Sunday, March 22, 2009

Eight Top Ten Theatre Books I Love

I originally posted this column September 8, 2007. I love nothing more than a great theatre book, and here are the best of the best.

Honestly, when I began buying theatre books, I’d pick them up as remainders at a local used bookstore. I never expected to fully read them, just to use them as reference books to look up shows and their creators.

However, the breakthrough came in reading Keith Garebian’s books on “the making of” My Fair Lady and West Side Story about seven years ago. Garebian’s books make for interesting reading, which somehow came as a surprise to me at the time (Give me a break; I was only twenty-three). Since then, I’ve worked my way through a good number of theatre books—from two Ethel Waters autobiographies, another Keith Garebian book (with the other two waiting in the wings), Ted Sennett’s fantastic Song and Dance: The Musicals of Broadway, Max Wilk’s Ok! The Story of Oklahoma!, Peter Stone’s lengthy account on Titanic (not to mention the show’s libretto), Stuart Ostrow’s A Producer’s Broadway Journey, among many others (many of which I have bought brand new, by the way).

And, naturally, like any good reader, I have many more to go, with Donna McKechnie’s Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life and Letters from Backstage: The Adventures of a Touring Stage Actor by Michael Kostroff high on my list of books to buy.

In all my reading, though, there are eight theatre books I probably have relied on more and revisited more often than any others. Above all, they make for interesting reads about topics that greatly interest me, but a good number of these are also books that have not only kept me informed but have also worked to shape my understanding of musical storytelling structure, characterization, and song placement. For someone like me, that’s invaluable.

Making It on Broadway by David Wienir and Jodie Langel—I’ve already detailed this one in an August blog entry, so I will save time by paraphrasing myself. If you read that blog entry, maybe skip ahead to the next book.

Making It on Broadway is a collection of first-hand accounts from contemporary Broadway performers about the heart-breaks and disillusions they’ve met as they’ve worked to make it on Broadway. Reading it was instant meth. Once I started, I literally couldn’t stop. It’s both hilarious (with many laugh-out-loud moments) but very enlightening and touching too. It’s all real stories by people who have pounded the boards.

Making It on Broadway has honestly had a profound effect on me as a theatre-goer and as a future librettist. When I think about whom I’d love to cast in my shows if they ever made it to Broadway, I think about this book. When I see Jerry Mathers stumbling through a televised performance from Hairspray, I think about this book. When I see people attacking performers on message boards, I think about this book. When I envision the career I’d like to have as a writer and the impact I’d like to have on Broadway no what genre I write, I think about this book.

Honestly, I need to also say again, I really think Wienir and Langel should write another Making It on Broadway book, perhaps dealing with another aspect of the business, like what performers think about current trends—amplification, the types of shows that are produced, savage message boards, etc.

(P.S. If you did read that rather melancholy blog entry, first of all I apologize. Secondly, I never did take a teaching job in California. Despite great encouragement from a recruitment organization, I couldn’t make the timing work. I’m working on Plan C . . . or is that Plan G? Anyway, this will all make for a great memoir someday.)

The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings, edited by Michael Portantiere—This is such an invaluable guide. It’s one of those books I find myself perusing often, re-re-re-reading entries. It’s great for the critical commentary on shows and performances, as well as a go-to guide for which recording is best suited to your needs. I love that there’s such a handy one-stop-shop for finding out which CD is the most complete recording, the best-sung, and all that jazz.

Obviously, there are entries with which I greatly disagree—Les Miserables, Aida, and the revival Hello, Dolly! come to mind—but I can’t get enough of this book and these observations. I don’t know if there’s a plan to update, but I sure hope we get another one soon. There are so many great new recordings I want to read about.

Let’s Put on a Musical! by Peter Filichia—I value this book so much because I have such a high respect for Peter Filichia and his TheaterMania column, though he does produce some darned exasperating quiz questions.

I originally picked this book up when I was directing high school plays, but in the six years since I decided I wanted a personal life and resigned that position, I couldn’t count how many times I’ve paged through Let’s Put on a Musical!.

