By Scott Ross
Hollis Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess. A thorough history of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Broadway opera” (with a lyrical assist from Ira, leading to the Gershwin heirs’ ludicrous declarative title for the recent revival, The Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” which elicited a stern, and quite proper, rebuke from Stephen Sondheim.) The book is attractively put together in an over-sized format, with scads of photos. Included is the famous 1950s “goodwill tour” of Russia (which Truman Capote followed, and wrote up for The New Yorker) and the glorious 1976 Houston Opera production starring the rapturous Clamma Dale.
Amy Asche, ed., Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein I. The most recent in Knopf’s beautiful series of coffee-table lyric collections, all of which are stylishly produced, contain breathtaking arrays of production photos and are as exhaustive as seems humanly possible.
Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860-1980 (New Fifth Edition; Enlarged by John Willis). A huge volume in the Pictorial History series, noted for their thoroughness and their impossibly crowded pages of tiny photographs. Still, to leaf through one of these volumes is to be completely transported into the past.
Ted Chapin, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical “Follies.” I have been obsessed with this show, to my mind the greatest of all musicals, since my teens. (Name-Drop Warning!) In an early ’80s letter, I suggested such a book to Stephen Sondheim, who replied that he didn’t think much of the idea, “especially after the fact.” How wrong he was! And how grateful we should all be that it was Ted Chapin who put this together. He was there. He saw. He knows. And his personal view of the proceedings makes for an immediacy and a comprehensiveness that are just about definitive.
Don Dunn, The Making of “No, No, Nanette.” This one is dated by Davis’ smug, condescending and, frankly, bitchy remarks about “homos” in the theatre, and his frequent imputations to the many gay men involved in this successful revival of comically swish attitudes and over-the-top, camp enthusiasms. Be that as it may; until Everything Was Possible, this was the most complete accounting we’d ever gotten of the production, from conception to aftermath, of a single musical show. It’s all here: The back-stabbing and in-fights, the terrible realization early in rehearsals that Busby Berkeley was not the man for the job of staging, the sackings, and the battle royal between the peripatetic Harry Rigby and the rather monstrous Cema Rubin, which culminated in the heartbreak of Rigby’s losing the rights to his own show. I don’t know whether it’s a juicy backstager, a cautionary tale or just a decent job of reportage (those gratuitous homophobic tendencies notwithstanding) but it certainly is compelling.
Richard France, The Theatre of Orson Welles. France’s is the only volume of which I am aware that concentrates solely on Welles’ theatre work, and despite its un-attractiveness as a book, the scholarship is as impeccable as the conclusions are, occasionally, biased against — and unfair toward — the author’s subject.
John Gielgud, An Actor and His Time. Essentially a transcription of Gielgud’s multi-part BBC Radio program, this is a rich, informative, amusing and beautifully illustrated volume by and about one of the greatest actors of the last century. Not to be missed.
Jon Anthony Gilvey, Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical. Gilvey writes about Champion’s work as though he’d been present for every show — an impossibility, given his age — and his descriptions of such seminal stagings as the opening of Carnival put you front row center, with an immediacy and a fulsomeness rare in books of this kind.
William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway. Another book that suffers from some dated attitudes, again in particular toward gay men. But Goldman’s complete accounting of a single season (1967-1968) is breezy, informative, fascinating and, at times, wildly funny. I discovered a Bantam paperback edition in a second-hand book shop at 16, and devoured it in record time, and with the ardor only the completely stage-struck can approximate. Or appreciate. The wealth of detail remains vivid nearly four decades later. What’s especially interesting now is that Goldman’s overview took in a season that was generally regarded as one of Broadway’s worst — yet how rarified a world it seems now, with all those plays opening. Not musicals. Plays. In retrospect, and despite his own frequent disappointment, Goldman’s season was, compared with today, a veritable Golden Age.
Mark N. Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical. Speaking of disappointment with contemporary Broadway… Grant, a composer, surveys the best of the great age of innovation with keen musicianship and some surprising findings (the fox trot as the source of the American Popular Song… who knew?) He then brings us to now, and despairs. Everything of which he quite properly complains is something I, and many others who work in and love theatre, have been kvetching about for years: The over-amplification, the nearly total reliance on song catalogs and hit movies as source material, the creeping amateurishness of and rock-style reliance on assonance by most contemporary lyricists, the soaring cost of tickets, the appalling behavior of audiences, the ubiquitous standing ovations for every show… With all that, and some pointed critiques of specific composers and librettists (even Sondheim comes in for a few, gently articulated and quite astute, knocks) I can even forgive Grant for his dismissal of Kander and Ebb.
Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. If, as the ad-meisters like to say, you only read one book on Shakespeare, let it be this one. Greenblatt’s scholarship and research are impeccable, his findings sometimes startling but always on point, and his appreciation of the playwright total and convincing. It’s also a richly textured depiction of Elizabethan England, with all its perils, and that rare volume by a heterosexual historian and critic to take in, appreciate and even commend, the seemingly fluid sexuality of the Bard. Invaluable and unique.
Otis Guernsey, Playwrights, Lyricists and Composers on Theatre. An anthology of pieces from the Dramatist Guild Quarterly during the early ’70s, this one is especially notable for its delicious panel discussions by the participants of specific shows, and includes Sondheim’s Lyrics and Lyricists talk, in which (among other things) he illustrates how he took a beautiful piece of dramatic prose by James Goldman and transliterated it into the stunningly poetic lyric for Evening Primrose’s “I Remember.”
Moss Hart, Act One. The great-granddaddy of all modern theatre memoirs. Hart, looking back from the perspective of the late 1950s, re-created his early days as the prototypical stage-struck young man, and his early collaboration with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime. It’s a sharp, witty, gloriously fulsome self-portrait with one interesting little curlicue: Nowhere in it does this healthy young American male mention dating a girl. In light of later revelations about Hart’s conflicted sexuality, that omission seems almost no omission at all. (See also: Steven Bach — Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart.)
Mary C. Henderson, Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design. A gorgeous and profusely illustrated coffee-table tribute to one of the most important American scenic designers.
Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld on Line. A long look back, from the then near-centenarian. A huge volume, taking in everything from Hirschfeld’s early, “serious art” phase to the evolution of his utterly unique style of caricature, from the ’20s to the Aughts. When I was a teenager I used to wonder how, when this venerable and brilliant man passed, an actor would know he’d “arrived” without Al to sketch him. Little did I know then how many more decades Broadway hopefuls had in which to make that arrival. Treasurable.
John Kander and Fred Ebb with Greg Lawrence, Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz. A lovely book, in which the most important and innovative songwriting team since the heyday of Bock and Harnick discuss their respective beginnings and their many superb collaborations. I’m deeply indebted to Greg Lawrence for getting them on the record while Ebb was still with us.
Robert Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter. One of the earliest of the Knopf volumes, and one of the best. Literacy, humor, astoundingly free-flowing inner-rhyme and hot sex have seldom been so wittily evoked, or invoked, in the musical theatre.
Robert Kimball, Cole. A sumptuous, over-sized trove of photos and personal reminiscence by Porter’s friends and collaborators.
Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, The Gershwins. The companion to Cole in the beauty, style and completeness of its pictorial lushness.
Robret Kimball and Stephen Nelson, The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser. Loesser was an anomaly: A full-time lyricist and amateur composer from the world of pop and Hollywood who came East and took Broadway by the throat with Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Each time he re-defined himself, and expanded the syntax of musical theatre expression: From brassy, Runyanesque Broadway to near-opera to potent satire that, nevertheless, was amusing enough not to worry all those tired businessmen who flocked to it. Loesser’s great run was brief, perhaps, but few have accomplished as much in so comparatively little time.
Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer. While Mercer was, like Frank Loesser, more a creature of Hollywood and Vine than Broadway and 42nd, he began in musical revues and made periodic visits. He wasn’t always as successful on the boards as on the sound stages (as he was the first to admit) but his lyrics to Harold Arlen’s magnificent score for St. Louis Woman alone would place him in the Pantheon. This is a book I wish to hell I’d had at my side when I was creating my own Mercer revue in the mid-’90s, transcribing all those songs by ear and, later, discovering with a pang that I’d blown some of them. (Pre-Google, who knew that “cute vest-pocket Mazda” referred to light bulbs?)
Walter Kerr, Journey to the Center of the Theatre. As a critic, Kerr has his own naysayers, but he was an unusually intelligent and big-hearted reviewer, and this collection of his 1970s work on theatre (and, occasionally, film) amply illustrates why his readers were so devoted. I particularly treasure his anger at Paddy Chayefsky in 1971 for not writing all that great, rhetorical dialogue in The Hospital for the stage, and his re-evaluation of the lie at the center of the otherwise splendid Alice Adams: Who, he wonders, could possibly accept the pulchritudinous young Katharine Hepburn as a wallflower?
Miles Kreuger, “Show Boat”: The Story of a Classic American Musical. This superb early ’70s work, fortunately reissued in time for the complete 1988 studio cast recording of the score on Angel. (Kreuger was an important contributor to that boxed set of LPs and discs.) Among the first, finest, and most beautifully appointed, books of its kind.
John Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion. Lahr, then beginning his career as a critic, wrote this graceful, loving but remarkably clear-eyed portrait of his famous father just before Bert’s untimely death while shooting The Night They Raided Minsky’s. It captures a great clown in all his contradictory moods, his fabled insecurity, and his joyous genius. 40-plus years later it remains one of the most lucid, intelligent and compelling biographies of any theatre star.
John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. Switching gears completely, Lahr next concentrated on the transgressive British playwright, unapologetically gay and astonishingly prolific throughout his brief, meteoric rise. In a sense, this is a dual biography, since Orton’s life — and even his very death — were so inextricably commingled with that of his one-time lover and eventual murderer Joe Halliwell. Quoting liberally from Orton’s then-unpublished diaries and early novels, all of which the author would later prove instrumental in getting into print, Lahr paints an unblinking portrait of a genius and wit whose appetites for casual sex perfectly reflected his times but the details of which would doubtless have shocked his public, and may shock some even now. The book is of enormous importance, if only for rescuing an important modern playwright from near-oblivion.
Arthur Laurents, Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood. Laurents was famously prickly, and his memoir percolates with anger and contrariness even as it celebrates the author’s own accomplishments, his friendships and collaborations, and paints an indelible portrait of post-war American movies and theatre, musical as well as “straight.” Laurents was unique among his gay peers for refusing to pass, and for not feeling he had to.
Alan Jay Lerner, The Street Where I Live. Although his later biographer Gene Lees invoked the famous advice of the frontier newsman to James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) as descriptive of Lerner’s memoir, it’s an irresistible volume for those who appreciate its author’s wit and rare literacy. Lerner certainly knew how to tell good stories about himself, and some of them may even have been true. Appended with a nice selection of lyrics from his best work.
Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. The only unfortunate aspect of this glorious, revelatory biography is that its author did not live to complete a second volume. Leverich traces Thomas Lanier Williams from his earliest days to the heady success of The Glass Menagerie with such impeccable scholarship and understanding, both of his subject and his subject’s milieus, that you feel as though you’d never known anything about Tennessee before reading this book, and may never find out as much after.
Ken Mandelbaum, “A Chorus Line” and the Musicals of Michael Bennett. Mandelbaum’s terrific biography of Bennett is also a riveting account of how the then-longest running of all musicals came into being. Bennett’s death from AIDS at 44 arguably robbed the American theatre of what might have been the ultimate popular maturation of the form.
William J. Mann, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand. Covering Streisand’s life and development only up to the end of her run in Funny Girl, Mann concentrates his formidable wit and skill on what, and who, made her, apart from her own, unassailable drive and self-belief. Scrupulously foot-noted, exhaustively researched, this is the sort of book one waits decades for, and which mere fannish hacks can never get near, let alone touch.
Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg, Who Put the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist. An important overview, and a long overdue biographic and critical assessment of one of the American musical’s most whimsical yet socially committed artists; the section on Finian’s Rainbow would, by itself, make this worth reading. The obvious affection for, and appreciation of, the subject (one of the co-authors is Yip’s son) does not, however, led to hagiography. Harburg was known to be difficult — his quirks of personality led his two finest musical collaborators, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane, to resist continued work with him — but his ultimate legacy is social comment buoyed by wit and charm. No one but Harburg could have created both Og the love-sick leprechaun and Flahooley, the Capitalist nightmare, let alone conceived of a world “Over the Rainbow” or written that anguished Depression-era cri de coeur “Brother, Can You Spare a Time?”
Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life. Miller’s dramaturgy seems to me largely overrated and under-heated, especially when contrasted with the conflicted poetry of Tennessee Williams, his major post-war play-writing rival. But as an essayist and, here, as a memoirist, Miller carved out a niche particular to him, and in which he was most at home. His philosophical musings on friendship, betrayal, HUAC, Marilyn Monroe and the nature of dramatic theatrical expression occasion some of his finest writing. Fittingly, too, he wrote not a standard, linear autobiography but something approaching the labyrinthine manner in which memory itself so often works.
Ethan Mordden, Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical. Mordden is the Ken Tynan of the American musical, even when, as in this book, he is annoying you with self-coined musical terminology (“numbo” here seems to mean “central aria” or, in the parlance, The Eleven O’clock Number, but where he came up with that one, no one knows) or making specious claims (Bibi Osterwald’s studio recording of Gypsy, he tells us, may reveal the best Mama Rose of them all, yet a lyricist friend tells me that when he asked Mordden about this, the author admitted he’d never heard the record) or, as lately, spreading the hack phrase, “So to say” with whorish indiscretion. For a long time, this overview of the great creators of the form was the standard reference — until, that is, his own subsequent volumes taking on the musical decade by decade, supplanted it.
Ethan Mordden, One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s. The author’s periodic critical histories of the American musical by decade eventually led to this, the most anticipated volume: The one that takes in the ascendancy of Sondheim and the flowering of Bob Fosse’s genius.
Ethan Mordden, The Fireside Companion to the Theatre. One of the most well-thumbed books in my library, brimming with the author’s informed and idiosyncratic critical acumen. It’s all here, from Aeschylus to The Zoo Story, illuminated with wit and perspicacity. Mordden is particularly fine on O’Neill, but flip to any entry and chances are you will emerge hours later, having been inspired to skip to dozens of others.
George Plimpton. ed., Playwrights at Work. This sublime collection of Paris Review interviews includes invaluable conversations on the craft with Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and John Guare, among other (to me) lesser or more negligible figures (Sam Shepard, August Wilson, David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein.) My copy is thick with Hi-Liter marks, and the collective wisdom contained herein is essential.
Hal Prince, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre. Perhaps prematurely, Prince recorded his memories of his work up to 1974. (His hunger years were just around the corner.) But as I regard him as the most important of the so-called “superstar” directors of the period, in his staging innovations and his embrace of more intelligent, thoughtful, and mature, content in the musical, his reminiscences are compelling, and fascinating.
Frank Rich and Lisa Aronson, The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson. Aronson’s work ranged from designs for the Yiddish theatre in the 1920s to The Diary of Anne Frank in the ’50s and ended with such groundbreaking Hal Prince shows as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and what must constitute his (and Prince’s, and Sondheim’s) ultimate masterpiece, Follies. This sumptuous visual appreciation holds pride of place in my library.
Deena Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin. A beautifully produced appreciation of the Gershwins (the cover reproductions of period sheet music practically shimmer) this overview by the daughter-in-law of Yip Harburg and the Artistic Director and Executive Vice President of the Harburg Foundation is informed by the author’s expertise, her skill at examining the material, and her obvious love for it.
John Simon, Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964-1974. Simon’s obsessive concern with physical beauty, and his occasionally suspect pronouncements, which too often teeter on the edge of anti-Semitism, have served to detract from his very real erudition, brilliance, enthusiasm and love of the theatre. These essays, which encompass Ibsen, Cyrano de Bergerac, and that essentially indefinable but invaluable entity called charm, are Simon at his clearest and most perceptive.
