June 29, 2024

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2024

Summer has come roaring in this year. Temperatures seem to be setting records everywhere, making many of us (O.K., me) want to kick back and chill out with a cold drink and a cool book. The drink of choice for me this year is champagne (I just stocked up on a whole bunch of those cute half bottles of it) and, as always, the book for me tends to be theater-related. The arrival of summer and the approaching July 4th holiday also mean it's time again for me to share my annual recommendations for books about the theater with those of you who love theater as much as I do. The list below is my usual mix of new books and old ones, fiction and non-fiction all of which I think will keep you in good company right through Labor Day.    


Finding a new novel about the theater is one of my favorite things because it allows me to disappear completely into a world I love.

All the World’s A Stage Fright: Misadventures of a Clandestine Critic: A Novella by Bob Abelman  This humorous roman a clef is about a theater critic who secretly embeds himself in a local company’s production of As You Like It with actors he’s previously panned as his co-stars. It's theater critic Bob Abelman’s sly way of showing his appreciation for the people and the work that go into making theater at every level. It also offers a pretty smart analysis of what makes Shakespeare so special.

Broadway Melody by Jack Viertel  Few people know the inner workings of Broadway better than the producer Jack Viertel, who spent 34 years at the Jujamacyn theater company and 20 years heading up the Encores! series. Now he’s put all that knowledge to work in this novel that covers seven decades in the lives of two Broadway insiders—a musician and a stagehand—and the female singer they both love. The book was inspired, in part, by the career of Viertel’s and my mutual late friend the legendary musical contractor Seymour Red Press. But it’s so readable that I’d be recommending it even if I hadn’t known and loved Red.

The Fury by Alex Michaelides  All of the main characters are connected to London’s West End in this Agatha Christie-style mystery about a murder that occurs when a group of friends and frenemies who have had varying degrees of success in work and love gather for a vacation on a private and isolated Greek island. The narrator is unreliable, the storyline is twisty and both are even more delicious in the audiobook version because it's read by the always deliciously entertaining British actor Alex Jennings. 

The House is On Fire by Rachel Beanland  The devastating fire that killed 72 people after a theater curtain accidentally caught fire during a performance in Richmond, Virginia, in 1811 really happened. But the true drama in this excellent historical novel centers on the aftermath of that tragedy and its effect on four characters whose fates will be determined by their class, their gender and their race.

Once More With Feeling: A Novel by Elissa Sussman  The main character here is a disgraced pop star who tries to revive her career by going back to her first love: Broadway musicals. The show she signs on to do is written and composed by her longtime best friend whom she met when they were girls in theater summer camp. And, of course, it’s directed by the former boy band member who was one third of the love-triangle scandal that destroyed her singing career. There’s more romcom than musical comedy in this one but it’s still a fun and breezy summer read. 

One Good Turn: A Novel by Kate Atkinson   The Edinburgh Festival Fringe provides the backdrop for this whodunnit in which Atkinson's retired detective Jackson Brodie is reluctantly pulled in to help solve a string of murders and attempted murders. And since Atkinson never saw a narrative that she didn’t want to fracture much of the fun—and it is great fun—lies in figuring out how all the suspects and their various larcenies fit together. 

Show Boat by Edna Ferber  I don’t know why it took me so long to read this 1926 novel that inspired Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's genre-defining musical because the book is steeped in its love for the theater, particularly the titular variety that traveled the nation's waterways during the 19th century taking shows to isolated parts of the country. Hammerstein made some tweaks but the familiar characters are here, as well as the themes of romance and racial intolerance. And so is the Mississippi River, which, as every theater lover knows, just keeps rollin' along.

Tom Lake: A Novel by Ann Patchett   While she may be most celebrated as a top literary novelist, Patchett clearly knows her way around the theatrical canon too. She’s set this story in a cherry orchard, albeit one in northern Michigan, where three sisters have come home during the pandemic to help their parents harvest the crop and save the family farm. As they work, their mother regales them with the story of her days as a young actress and how being cast in a summer stock production of Our Town changed her life. It’s a lovely tale about love and art and family. And having Meryl Streep read the audiobook version is, well, the cherry on top of an already very satisfying sundae.



It’s hard to think of a better way to spend a few hours on a lazy afternoon than peeking into the lives of the people who make the theater we all love.

Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy by Charles Busch  His mother died when he was seven and Busch was raised by an aunt who not only accepted his effeminacy but supported his differentness. So this lovely tribute to her is almost evenly divided between his coming-of-age days imagining himself as such tough-girl movie stars as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis; and his singular career as a camp icon who has won raves for playing female lead roles in such shows as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and The Confessions of Lily Dale.

Making It So: A Memoir by Patrick Stewart  Although he spent 14 years as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stewart sandwichs that experience in between his memories of a hardscrabble childhood in Yorkshire and his glory days as the star of the Star Trek and X-Men franchises on TV and in the movies. Still, his stories about working on stage with British acting greats ranging from his idol Vivien Leigh to his pal Ian McKellen—and his continuing wonder at doing all of it—are a treat for theater lovers. 

My Name is Barbra by Barbra Streisand   She may not have been on a Broadway stage since 1965 but the theater still claims Streisand as its own. And the very best parts of her 992-page memoir detail her early years in New York struggling to break into the business and to adjust to success when she does. If you can, you really should get the audiobook version of this one because Streisand has spliced in audio clips from her albums, movies and TV specials, plus there’s nothing like hearing her anecdotes, complete with improvised asides, delivered in that inimitable voice.

Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench and Brendan O’Hea  This delightful book is drawn from a series of conversations in which Dame Judi and her good friend the director Brendan O’Hea discuss each of the Bard’s roles that Dench has played over her seven-decade career. She analyzes the plays, recalls the actors she performed alongside and provides glimpses into what was going on backstage at some legendary performances. The result is a master class in Shakespeare, acting and life. 

The Star Dressing Room: Portrait of An Actor by Alan Shayne  His name may not be as familiar as some of the other memorists on this list but I’m a sucker for stories set in the theater world of the 1950s, and Shayne tells a terrific one in this chronicle of his days taking acting classes alongside Marlon Brando and Elaine Stritch, struggling to make it as a working actor during Broadway's Golden Age and trying to find true love as he wrestles with his identity as a gay man in that homophobic Mad Men era.  

The Street Where I Live: A Memoir by Alan J. Lerner  It should be no surprise that this memoir by the lyricist and book writer of such Golden Age classics as Brigadoon, Camelot and My Fair Ladyand a man who married eight timesis a great read. Lerner goes into nitty-gritty detail about how he and his beloved partner Frederick “Fritz” Loewe put together their shows. And unlike some folks he’s willing to name names when he feels someone got in their way. I think this is the second best showbiz memoir I’ve ever read. The first—included on my 2015 list—remains Moss Hart’s “Act One”.  And I think Lerner, who knew, worked with and greatly loved Hart, wouldn’t mind at all being a runner-up to that one.

Will She Do?; Act One of a Life on Stage by Eileen Atkins   Most actor memoirs focus on the career high points of their authors’ lives but this three-time Olivier Award winner devotes most of her book to the very tough time she had making a name for herself in the business. Her climb from dancing as a seven-year old in British working men’s clubs to her breakout performance at the age of 30 as the dimwitted Childe in The Killing of Sister George is alternately hilarious, infuriating (even she admits she could be a pain in the ass at times) and inspirational. 


And now for the books that fall into a category all their own.

Carefully Taught: American History through Broadway Musicals  by Cary Ginell   There have been so many books about Broadway musicals that it’s a real treat to find one that looks at them through a different lens. Borrowing its title from the South Pacific song about how racism is passed from one generation to the next, this book looks at how our image of this country has been shaped by what we see on stage.  The usual suspects pop up: 1776, Assassins, Ragtime, Hamilton. But there are some surprises too: Baby Case, a 2012 musical about the Lindbergh kidnapping that never made it much further than the New York Music Theatre Festival made the cut.  But somehow, Titanic didn’t. 

Here’s to the Ladies: Conversations with More of the Great Women of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro   I don’t know how he does it but Shapiro is able to get celebrities to open up to him in ways they simply don’t to other journalists and this latest in his series of interviews with Broadway’s leading stars features some oh-wow-I-can't-believe-she-said-that conversations with Judy Kuhn, Mary Beth Piel and Karen Olivo among others.  

A Man of Much Importance: The Art and Life of Terrence McNally by Christopher Byrne   McNally wrote so many now-classic works (The Ritz, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion! not to mention the books for the musicals The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty and A Man of No Importance) but because he was so unassuming about all of it he hasn’t really been given his full due and so it’s great to get this tribute which chronicles the life and work of one of the major theater makers of the last 50 years and a pioneer in placing the stories of gay people onstage. 

Song of the Season: Outstanding Broadway Songs Since 1891 by Thomas Hischack   This veteran theater scholar and author of countless books is up to some mischief: he’s daringly selected one song from every Broadway season as representative of musical theater at that particular moment in time. Some of the choices are obvious (“Memory” from 1982's Cats) some head-scratchy (The Lambeth Walk” from Me and My Girl in 1986 instead of something from Les Miserables). Read it straight through or skip to your favorite seasons. Either way, there's plenty of fodder for debates over boozy summer dinners and throughout the rest of the year too. You can hear an interview with Hischack that BroadwayRadio's James Marino and I did (as well as more about some of the other books on this list) by clicking here

20 Seasons: Broadway Musicals of the 21st Century by Amy S. Osatinski   Most Broadway histories focus on the Golden Age shows of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s and so it’s refreshing to have a spotlight put on what’s been happening more recently. This survey tracks the rise of the jukebox musical, the growing prominence of screen-to-stage adaptations and the trend of revising old classics. So it gives shows such as Jersey Boys, SpongeBob Square Pants and Daniel Fish’s “sexy” Oklahoma the serious treatment they deserve and that many young fans—and those of any age interested in the future of the art form—are sure to appreciate.

This Insubstantial Pageant by Estha Weiner  Theater is the animating theme of this book of poetry and, full disclosure, the author is one of my oldest friends. Longtime readers of these posts may know her as my ocassional theater companion "Ellie," a one-time actress who, as her poems attests, has never lost her love for the stage.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now nearly 200 suggestions from previous years:









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