In the book, Filichia outlines all the information you’d want to know about specific musicals in deciding whether to produce a show for your school, community theatre, or whatever, identifying significant set pieces, the amount of dancing, casting needs, and so on. What keeps me picking the book up are his concise appraisals of the musicals in his identification of assets and liabilities. It grants you a glimpse into Filichia’s thoughts on most of the significant musicals from about Oklahoma! to 1993, the year it was published. It’s like a movie guide from a great movie critic, except for musical theatre.

Whenever I see a show performed or read a libretto or listen to a CD I haven’t popped in for awhile, I love to read other people’s view of the show, and because of that, Peter Filichia’s Let’s Put on a Musical! has been invaluable. Sometimes I just open it up and page through the information on various shows.

There was word a few years back about Filichia updating the text to include the many new shows that have arrived on the scene since 1993. Personally, I can’t wait. I want to see what he has to say about The Scarlet Pimpernel and Titanic and Aida and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and so on.

Note: Thanks to someone who commented on this thread, I can pass on to you that the new Let’s Put on a Musical! is already published. I’m excited!

Everything Was Possible by Ted Chapin—Again, I paraphrase/quote myself from a June blog entry where I analyzed problems and solutions to Sondheim and Goldman’s imperfect masterpiece Follies (for that blog entry: in which I discuss this amazing book.

In Everything Was Possible, Ted Chapin describes with great detail the laborious rehearsal period for the original Hal Prince/Michael Bennett production of Follies. In addition to being a fascinating read because it details the creation of this breathtaking production, it gives you a stripped-away, glam-less documentation of the making of a Broadway musical (which, for the record, has a great many similarities with directing plays at the high school level, which I found fascinating).

It becomes a page-turner as former intern Chapin details the week-by-week developments of the show. You know how the show turns out before you even take in the introduction, but as you read, you do find yourself wanting to know what happens next. It makes for a fascinating read and a must-have for anyone interested in how Broadway musicals are made.

Broadway Musicals: The Greatest Shows of All Time by Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik—In this fascinating must-have tomb, Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik list and detail the 101 best Broadway musicals of their choosing. This is an exciting read loaded, stuffed, and jammed with rare full-color and black-and-white pictures and tons of interesting information. I know this book received a lot of press in its 2004 publication, but it shouldn’t be ignored or forgotten.

First of all, the book is only $34.95 which, considering its size and plethora of full-color pictures, is a real steal. Most importantly, however, the content is even more impressive.

It is clear Bloom and Vlastnik really researched this book. They reach back to such shows as The Desert Song, The New Moon, and The Student Prince in Heidelberg, often describing these lesser-known musicals in such vivid detail as to make you wonder where they hid the time machine. Most importantly, they make these older musicals—which are only names in books to many of us—come alive and seem vital. In a quick and pleasurable read, I learned so much about the pre-Oklahoma! periods and why those shows were popular.

While incorporating these important older shows, the list does consist of mostly modern (or post-Oklahoma!) musicals, giving you a front-row seat to their glories. In addition to the usual suspects, you get shows such as Destry Rides Again, Do Re Mi, and Fanny, none of which I knew much about until I read this book, beyond being a CD on a store shelf that is.

I love learning about Broadway musicals, and I gained so much insight from this wonderful book. Not only did I take in all sorts of new information about classic shows that I had seen, but I was also introduced to much rarer gems.

Plus, the authors don’t just stop at discussing shows. There are sidebars on legendary Broadway performers and their varied careers, as well as creative team members, such as choreographers and songwriters.

So, for example, in the Brigadoon entry, there are three full-color photos accompanying the main text (including two with great views of the set), a sidebar on Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe (with a black-and-white picture of the pair with Moss Hart) and a color picture of Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in Camelot. The pictures throughout the book are as varied as to include Elaine Stritch out-of-town in Sail Away, Betty Buckley in Triumph of Love, and Tommy Tune and Darcie Roberts in Busker Alley.

Personally, I’d buy Bloom and Vlastnik’s book on the 101 second-best musicals, 101 most mediocre musicals, and the 101 most miserable musicals if there’s this much important information and rare visuals to accompany them.

Broadway Yearbook series (1999-2000, 2000-2001, and 2001-2002) by Steven Suskin—This was a short-lived but cherished series in which Steven Suskin provided detailed analysis and discussion of all the Broadway shows from their respective seasons. Personally, the first two books were particularly nice because those were the first two years where I made trips to Broadway, so I saw some of the shows he discusses with the cast members he names. For me, it really is a beloved record to help me remember (jn addition to all the Playbills and souvenir programs I so carefully hauled home) those two glorious trips.

