I’m starting off with novels because I love escaping into other worlds, especially the world of the theater.
Cyclorama by Adam Langer If you read and liked Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise” (which I recommended back in 2019) then you’ll probably like this new novel about a group of high school kids in the Chicago suburbs and the dangerously charismatic drama teacher they had in the 1980s. But this isn’t just a rip-off of Choi’s National Book Award winner, Langer has a lot to say about current politics, the environment and most especially about how teachers can affect the lives of their students for years after they graduate.
Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad A company working on a play is a familiar subject for theater-themed novels and this one offers the usual rivalries between actors and the stressful events that threaten to jeopardize the production. But what sets this version apart is that the play, Hamlet, is being readied for a performance in the Israeli-controlled West Bank by an all-Palestinian cast. It’s told through the experience of a British-Palestinian actress who, fleeing London after a bad love affair, tries to reconnect to the homeland she left years before and to the art that defines her true identity.
Someday, Somewhere, Maybe by Lauren Graham Although she’s now probably best known for starring in the cult TV show “Gilmore Girls,” Graham remembers what it was like trying to break into show business—working low-paying day jobs, sharing cheap apartments, going on endless auditions—and she’s turned all of that into this charming romcom about a young actress who is making one final run at her dreams (including a possible relationship with the hunky movie star in her acting class) before giving up, returning home and settling for marriage to the longtime boyfriend she rarely sees and hardly knows any more. The outcome isn’t really in doubt for attentive readers but Graham makes it fun getting there.
A Tender Thing by Emily Neuberger Set in 1959, this novel is another pastiche of familiar tropes: the young heroine’s passion for Broadway and for a talented theater maker is reminiscent of the classic novel “Marjorie Morningstar;” (which I recommended in 2020); the everyone-hates-him-but-he’s-brilliant director is a nod to Jerome Robbins and their musical about an interracial love affair borrows heavily from West Side Story. Even so, I still couldn’t put this one down. But do avoid the audiobook version because Neuberger, who narrates it herself, takes every opportunity she can to sing numbers from her faux musical, which is fine at first but really annoying by the sixth, seventh and eighth time she does it.
The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz This delightful murder mystery is set in London’s Theaterland. And it has great fun blurring the line between fiction and fact with Horowitz inserting a same-named version of himself into the narrative as the prime suspect when a mean-spirited theater critic is murdered after publishing a savage review of the play he’s just opened. The only hope the fictional Horowitz has of clearing his name is if he can persuade the detective who is supposed to have co-authored his previous books to track down the actual culprit.
Up With the Sun by Thomas Mallon The actor Dick Kallman won a Theater World Award for his performance in the 1951 musical Seventeen and he starred in the short-lived TV sitcom “Hank” a decade later but Kallman’s career never really took off, in part because of his abrasive personality. In 1980, he achieved the kind of fame no one wants when he became the victim of a gruesome murder. All of that is compellingly recounted in Mallon’s fictional version of Kallman’s life's story but the best part of the book may be its vivid portrayal of how young Broadway actors came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s.
I love first-hand accounts of theater history because reading them—or at least the best of them—is like sitting over cool drinks on a hot day while sharing juicy gossip with a good friend.
The Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up at New York’s Legendary Hotel by Michael Elihu Colby Who wouldn’t have wanted to be little Mikey Colby? During the Golden Age of Broadway, from 1947 to 1986, his grandparents owned and operated the Algonquin Hotel. Everyone who was anyone in the theater world during those days stayed at the Algonquin, ate at the Algonquin, drank at the Algonquin. And, in some cases, performed at the Algonquin and Colby, the apple of his grandparents’ eyes, had a front-row seat to all of it: meeting celebrities, going to the openings of their shows and eventually, writing some of his own. I’ve been putting this list together for years now and it's hard to think of a better summer read.
Chita by Chita Rivera with Patrick Pacheco To say that Rivera, now 90, is a living legend is an understatement. She originated the roles of Anita in West Side Story, Velma Kelly in Chicago and the title character in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She’s also a ten-time Tony nominee who has won three of them, including one for Lifetime Achievement; was the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and is the namesake of the Chita Rivera Awards that celebrate excellence in dance and choreography on Broadway, off-Broadway and on film. Rivera looks back at all of that in this kind-hearted memoir (she even has nice things to say about the notoriously difficult Jerome Robbins) and although she’s always been a private person, her co-writer, our mutual friend Patrick Pacheco, gets her to talk a bit about some of her past relationships, which include affairs with the legendary Broadway restaurateur Joe Allen and the even more legendary entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.
Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green I suppose this is a semi-memoir since all of the text was actually written by Green, the chief theater critic for The New York Times, and most of it was written after the 2014 death of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, the mother of Adam Guettel, the intimate of Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim and an accomplished composer (Once Upon a Mattress) and author (“Freaky Friday”) in her own right. But drawing from taped interviews he conducted with Rodgers before her death, Green has worked hard to capture her gleefully acerbic—and yet often self-deprecating—voice. And, of course it’s hard to beat the story of someone who knew everyone in show business. I know Jesse slightly but even if I didn’t, I’d be recommending this one just as enthusiastically as I am now.
Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent by Anthony Rapp. There may not be as much behind-the-scenes gossip about Rent as fans might want in this memoir by the actor who originated the role of Mark in the workshop production of Jonathan Larson’s landmark musical and then went on to play it during the show’s legendary run at New York Theatre Workshop, on Broadway, in the national tour, in the London revival and in the ill-conceived movie. But there’s enough. Rapp has also turned his memories into a one-man show that recently closed in New York but that will soon be touring to other parts of the country. But his book goes even deeper, bravely revealing some of the not-so-pleasant parts of himself as a young man learning to deal with fame and grief, particularly after the death of his beloved mother.
SOME OTHER GOOD STUFF
And then there are the theater books that fall into a category all their own.
Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation by Nancy Schoenberger Few characters in any genre are as memorable—or can be evoked by the utterance of just one name—as Blanche DuBois, the tragic heroine of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Schoenberger had the very smart idea of chronicling how playing this iconic role affected six actors, ranging from Jessica Tandy, who created the part in the original 1947 production, to the 2018 staging at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco that gave Jemier Jenkins the chance to be one of the few black actresses to tackle the role in a major production. The book reveals how each woman stepped into the role and how difficult it was for her to leave it behind. It’s a must-read for serious theater lovers.
Gays on Broadway by Ethan Mordden In one way or another, Broadway has provided a home and a haven for gay artists and their stories. In his latest book, Mordden, the dean of theater historians, chronicles how those actors and the shows in which they performed both reflected and shaped America’s changing attitude toward gay people, from the days in which queer artists had to maneuver around the Wales Padlock Act, which made it illegal to depict “sex degeneracy, or sex perversion” onstage; to the ways in which plays like As Is, the Normal Heart and Angels in America helped to make the AIDS crisis a part of the national conversation.
Designing Broadway: How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre by Derek McLane and Eila Mell AND Transforming Space Over Time: Set Design and Visual Storytelling with Broadway’s Legendary Directors by Beowulf Boritt Two of the very best set designers working today—two-time Tony winner McLane and two-time Tony winner Boritt—have turned out terrific books on how they and their peers create the physical worlds in which plays and musical take place. Each tells in-the-room-where-it-happened stories about how they devised such sets as the colorful phantasmagoria McLane designed for Moulin Rouge and the erector-set marvel Boritt created for Act One and they share conversations detailing how they’ve worked with collaborators ranging from Hal Prince to Kenny Leon. Both books offer master classes in scenic design. But if you’re feeling summer-time lazy, the pictures and illustrations alone are worth the price of these books.
Fifty Key Stage Musicals, edited by Robert W. Schneider and Shannon Agnew This invaluable collection of essays not only makes the case for the importance of each of the 50 shows it covers but for the book itself as one of the very best of the attempts to rank the shows that have shaped the musical theater canon. It starts with The Black Crook, which opened in 1866, and so delighted theatergoers with its scantily dressed (for the times) chorus girls that it was revived 15 times over the next 20 years and it moves right up to the contemporary phenomenon of Hamilton. Each show gets its own chapter, written by an expert who provides historical context and defends its right to be on the list. I tried to restrict myself to one chapter a day but failed at that and ended up tearing through the whole thing in just a few sittings.
Musicals for Dummies by Seth Rudetsky Everything anyone could possibly want to know about musical theater (what an orchestrator does, which stars broke out in which Broadway shows, how to get tickets for a hot show, why people should pay attention to community theater) is packed into this book. But even though all of it is told in Rudetsky’s inimitable chatty style, I hadn’t planned to include the book on this list because most people reading this post already know a lot of that stuff. However, the Kindle version of the book includes wonderful links that Rudetsky—and who knows more about musicals than him—has curated to illustrate many of the points he makes and although I don’t much care for watching videos online, I was transported by his selections. This isn’t just a summer read, it’s an all-around-the-year read.
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: