After 16 long and scary months, the coronavirus seems to be in retreat. Over half of the country has now gotten at least one vaccination shot. And here in New York City, 60% of all adults are fully vaccinated. So Covid safety restrictions are being eased, a growing number of shows are announcing dates when they’ll open in the fall or earlier and a return to a semblance of normalcy almost seems within reach. Heck, I even went out last week to see my first show since March 2020.
But mainly I’ve been kicking back on my terrace as I usually do each summer, with a cocktail in one hand (I’m going old-school with Cosmos this year) and something good to read in the other—or sometimes a pair of buds in my ear to listen to an audiobook. And, as usual, I’ve put together a list of suggestions for those of you also looking for something theater-related to read over the coming (hopefully) more relaxed weeks of summer.
And this year, I've got something a little extra for you too: my friend James Marino who heads up BroadwayRadio invited me to record a special episode of “Today on Broadway” to talk about some of the choices I included this year. We also interviewed one of the authors on the list, Eddie Shapiro, to discuss "A Wonderful Guy," his terrific collection of conversations with some of Broadway’s best leading men. You can listen to all of it by clicking here.
But right now here, in alphabetical order, is this year’s eclectic list of books (half of them novels) that I think will keep just about any theater lover good company through Labor Day.
A is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies from A to Z by John Robert Allman: This delightful picture book profiles some of Broadway’s top leading ladies with rhymes and colorful drawings. It’s aimed at young kids but it’s also a treat for us grown-up theater lovers too.
A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke: The undeniable parallels between both the author’s tabloid divorce from his movie-star wife Uma Thurman and his portrayal of Hotspur in Lincoln Center’s starry 2003 production of Henry IV may be what draw readers to this novel but the real delights are the dynamic prose and obvious passion for the craft of acting that Hawke packs into this winner. He also obviously had fun narrating the audiobook version of this roman à clef and listening to him read it puts the cherry on top of a very yummy sundae.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: Drawn from Evaristo’s experience as the co-founder of Britain’s Theatre of Black Women in the 1980s, these interlocking stories center around 12 characters, many of them actors, directors and playwrights, as they grapple with such societal issues as racism and patriarchy and such intimate ones as friendship and gender identity. Although it won the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction in 2019, some critics have complained about Evaristo’s unconventional punctuation but once again I listened to the audio version and I was inspired by these stories of women determined to succeed on their own terms.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: Only the bare facts are known about William Shakespeare’s personal life but this lush, literary novel imagines the love story between him and his wife Anne Hathaway (called Agnes here, as the author says Hathaway’s father called her in his will). At the tale's center is the grief the couple shared over the loss of their only son and the subsequent creation of one of the Bard’s greatest works. Also included is a bravura set-piece tracing the journey of the bubonic plague from an Egyptian port city to the village of Stratford-upon-Avon that eerily echoes our own recent pandemic experience.
Lilyville: Mother, Daughter and Other Roles I’ve Played by Tovah Feldshuh: Readers looking for backstage gossip about the many theatrical productions, movies and television shows that this four time Tony-nominated actress has done in her five-decade career may be disappointed to find that this memoir is more focused on the relationship that she had with her mother. But as fans who have attended her concerts will attest, Feldshuh is a great raconteur and listeners to the audiobook version will get the extra bonus of hearing her occasionally break out into song.
Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris: I’m friendly with Harris and so I was predisposed to touting his book but now having read it, I can say that it stands on its own merit. It’s an impressive warts-and-all survey of the life of the remarkable performer and director who was famous for more than six decades and literally (and I mean that in the literal sense) knew everyone who was anyone in show business (and elsewhere). And this bio, based on over 200 interviews with Nichols’ closest friends (from Elaine May and Gloria Steinem to Lorne Michaels and Stephen Sondheim) will make you feel as though you know him too.
Musical Misfires: Three Decades of Broadway Musical Heartbreak by Mark A. Robinson and Thomas S. Hischak: Just about every one of the over 100 shows featured in this survey of musicals that opened between 1989 and 2019 will have its champions (I’m here for you Passion) but none of them caught on with the wider public. As the authors note these shows opened in the era when the old guard who made musicals were passing away and the cost of mounting a show on Broadway was rising into eight figures making the odds of success higher than they had ever been. There are explanations about what went wrong for each of the shows but instead of being depressing, their struggles are evidence of the continuing determination to tell stories with music. The book is currently only available as a Kindle download but it's good enough to justify downloading that app on your smartphone.
Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan: If romance novels are your thing, this one which centers around Kay Swift, the great love of George Gershwin’s life, may be for you. It serves up a fictional account of the couple’s 12-year relationship during which Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira wrote their biggest Broadway hits and their masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Meanwhile Swift, also an accomplished musician, composed four Broadway shows including Fine and Dandy which produced “Can’t We Be Friends,” the breakout song she wrote with her husband the financier James Warburg. The novel also details how Swift eventually divorced Warburg but—80-year spoiler alert—failed to marry Gershwin before his premature death in 1937 at the age of just 38.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls: An amateur production of Romeo and Juliet provides the background for this bittersweet novel that flashes back to the love story between two teens who are trying to figure out who they are and then returns to the present to look at who they’ve become. Along the way it makes small detours into the lives of their troubled parents as well as those of the eccentrics and misfits who make up the theater company putting on their show. They’re all good company and give good testament to the power of art.
The Understudy by Ellen Tovatt Leary: A former actress who spent most of her career in the 1970s as an understudy, Leary conveniently sets her story in a world before cellphones so that just the right kinds of misunderstanding can happen. With one how-did-this-get-into-the-story exception, this is an amiable fantasy version of what every young actress hopes her life will be and it goes down as easy as a gin and tonic on a hot summer’s day.
We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman: Part of this gentle satire about the agonies and ecstasies of being an artist take place in Los Angeles but the best parts are set in the New York theater world that Silverman, the author of such provocative plays as The Moors and Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties, knows well. And it’s great fun trying to figure out the real-life counterparts to her colorful cast of characters.
A Wonderful Guy: Conversations with the Great Men of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro: A companion to Shapiro’s previous book "Nothing Like A Dame," this one focuses on 19 of Broadway’s leading musical male stars ranging from Joel Grey to Jonathan Groff. The men are funny, insightful and sometimes even painfully honest about their profession and their love of it.
Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now over 150 suggestions from previous years: