instead of telling the story in chronological order, she’s organized her tale around Broadway's iconic theaters, with people from producers like the legendary Hal Prince to the stagehands and doormen, who truly have seen it all, sharing bite-size anecdotes about those places where the magic happens.

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