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July 30, 2008

The Hometown Paper for Theater Lovers

We New Yorkers can be a provincial lot. Particularly when it comes to theater. Although, in our defense, that’s somewhat understandable. For to paraphrase what was once said of Rome, all stage roads seem to lead to Broadway. But, of course, many of those journeys—be it that of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s August: Osage County from Chicago or the Intiman Theatre’s original production of The Light in the Piazza in Seattle—began, and were nurtured, elsewhere. And there’s no better survey of the lay of that land than the Theatre Communications Group’s magazine, “American Theatre.”

One of the hottest topics in media circles is whether newspapers and magazines are becoming obsolete now that people can find all kinds of information on the web. I’m clearly an Internet fan (you are, after all, reading my blog) but I was weaned on paper and ink and I first started writing about theater for print publications, including the late and still-lamented (at least by me) “TheatreWeek.” So although reading theater blogs is now as much a part of my daily routine as my morning shower, it's a special pleasure for me to be able to kick back with an edifying magazine. And I had a great time this week when I sat on our terrace going through the summer issue of “American Theatre.”


The Theatre Communications Group is the trade organization that promotes some 460 non-profit theaters across the country. Its activities range from hosting conferences where theater administrators can trade ideas to organizing programs like Free Night of Theater, which offers free tickets to first time theatergoers; this year’s event is scheduled to take place on Oct. 16 in over 100 cities (click here for more info).


TCG also produces several publications including “American Theatre,” which is kind of a hometown paper for the community of theater lovers across the country. Each issue includes interviews with showmakers, discussions of issues facing the industry, reviews, a calendar of the shows scheduled at theaters in just about every state in the nation, plus the complete text of a new play. Even the ads (from publishers peddling books on theater, schools touting their theater curricula, and companies announcing their new seasons) are worthwhile reading.


Yes, you can find most of this information by trolling various websites. But how handy to have it all brought together in one place by folks who not only love theater but really know it. (Those of you who can’t stand to tear yourself away from the screen can find excerpts by clicking here). The current issue features an intimate interview with Nicholas Martin, the new head of the venerable Williamstown Theatre Festival; excerpts from a discussion with three successful playwrights about the pluses and minuses of writing for the stage versus the screen; a comprehensive review of this spring’s Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., a look at an innovative program that gets college kids into theaters and a first-person assessment of whether it’s a conflict of interest for theater critics to be friendly with the folks whose shows they critique.


But what I like best is how comparatively little of the magazine focuses on New York. It’s a reminder for those of us in the city of how much good theater there is in the rest of the country (I'm already itching to get to Kentucky next spring) and for those of you who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away from Broadway of how easily—and fulfillingly—you can satisfy your theater jones until you get here.

July 26, 2008

"Around the World in 80 Days" is a Fun Trip

Silliness is often an underrated virtue. I know because I’m usually one of the people turning up her nose at it. But sometimes all you want out of a night at the theater is just a little fun. Particularly on a soft summer evening. Or after a day full of hard news about rising gas prices, falling home values and a wobbly stock market. That may explain why laugh fests like Boeing-Boeing and The 39 Steps are doing well right now. And it’s a good part of the reason that my pal Bill and I decided to take in Around the World in 80 Days at the Irish Repertory Theatre, which is apparently taking a summer break from Irish-themed shows.

The trend of turning movies into plays and musicals has now become so established that a subgenre has popped up: three dimensional shadow plays that attempt to recreate an entire film with just a handful of actors playing all the parts and aided by only the simplest props. The shadow version of the old Alfred Hitchcock thriller The 39 Steps didn’t work for me but it tickled enough other people that the Roundabout moved it from a limited run at the American Airlines Theatre to an unlimited one at the Cort last spring.


Staging Around the World in 80 Days, the classic Jules Verne adventure story that was made into a motion picture spectacular back in 1956, is even a bigger challenge. The movie, produced by Elizabeth Taylor’s then-husband Mike Todd, cost nearly $6 million, ran for almost three hours, was filmed on 140 locations in six different countries, and won five Oscars including Best Movie. It also boasted 40 co-stars including David Niven as the wealthy 19th century adventurer Phileas Fogg who wagers his fortune that he can circumnavigate the globe in less than three months, the Mexican comic actor Cantinflas as his indomitable French manservant Passepartout, Shirley McLaine as Aouda, a young Indian princess they rescue from the sacrificial flames of a forced Sati, and surprise cameos from such big-time names as Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, John Gielgud, Buster Keaton, and Frank Sinatra.


The Irish Rep production has just five actors and two onstage Foley artists who create both the show’s music and its important sounds effects, from raging storms to moving trains. Even by the stripped-down standards of this new genre of mini parodies, it’s a puny production. But it offers some hearty laughs, particularly in the second act. And despite my high bar for low comedy, I had a good time and enjoyed it more than I did The 39 Steps.


Around the World in 80 Days isn’t as slick as its Broadway cousin but that may be what appealed to me. Instead of showing off how clever they are, the 80 Days cast members embrace the silliness of the whole endeavor and seem to have such fun doing so that their delight becomes infectious. Evan Zes, one of those anything-for-a-laugh actors who goes right to the edge of hokeyness, jumps off and then claws his way back into your good graces, shines in the flamboyant role of Passepartout. But Jay Russell, juggling 16 roles, and John Keating, playing at least eight, are just as hilariously terrific.

Daniel Stewart and Lauren Elise McCourt hold their own in the less flashy roles of Fogg and Aouda. Mark Brown’s script joyfully patches together all kinds of jokes from sight gags to broad but gentle ethnic humor. The direction by Michael Evan Haney, associate artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse, is inventive and sometimes just plain goofy. People in the audience at the performance Bill and I attended, which included Joanne Woodward, whooped with delight at some of the antics.


There’s no hot air balloon, as there famously was in the movie, but if you get a chance to see Around the World in 80 Days before its run ends on Sept. 7, keep an eye out for the elephant. It’s simultaneously silly and, in a summertime kind of way, sublime. Just like the show.

July 23, 2008

"Expatriate" Shouldn't Be Foreign Territory

Passing Strange closed this past Sunday, after just 20 previews and 165 performances. But while the show may be gone, it doesn’t look as though it’s going to be forgotten any time soon. A cast album came out last week. Movie director Spike Lee filmed the rock musical’s final Broadway performances for a movie that may be shown on one of the premium cable networks or even released to your local cineplex. And now the Culture Project is presenting Expatriate, a performance piece about two young black women who, like the Youth character in Passing Strange, flee the U.S. to find themselves in Europe. You might call it Passing Strange’s gawky kid sister.

Like Passing Strange, Expatriate is filled with music, terrific performances and stories we too seldom see on Broadway, Off-Broadway or even Off-Off. In fact, a contemporary African-American female experience probably hasn’t gotten this much stage time since Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf debuted back in 1975, moved to the Public Theater and then transferred to Broadway for a nearly two-year run. A revival of for colored girls,
starring the neo-soul singer-songwriter India.Arie, had been scheduled to open at Circle in the Square in September but as my fellow blogger Chris Caggiano at Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals pointed out earlier this week, Telecharge is no longer selling tickets and so that production may be in trouble.

Expatriate, written by the statuesque Haitian-American poet and playwright Lenelle Moise, who also co-stars, isn’t as polished as Passing Strange or as the Circle in the Square for colored girls production probably would be. Moise and her co-star Karla Mosley play all the parts, sing, dance, operate a foot-pedal-driven loop machine to provide the music and sometimes even move around the few mobile pieces of the set.

There is also a slightly
clichéd quality to Expatriate’s story of Claudie and Alphine, two poor girls who grow up in a Boston ghetto, grapple with poverty and drugs, sexual abuse and homophobia but struggle through it all to achieve showbiz stardom. The early scenes run through such a catalog of inner-city woes that my friend Evie, a longtime activist in black community affairs, leaned over to groan, “Oh no, not this stuff again.” The audience at the performance we attended seemed to agree that they’d been there and seen too much of this before because a good number of them left at intermission.

But both Evie and I thought the performances were worth staying for. Particularly Mosley’s. She gives a charismatic performance and sings jazz, hip-hop and pop with equal aplomb. It’s the kind of star turn that would have producers lining up to cast her in their shows if they did more of them about women who look like Moise and Mosley. But, alas, given the hard time Passing Strange had finding an audience, fewer producers may be willing to take such a risk.

July 19, 2008

Is "[title of show]" Too Exclusive?

People see shows for all kinds of reasons. Like because they adore the stars. Or because they feel an essential connection to the playwright or composer. But I wanted to see the new musical [title of show] because of its producers. Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller are the guys who brought Rent to Broadway. And Avenue Q. And In the Heights. They’re not infallible; they also brought the short-lived High Fidelity to Broadway. But they clearly have a knack for sussing out shows that appeal to the young and more diverse audiences that Broadway needs to survive in the 21st century. So I wanted to see what they were cooking up next.

I suspect [title of show] appealed to them because its creators, two thirtysomething guys named Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, are as crazy about theater as McCollum and Seller obviously are. [title of show] is a meta-musical that tells the story of how two musicals-loving gay guys and their best gal friends join together to put on a show, which is about two musicals-loving gay guys and their best gal friends who…well you get the picture.


The show was originally put together for the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004 (the title is a riff on the line on the Festival application form requesting the name of the show being submitted) where it won a cult following (diehard fans call themselves tossers) and they eventually got a run at The Vineyard Theatre in 2006. When that off-Broadway production ended, the show went viral with videos on YouTube (click here to see them). And each step has been incorporated into the evolving script.


Despite its openly ambitious goals (to break the mold of what a Broadway show should be, to reveal a kind of Stephen Colbert truthiness about what it takes to get a show on, to become a Tony contender) this show puts the mini in minimalism. There are just four actors—Bell, Bowen, the mordant Susan Blackwell and the cute Heidi Blickenstaff. They wear one set of street clothes each. And the set is little more than four mismatched chairs and a couple of props. The entire orchestra is just a guy on a keyboard.


Endlessly self-referential, [title of show] is chocked full of showbiz allusions (one running joke has the real voices of current Broadway divas leaving messages on an answering machine as they turn down a role in the show—the fun is trying to figure out who each one is before she identifies herself and then enjoying the way that what she says sends up her public persona). But at heart, [title of show] is about the desire to fulfill dreams and the struggle to maintain integrity while doing so. “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing” go the lyrics in one song.


Alas, they’re going to have to count me in the hundred people category. I see a lot of theater and so I got most (but not all) of the inside stuff and laughed at much of it. I thought Bell, Bowen, Blackwell and Blickenstaff were all appealing and amusing. And I could see how very much this show means to each of them. But part of what I so love about McCollum and Seller shows is their determination to reach out to people who aren’t theater geeks, to those who may think that theater isn't for them. This show strikes the theater populist in me as an us-and-them affair.


There were a lot of tossers at the performance I attended, including the man sitting next to me, who whooped after every song and kept glaring at me when I didn’t. It’s also been interesting to read the critical responses to the show. A few old-time traditionalists, like John Simon and Clive Barnes, were turned off but most of the reviewers love it. Of course, they’re insiders too; Roma Torre, the theater critic for the local cable channel NY1, is even a punch line in the show. But what are tourists from Tulsa or Tokyo (or even those folks from Teaneck who only see a show once or twice a year) to make of all this?


Now I know that not every Broadway show needs to appeal to every Broadway theatergoer. And this show should be applauded for trying something different and making Broadway cool for a hip segment of the forty-and-under crowd. And they may be even a bigger part than one might think since the society is increasingly showbiz savvy. My fellow blogger Chris Caggiano at Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals is a fan of the show and in his review (click here to read it) he reminds us that people were probably just as dubious that the similarly-themed A Chorus Line would appeal beyond the theaterati when it began its original15-year run back in 1975.


I confess that I don’t like being on the old-foggy side of this generation gap. But I do think [title of show] is a bit too smug. Still, there are lots of theater geeks in New York and around the world who will glorify in the exclusive secret-handshake nature of the show. [title of show] is for them and they’re bound to love it. But it may not be for your elderly aunt. Unless, of course, one of the reasons you see shows is that she’s the Auntie Mame who introduced you to the unpredictable craziness that is theater.

July 16, 2008

Tears for "The Marriage of Bette and Boo"

During my senior year in college, my friend Eric, the most ambitious boy in our theater department, wrote a play about his family for his year-end project and invited his parents to come and see it. He apparently neglected to tell them exactly what to expect because I happened to sit behind them and his mother sobbed dolefully the whole way through as he not only aired all their dirty laundry but poked fun at each piece.

Wrenching family dramas were, of course, a mainstay of the theater long before my pal Eric wrote his but while playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had been rueful, almost melodramatic, about the failings of their elders, baby boomers like Eric took another approach. Suckled on post-War existentialism and plumped up with treatises about the “absurdity” of modern life like Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” these younger writers took to heart the old adage about laughing to keep from crying and turned out intentionally outrageous works that may have reduced their elders to tears but seemed hilarious to them and their peers.


Eric and his mom kept popping into my head as I watched the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new revival of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Christopher Durang’s absurdist and semi-autobiographical play about his Roman-Catholic family. Durang, now 59, wrote the early drafts of his play while he was still a student at the Yale School of Drama in the 1970s. In what eventually became a series of 33 brief scenes, he charts the unhappiness in his parents’ marriage, which, despite including alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, cancer, senility and four stillbirths, is played largely as comedy.

I didn’t see the original production when it was done at the Public Theater in 1985 with Durang playing the stage version of his younger self in a cast that included Joan Allen, Mercedes Ruehl and Olympia Dukakis (click here to read Durang’s memories of that production on his informative website) and so I don’t know what the audience response was like back then but it was uneasy at the performance I attended this past Saturday night.

You can’t blame the new production. The current cast—lead by Kate Jennings Grant as Bette and Christopher Evan Welch as Boo, with Victoria Clark, John Glover and Julie Hagerty among their loopy relatives—is top-notch, Walter Bobbie directs them in an appropriately snappy fashion and I enjoyed the production (click here to read Durang's thoughts on the revival). But my fellow audience members seemed uncomfortable about laughing at the family’s tribulations—particularly about the dead babies. Several people left at intermission, although you’d have thought that, unlike my friend Eric’s parents, they knew what they were getting into.


Maybe it’s that times have changed. The grey heads in the audience are now more likely to be baby boomers than their parents. And with age, particularly for those of us who have raised our own kids, may have come the ability to be more forgiving about parental foibles that once would have been regarded as laugh-out-loud absurd.

Every family has its stories—and many of them mix tragedy and comedy. That’s obvious at any wake. But nowadays we tend to want to laugh with, rather than at, the subjects of those stories. Which may be why August: Osage County is such a hit and Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate is coming to Broadway this fall. Their families are just as dysfunctional and foolish as Bette and Boo’s but they’re viewed with less irony and more compassion. Which is something Eric’s mother probably would have appreciated.

July 12, 2008

"Damn Yankees" Drops the Ball

I love summer and I try to be outside in the warm weather every minute I can. Which is sometimes a problem when you’re a theater lover. Sure, there are outdoor productions like Shakespeare in the Park and Broadway at the Seaport. But more often than not, you’re heading inside a theater just when the temperature seems to be at the height of its shank-of-the-evening glory. And I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way because the exodus at intermissions in the summer tends to be larger than usual and getting people back into their seats a little more difficult. Still, I found it telling when I looked around outside City Center towards the end of Tuesday night’s mid-performance break of the new Encores! production of Damn Yankees and realized that most of the stragglers were the city’s major theater critics.

Eventually an usher came out to shoo us in and we all trooped back to our seats but I suspect that a good number of us might have preferred sitting at one of the outdoor cafés on t
he block or maybe even in the bleachers watching the real Yankees play in their final season in their venerable stadium before moving to a new one next year. As you probably know, the Bronx Bombers don’t actually appear in this 1955 musical; the team it celebrates is the old Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) and its protagonist is Joe Boyd, a middle-aged fan so devoted to them that he offers to sell his soul if the Devil will transform him into a gifted young player who can help the losing team win the pennant over its New York nemesis (click here to read Theatermania columnist Peter Filichia's wonderful interview with a now 91 year-old Shannon Bolin, who played Boyd’s wife Meg in the original production).

Damn Yankees was never a classic musical—the book is barely robust enough to make it to second base—but its score is delightful and its performances were nearly all home runs. Especially Gwen Verdon’s star-clinching turn as Lola, the Devil’s femme fatale helpmate who is charged with distracting the young Joe. The show’s choreographer Bob Fosse, who would later marry Verdon, created sensational numbers custom-made to her distinctive and prodigious talent (click here to see her in action). After Damn Yan
kees was turned into a movie in 1958, with the entire Broadway cast intact except for having Tab Hunter take over the role of young Joe, everyone, including the little-girl me, was vamping around and singing Verdon’s signature song, “Whatever Lola Wants.” Classic or no, the show gives any revival a lot to live up to.

Unlike the staged readings that Encores! usually puts on, the Summer Stars series, now in its second season, is a full sets-and-all affair. The series scored last year with its powerhouse production of Gypsy, which transferred to Broadway and won Tonys for all three of its leads—Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines. So that has given this Damn Yankees revival
another set of expectations to meet. And, alas, all those demands prove too tall an order. By intermission, those of us loitering outside City Center had already seen the show’s biggest numbers—“Heart” (you know, as in, “You gotta have…), “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo” and, of course, “Whatever Lola Wants” and we knew it wasn’t going to be anywhere near as good as either Gypsy or the original 1955 production.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad. Sean Hayes, the flamboyant Jack from TV’s “Will & Grace” who is
making his New York stage debut as the Devil who uses the pseudonym Mr. Applegate, is a crowd pleaser, although his Satan is more a naughty boy than the diabolical dealmaker of the original’s Ray Walston, whose wry wit would later enliven his own hit sitcom, “My Favorite Martian.” Jane Krakowski, a Tony-winner for the 2003 revival of Nine and now on TV’s “30 Rock,” looks fabulous and gamely tries to master Fosse’s choreography, although even she seems to know that she can’t match Verdon’s virtuosity. Cheyenne Jackson, on furlough from Xanadu, also looks great and is a valiant young Joe. But none of them seem to really get inside their characters and make them their own.

After the show, in between bites of deluxe cheeseburgers at the nearby Brooklyn Diner, my pal Bill suggested that the limited rehearsal period for the three-week run, which ends July 27, might not have given them enough time to develop their performances. And that may be true but, given the same amount of time, Randy Graff managed to find the emotional center of the wife Meg, making her a fully realized person.


My husband K, a pit musician, usually performs in the Encores! orchestra but this time out, he stayed with his steady gig, playing for Gypsy, and so he was even more curious than usual to hear what I’d thought of the show when I got home. “Ah,” he said, after I described it, “sounds like summer stock.” And that’s the perfect description. This production of Damn Yankees is light entertainment for a summer night, the equivalent of watching a Triple-A-Baseball game. Except, of course, that with the game, you'd get to spend the evening outside.

July 9, 2008

Mad About "The Bacchae"

Like many kids, I was enchanted by the stories of Greek and Roman mythology. Like, I suspect, only a few, I spent the summer between 7th and 8th grades, reading “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” And I’ve never quite shaken my fascination with their original superheroes. I may be the only person living in a Manhattan zip code to admit to not only having seen but actually liking Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” with Brad Pitt as the mighty Greek hero Achilles and Eric Bana as his worthy Trojan rival Hector. And yet, it was with no little trepidation that I made my way to the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Euripides’s The Bacchae, which kicked off this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival 08.

I think it was all those pictures of a golden-skirted Alan Cumming as the god Dionysus that gave me pause. Did I really want to see him do his androgyny thing again? I needn’t have worried. Both he and the production are splendid. And I suspect that Euripides would have liked it all as well. According to the reference books, Greek plays were divided strictly along genre lines—tragedies, comedies, and something call satyr plays that tended to be raunchy. But Euripides seems to have liked to mix them up a bit. And that’s just what this show does.


The Bacchae tells the story of Dionysus, the son of the chief god Zeus and a human woman, who returns to his mother’s homeland, demands that his countryman recognize him as a god and wreaks retribution when they refuse. Despite the life and death subject matter, there’s campy humor (Xanadu fans would feel quite at home), rousing gospel and soul singing by a nine-member chorus of black women dressed in fabulous red gowns, and flamboyant stagecraft (I know you’ve already heard about the opening where an upside-down Cumming descends from the heavens with his naked butt facing the audience). But there’s harrowing tragedy too, most notably in the Italian-born and British-trained actress Paola Dionisotti’s affective portrayal of Agave, the mother who, in typical Greek drama fashion, unknowingly murders her child (click here to hear Cumming and Dionisotti discuss the play and to see excerpts from the original Scottish production).


Anyone with just a passing knowledge of Greek drama knows that dysfunctional families are the ur-theme of western theater. Of course, even the experts have only a passing knowledge of Greek drama because so little of it has survived. The plays grew out of religious rituals and were often one-time only events written to be presented at festivals held to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstatic good times and, eventually the divine patron of the theater.


Only the works of the playwrights Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus remain and so we don’t really know how they would compare if we could read or see the works of their peers. But there are indications that they were considered the big dogs of their day. Aeschylus, the eldest of the three, is reported to have won the top honor at Athens’s annual City Dionysia festival 13 times; Sophocles did even better with 18 first prizes. Euripides took home that award just five times but he may have gotten the last laugh. And not just because more of his plays survive than those of the other two. It’s because Euripedes is actually sort of a postmodern kind of guy.


The characters in his plays are more complex, even recognizably neurotic to a 21st century sensibility. His tone tends to be cynically irreverent and almost contemporarily wary of the establishment.
The once-again-hot debate over rationalism versus religion is the main subject of The Bacchae, which was first performed posthumously after Euripides died in 406 B.C. at the august age of 74 and which won his final Dionysia honor. But what I most like about him is that judging from such works as Medea, Andromache, Hecuba, Electra, The Trojan Women, Iphigeneia in Tauris and even the characters Agave and the Maenads, or mad women, in The Bacchae, Euripides was comfortable dealing with strong female characters, even if the parts back them were played by men.

And for that reason alone, I don’t know why we don’t see more of his works done, given all the brilliant female actors who have far too few opportunities to really strut their stuff. David Greig’s colloquial script shows that the dialog can be adapted for modern ears. And John Tiffany, the director who created last year’s highly acclaimed Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse, has mounted a 90-minute production that is simultaneously true to the play’s ancient text and thoroughly entertaining for modern audiences even if the only Odyssey they know is the new Honda minivan. But the run ends on July 13 so there are only a few days left if you want to revel in this surprisingly satisfying bacchanal.

July 2, 2008

Summer Reading '08

Time flies. Particularly summer time. But my husband K and I have set up our terrace and I’m spending as many hours as possible out there, often with a book (usually about theater) in one hand and a glass of wine (preferably a dry rosé) in the other. Your favorite summer kickback spot may be a blanket at the beach, a hammock in the yard, a chair on the porch or a spot of grass under a tree in the park. Wherever it is, below is my annual list of reading suggestions to keep any theater lover good company in the weeks between the 4th of July and Labor Day:

1. Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood by Arthur Laurents.
Throughout his nearly 70-year career, Laurents has had a reputation for calling them as he sees them. And, having worked on such iconic musicals as West Side Story, Gypsy and La Cage aux Folles, in addition to such memorable movies as “Anastasia”, “Turning Point” and “The Way We Were”, he’s seen a lot. He’s also known just about every other creative genius who worked on the stage or screen over the past eight decades and, of course, he’s a superb storyteller. Laurents published this book in 2000 when he was 82; he turns 90 this month and although he’s been busy directing the current Broadway revival of Gypsy and preparing a new production of West Side Story, I’m selfishly hoping he’s also working on a sequel to this warts-and-all account of Broadway at its best.

2. Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews. Many celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten but it’s clear that Andrews wrote this one herself. And the book, which came out this spring, makes it equally clear that she’s as gifted on the page as she has always been on the stage. And don’t be scared off by the reference to her “early years.” There is quite a bit of family stuff but Andrews began performing professionally before she was 12 and was starring as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady before she was 21. So her early memories are filled with wonderful anecdotes about the people she worked with, including Rex Harrison, Noel Coward, and Richard Burton. But what really makes this book special is its detailed and intimate look at all the hard work that goes into making a performance look effortless—including a diet tip from the great Moss Hart.


3. Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies by Ted Chapin. During his last year in college, Chapin persuaded his professors to let him do a senior project on the development of a new Broadway musical. The show was Follies and, although he waited over 30 years before turning his school notes into a book in 2003, he gives a vibrant, fly-on-the-wall account of what happened as Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince and Michael Bennett created that legendary production, from the first table reading straight through to opening night. I have a small acquaintance with Chapin but that’s not why I’m recommending his book. I’m doing it because it offers a unique look at three indisputable masters of the form as they’re in the heat of charting a new course for it. Chapin got top marks for his senior project and this book deserves them too.


4. Three Girls and Their Brother: A Novel by Theresa Rebeck. This lively comic novel, which came out earlier this year, has been billed as a satiric look at the culture’s current obsession with fame and it does tell the story of an hilariously tumultuous year in the life of the gorgeous granddaughters of a renowned literary critic after their photo appears in "The New Yorker," leading to their becoming top fashion models and hot commodities on the celebrity circuit. Rebeck, the author of such plays as Mauritius and Omnium Gatherum, which she co-wrote with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, has a lot of fun with the vagaries of fashion shoots, TV interview shows and the movie business but the best part of the book is her also-amusing but totally affectionate look at the off-Broadway theater world when the youngest girl tries her hand at doing a play and falls in love, as Rebeck clearly has, with stage life.


5. Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life, Love, and Musical Theatre by Seth Rudetsky. Does this man ever sleep? In addition to playing in and conducting Broadway orchestras, acting (he was one of the bathhouse guys in the recent revival of The Ritz), hosting the radio show “Seth's Big Fat Broadway” on Sirius Satellite Radio, and “Seth's Broadway Chatterbox, a weekly live talk show at the cabaret club Don’t Tell Mama, volunteering for such events as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and serving as the vocal coach to the contestants on TV’s “Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods,” Rudetsky published his first novel last year. His delightful roman á clef is, of course, a showbiz tale—chocked full of insider stuff about putting on a show—but it’s also a sweet gay love story.


6. Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theater by John Bush Jones. There are lots of histories of the Broadway musical around but what sets this one apart is its thought-provoking analysis of how shows over the years reflected and refracted the political issues and social trends of their times. Jones, a retired theater professor at Brandeis University, saw his first musical when he was just five years old and, as he says in his dedication, he has never lost his love for them. His perceptive account of the ups and downs of African-Americans in musicals is worth the price of the book. But this survey, published in 2003, is equally fascinating about how cocky patriotism and wary xenophobia influenced George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones at the turn of the last century, while the uneasiness about the growing power of big business informed Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown at the beginning of this one, You may not buy all of Jones's arguments but you’ll be intrigued by all of them.


7. Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960's Ignited a New American Theater by David Crespy. The names Al Carmines, Joe Cino and Ellen Stewart aren’t as familiar to the average theatergoer today as they should be and this terrific little book makes it clear why every theater lover should not only know them but be grateful to them. All three were pioneers in the experimental theater movement that came of age in Greenwich Village during the late 1950s and early 1960s and that provided the training ground for such playwrights as Edward Albee, Amiri Baraka who was then known as LeRoi Jones, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson. Crespy, a playwright and professor of theatre at the University of Missouri, published his book in 2003 and includes a chapter about contemporary companies that are still pushing the envelope but it’s his colorful narrative of those early days that makes this book a treat.


8. The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway by William Goldman. Yes; this was on last year’s list but as I said then, no theater reading list is complete without this award-winning playwright and screenwriter's inside account of the 1967-68 Broadway season. It is the “Moby Dick” of theater books and every self-respecting theater lover should read it—at least twice.


Happy reading. I’m taking the holiday weekend off, so Happy 4th too. And whatever your choice of liquid refreshment, have an extra glass for Broadway, and for me.