I hardly feel qualified to criticize Steven Suskin, who is not only extremely knowledgeable about theatre but is also a very skillful and witty writer. I will, however, endeavor to try.

Namely, I often find myself disagreeing with Suskin’s harsh words and interpretation of events. For example, I find his excellent analysis of the structure of Bells are Ringing to be pointless because musical comedy is an art, not a science, and the fact that the songs are unevenly distributed doesn’t matter in the face of what a fantastic show it is (Mel Brooks, by the way, is on my side in this). His harsh criticism of the text of the show seems particularly silly when, in the same book, he so highly praises 42nd Street, a show with a bloated book that I’m betting was written by a fifth grader.

Still, I find Suskin’s informative background information invaluable and his erudite criticism fascinating. In fact, when I disagree with him, I love the books even more. I can honestly say that by reading these books, I have learned much about storytelling in musical theatre and what critics expect of a show, priceless concepts for someone who wants to create.

I don’t think these books are still in publication, but they would be an invaluable addition to any musical theatre library.

Ever After by Barry Singer—This was another one of those books I bought and devoured in a very short time. It is essentially a collection of articles Singer wrote for The New York Times (thanks to Michael John LaChiusa for that info). In addition to being a fascinating read, this is another book that has dramatically shaped my theatrical worldview.

When I started writing my first musical, I was listening to a number of amazing contemporary theatre scores. This was around the time I began shopping at Barnes and Noble, searching for interesting CDs to buy from shows I’d never experienced—which ended up in my exposure to favorites like Triumph of Love, Side Show, Marie Christine, and Ragtime. This was coupled with then-recent touring productions of shows like Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Titanic, Les Miserables, and Parade. My first attempt at writing the show (which was without collaborators) was heavily influenced by these lush scores of emotionally charged ballads and anthems which I still cannot get enough of. However, in analyzing the list, only a few of those ran long enough to recoup their original investment.

And, as in life, the right role models are so important in art.

But as I read Barry Singer’s book, I gained insights into these and other shows, understanding what audiences want and what critics (usually the door-keepers to any show) perceive. It took a few years of my opus lying dormant on my computer before I understood what needed fixing, but when I did, Barry Singer’s perspective was crucial in coming to see it for myself.

Plus, I love books on contemporary theatre. When I read a book on musical theatre, I want it to be contemporary, so I can learn what is happening now. I also appreciate being able to read about productions of shows I’ve seen. I want to know what people think of Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Pimpernel. I will probably vehemently disagree with what they have to say, but I love learning that new perspective.

The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen by Ethan Mordden—For many of the same reasons as with Singer’s book, I devoured Ethan Mordden’s book when I finally got it. Here is a discussion of contemporary musical theatre with smart observations and interesting analyses. Invaluable for me was his very strong coverage of the dark ages of the 1980s, where he details what sounds like some pretty fantastically awful shows I never even knew existed (save for Starmites, which I regretfully experienced first hand in a high school production).

I love Mordden’s style which, while a little showy in the superfluous wordy footnotes department and the tossing around of fancy foreign words, is lively and engaging. His style is such that, after reading The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, I feel like I would know Mordden if I ever met him on the street. Perhaps someday I will.

Once again, I can’t say enough about how this book, like the Singer and Suskin books, has greatly impacted me as a wanna-be-produced librettist (by the way, that one’s for you, Mr. Mordden). I love theatre, I love musical theatre, and I just want to soak it all up to write the best I can.

I’ve read many theatre books, though I have a great many more to go. While I haven’t been there yet to know the best advice to give to other people in my shoes, where I stand now, I don’t think I could say enough about Making It on Broadway, Everything Was Possible, Broadway Musicals: The Greatest Shows of All Time, Steven Suskin’s Broadway Yearbook series, Ever After, and The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen as fascinating reads that will shape how you view any writing task before you.

As for The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings and Let’s Put on a Musical!, they are fun reads and valuable reference books. Personally, I wouldn’t want to part with them from my library.

the Broadway Mouth
September 8, 2007

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