John Simon, Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre 1963-1973. All of the personal idiosyncrasies that mar Simon’s writing are here, of course, but his enthusiasms, knowledge and devotion to concision carry you past the more obvious (and even odious) affectations.
Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Solomon’s expansive, informed and exciting evocations of Sholem Aleichem, the initially uncertain but ultimately triumphant creation of Fiddler, the making of the inevitable movie, and the show’s enduring impact down the decades makes for the finest book on musical theatre I’ve read in years.
Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principals, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Take note of that sub-title; he means it…. and he takes no prisoners. (Not for nothing did American Theatre magazine title its review of the book “Snide by Snide by Sondheim.”) But that is, literally, a sidebar. The bulk of this indispensable book are the lyrics themselves and their author’s explications of their generation. For a man who claims to be no sure writer of prose, Sondheim’s is sharp, incisive, rigorously intelligent, often witty and always engaging.
D. Travis Stewart (Trav S.D.), No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. This marvelous pop history, which I saw, unheralded in the theatre section at Borders, provided me more sheer pleasure than almost any comparable volume of its kind. Not that it has any comparable rivals. “Vaudeville is dead,” James Agee once complained of an annoying ’40s musical. “I wish to hell someone would bury it.” Trav S.D. exhumes the body, dusts it off, props it up and, through his own, witty alchemy, makes it animate again.
Steven Suskin, Opening Nights on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, “Oklahoma!” (1943) to “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964). Although Suskin is dismissive of Fiddler, among other landmarks, this fat omnibus of facts and contemporary newspaper reviews takes in every major musical offering (and many minor ones) between the advent of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the end of the era.
Jeffrey Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players. Discovering the Avon paperback reprint of this collection of interviews at 16 or so was one of those thunderclap experiences. I was enraptured for a week. To say that the Paul Sills, his mother Viola Spolin and the Second City improvisational theatre were influential is an understatement of staggering proportions. Virtually every major, important comedic performer of the 1960s, and a comparable number of 1970s comics (including virtually the entire original cast of NBC’s Saturday Night and many of their subsequent replacements, that show itself the greatest influence on comedy in the ’80s) came through its doors. The interviews are sometimes painful, often hilarious, and encompass Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Del Close, Severn Darden, Paul Mazursky and Sills himself. Indispensable.
Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theatre. A Penguin abridgment of Tynan’s 1961 collection of seminal reviews, Curtains, this collection is perhaps the single finest volume on Britain’s post-war theatre, with some sharp assessments of America added from Tynan’s brief engagement with The New Yorker. His opinions are infused with a lover’s besotted enthusiasm, cut with the skepticism of the too-often scorned, and informed by an erudition, and wit rare in reviewers on either side of the pond. Sample Tynan’s encomium to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick — Rehearsed (“With Moby Dick, the theatre becomes once more a house of magic”) and you may well be hooked for life.
Sam Wasson, Fosse. This long, comprehensive, exceptionally well researched biography of a figure who has been one of my theatrical touchstones for decades, Fosse is endlessly fascinating and often problematic, but a must for aficionados of the man, his achievements, and musical theatre (and movie) history in the post-war era.
Arnold Wesker, The Birth of “Shylock” and the Death of Zero Mostel. Wesker’s memoir of his ill-fated variation on The Merchant of Venice is both revelatory and heartbreaking. Written less in anger than in sorrow, the British playwright’s saga runs along a descending line, as Mostel struggles, uncharacteristically, with his lines, ultimately succumbing before the Broadway opening, and Wesker’s longtime director, the brilliant but insufferable John Dexter, abandons the troubled production for greener pastures.
Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co. A week after checking out the original cast recording of Company from the public library at the age of 15 I was back to take out this seminal history of its lyricist-composer’s career up to 1973. (That a Broadway songwriter could eschew any easy rhyme like “life” and “wife” in preference for the surprising and appropriate “life” and “woman” took the top of my head off.) I perused my own paperback edition so often I practically had it memorized. No other book on the theatre meant more to me then, and no other has since.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross