The Back Stage Guide to Broadway, by Robert Viagas (Watson-Guptil, 200 pp., $12.95), looks and feels like a simple vade mecum to New York City theater. Well-organized and handsomely produced, it's packed with practical advice about choosing shows that are appropriate for particular playgoers, obtaining tickets, locating discounts, and getting to the theater on time. The book addresses dining, lodging, transportation, and safety precautions, and it includes tips on how to amuse oneself before and after the show. It contains a sturdy fold-out map of the Theater District, easy to read and ideal for navigating Broadway territory though not inclusive enough to cover most Off- and Off-Off-Broadway houses. With all that useful information -- some of it otherwise hard to find and impossible to get from a single source -- the book is an effective Virgil for out-of-towners and others unfamiliar with industry customs, theater etiquette, and the ways and wiles of box offices, ticket agents, and scalpers.

But The Back Stage Guide isn't merely a tourist's aid. The author, a veteran theater writer and editor of Playbill Books, has long been well-placed to observe the eccentricities of show business. Claiming to have spent two thousand nights of his life at the theater, Viagas writes in the assured voice of one who not only knows his subject but is besotted with it. As a result, his book offers a peek behind the scenes Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, as well as on the Main Stem. Because it's difficult to write about the business and economics of New York theater without addressing phenomena such as national companies, bus and truck tours, stock and amateur productions, and the national network of nonprofit resident companies, The Back Stage Guide is, ultimately, an introduction to the American theater as a whole.

It begins with a history of theater in Manhattan. "A little history," Viagas modestly calls it, yet his overview is both compact and as comprehensive as it could be without intimidating the beginner. Later, Viagas discusses how the American theater is structured and provides a lexicon of theater lingo and an intricate explanation of "The Season" (including the midwinter slump and how a playgoer can use it to his or her advantage), along with lists of people, plays, and other things that constitute his notion of basic theater knowledge. Some of Viagas's judgments are idiosyncratic; his list of "Names You Should Know," for example, includes Andrew Lloyd Weber, Patti LuPone, and newcomers Sutton and Hunter Foster but omits Harold Prince, Cherry Jones, and August Wilson.

Viagas, who has founded news services for Playbill.com, Theater.com, and Broadway Online, devotes substantial attention to the interactive resources available to playgoers and theater lovers. "Even as the mass media have paid less and less attention to legitimate theatre," he writes, "the number of informational outlets has exploded, largely thanks to the growth of the internet." Acknowledging that "[t]he traditional source of Broadway information has been its newspapers and magazines," Viagas chronicles the dwindling number of such publications, the decreasing attention to the arts in the ones that remain, and the emergence of serious arts journalism online. "A recent industry survey found that more than 94 percent of ticket buyers have internet access," he writes. "That may be either the cause or effect of the presence of about a half dozen large websites and dozens of small ones devoted to breaking news about Broadway."

The Back Stage Guide includes an abundance of facts -- or, more accurately, trivia -- that theater buffs will relish knowing and telling. "New York has seen two musicals about the seemingly unmusical subject of castration," he reports. One was The Knife, a 1987 show "in which Mandy Patinkin starred as a man contemplating a sex change." The other was Rodgers and Hart's short-lived Chee-Chee. With only 31 performances to its credit, Chee-Chee had the briefest run of any musical by Richard Rodgers. "Cut short, you might say," cracks Viagas.

Though factually accurate and eminently browse-worthy, the book bears earmarks of haste in its assembly. Haphazard copy editing has overlooked infelicities in prose, as well as grammatical and typographical errors. At one point, Viagas compares the longest title among Tony Award plays (The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade) with the shortest title among Tony Award plays (Da) and then remarks that both of these dramas won Tony Awards, as though some Tony Award plays haven't.

Robert Viagas
Robert Viagas
Tourist guides have been a mainstay of the publishing industry since 1829, when Karl Baedeker unveiled a groundbreaking series for European travelers. For decades, Baedeker's surname was a synonym, in many languages, for the unwieldy volumes clutched by wanderers as they nosed around Chartres, Heidelberg, and other obligatory stops on their Wanderjahren. In the last couple of decades, a New York City family, the Zagats, has given its surname to annual surveys -- first of restaurants and, more recently, of home videos and theater. The Zagats have been innovative in relying on the opinions of ordinary consumers, rather than experts, to cover highly specialized areas of entertainment; but their most useful contribution may be the sleek, handy design of the volumes of the Zagatsurvey®, which slip easily in and out of purses, pockets, and backpacks. Viagas and Back Stage Books have wisely followed the Zagats' lead with a slender, pocket-sized design that makes The Back Stage Guide easy to handle, consult, and stow on one's person.

It's tempting to fantasize that, by the time The Back Stage Guide to Broadway reaches its fourth or fifth edition, "Viagas" may be part of the vernacular like "Baedeker" and "Zagat" -- at least around Manhattan. By the 10th edition, the author may have to put himself in the "Talk the Talk" section of Chapter Twelve ("How to Act and Sound Like a Pro"). That entry would read: "Viagas -- universal designation, derived from author's surname, of a reasonably-priced handbook on theater in New York (and beyond), which permits greenhorns to navigate Manhattan like natives, get their money's worth, and enjoy both play-going and the Big Apple to the max."