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The Book Tour

Proving that you can't judge a book by its cover, Filichia finds theater mentioned in some very surprising volumes.

By New York City
Today's going to be busy at the office, for I have three reviews to write. Still, as usual, I find myself stopping at various spots en route to my work station. That happens at a big metropolitan newspaper: You pass by so many desks with so many interesting books on them that you just have to stop and look. While I'm sauntering by a feature writer's desk, I spot Odds 'R: The Odds on Everything Book, by Roger L. Schlaifer.

"May I?" I ask the writer -- and, after hearing, "You may," I delve into this book in which one page asks what are the odds of something happening and then the next furnishes the answer. I happen to open to "What are the odds that an American woman over the age of 75 has a sexual partner? 1 in 3? 1 in 5? 1 in 10?" I don't bother to find out but I go to the index, hoping to find a reference to Broadway -- though I don't expect to. Theater takes a back seat to other forms of entertainment where mass marketing is concerned, doesn't it?

So, as I turn to Chapter 9: Art & Pop Culture, I'm not optimistic. But, mirabile dictu, Schlaifer does include a theatrical reference. Granted, at the outset, he gets one fact wrong: "Only 40 to 50 plays a year ever reach a New York audience." (I think he means a Broadway audience; Off- and Off-Off-Broadway at least quintuple the figure.) But then he writes, "Against odds of about 56 million to one, which of the following playwrights scored a historical first by winning a Tony, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer?" Many of you won't need the three choices that Schlaifer provides -- A) August Wilson, B) Arthur Miller, and C) Alfred Uhry -- but will immediately know it's "C." If someone had told me before I picked up this glossy trade paperback that there'd be a theater reference in it, I would have guessed that it would have been about a musical. Good for Schlaifer for celebrating Uhry's Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy and his Tony-victorious Last Night of Ballyhoo.

Next, I pass by our movie critic's desk, where I see Joe Bob Briggs' Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies That Changed History. Our critic isn't here, so I take the liberty of perusing the book. Will one of the movies mentioned have been adapted from a Broadway play? Probably not; in the last few decades, most studies of films have had contempt for anything that originated on the New York stage. But here's my second pleasant surprise, for among such films as Lolita, Belle de Jour, and sex, lies, and videotape, there's a chapter devoted to Picnic, the film version of the hit William Inge play. Briggs expresses what I've always felt about the property, in which the lovely Madge has the chance to marry the rich and safe if unexciting Alan but instead runs off with the hunky bum Hal; he calls Picnic "a virtual dirge for women who destroy themselves with false hope and misplaced affection." How true!

When our movie critic returns, I mumble a quick apology for leafing through the book. Then, while passing our (absent) video critic's desk, I spot Rough Guide to Comedy Movies: 50 Seriously Funny Films, by Bob McCabe. Here theater will get short shrift, I'm sure. But no! The Odd Couple, A Shot in the Dark, and His Girl Friday (adapted from The Front Page) make the list, as does All About Eve, which is all about theater. I smile when I read that Tallulah Bankhead, who asssumed that Bette Davis had based her Margo Channing characterization on her, said that, the next time she saw Davis, she would "tear every hair out of her mustache."

Next I pass by our TV critic's desk, on which sits the new-sized TV Guide, gargantuan in comparison to what viewers have known for 50-plus years. "Go ahead," says our critic, who's well used to my scavenging around his domain. Ironically, I wasn't even going to ask to look, for how often does TV Guide celebrate theater? Still, I flip through and am amused to see "There Won't Be Trumpets" in the middle of an article about Desperate Housewives. At first, I think it's a coincidence that a song from Anyone Can Whistle should make it into this pop culture rag, albeit in another context. But, amazingly, the Sondheim song is exactly what this article is referencing. As some of you know, most every episode of Desperate Housewives is named for a song title, thanks to creator Marc Cherry -- and more often than not, it's a Sondheim song.

That tribute is long overdue. Think of all the other TV episodes that could have had Sondheim songs as their titles! Remember how, on The Simpsons, Homer went on a hunger strike but then weakened when he saw a savory hot dog? That episode could have been called "That Frank." Roseanne and Dan Conner once found a long-lost bag of marijuana in their home and decided to indulge; I'd have recommended "All Things Bright and Beautiful" as a title for that Roseanne show. A particularly bloody episode of E.R. could have been called "One Hand, One Heart," while "God, That's Good" would have been perfect for the famous I Love Lucy show wherein Lucy Ricardo samples Vitameatavegamin. Of course, most sitcoms are pretty terrible, so thousands of their episodes could have been titled either "Silly People" (a song cut from A Little Night Music) or, better still, "Don't Look at Me" (from Follies).

When I finally arrive at my desk, I'm feeling good -- for while I had been sure that theater wouldn't be cited in any of the publications noted above, it was. To paraphrase Charlotte in A Little Night Music, we're gaining.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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