Few things compare to the guilty pleasure of a tell-all biography. In Richard Burton: Prince of Players, author Michael Munn, who appeared as an extra in several of Richard Burton's films, claims great insight into the late actor's life. This scandal-laden tome contains details about Burton's dirt-poor childhood in Wales, his two-time marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, and, yes, Burton's first and allegedly only homosexual experience. While this is not likely to be declared the seminal biography of 2008, it offers enough juicy gossip to keep even the most respectable reader turning the page.
Carol de Giere's Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked isn't just about these two shows, although a remarkable 152 pages (out of 535) are dedicated to the current hit Broadway show. De Giere seamlessly interweaves details about Schwartz's personal life with accounts of the creative process of all of his musicals, plus such animated films as Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The book also includes several full-page photographs and copies of Schwartz's original hand-written music, making it a must-have for any of the composer's many fans.
Opera and Its Characters is formatted like a children's book, but written to be enjoyed by adults. Each section contains a brief synopsis of an opera centered on a particular character, who is then illuminated by Francis Keeping's Beardsleyesque illustrations. What's particularly great about this book is its ability to move gracefully from "just-for-fun" irreverent to highly opinionated.
Susan Goodman's top-notch and intellectually stimulating new art book Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, based on the current exhibit at the Jewish Museum, is a showcase not only for the costume and scene sketches of Marc Chagall, but also those of his contemporaries, including Nathan Altman, Robert Falk, and Aleksandr Tyshler. Alongside gorgeous full-color prints of these artists' work, Goodman and her collaborators brilliantly contextualize two of the leading Russian Jewish Theaters, Habima (Hebrew) and GOSET (Yiddish) into the larger pantheon of the early 20th-century Russian stage. Indeed, far from uniform in its presentation and content, these theaters serve as a microcosm for the conflicts of secular vs. religious, Constructivism vs. Aestheticism, and Stanislavski vs. Meyerhold -- artistic clashes sadly rendered moot by a Stalinist regime and Socialist realism.
Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell's Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It is three books in one, all attached by a large cloth-covered foldout. It includes a book of production photos, a design folio of early set and costume sketches, and a complete history of Mary Poppins from P.L. Travers's imagination, through the sometimes contentious process of the Hollywood film, to its current Broadway incarnation. (Accounts of scuffles between Walt Disney and Travers are particularly amusing.) Designer Bob Crowley's Edward Gorey-like sketches are wildly fanciful and deserving of the unique folio Sibley and Lassell have given them.
August: Osage County opened on Broadway almost a year ago and today it's still running strong, exhibiting remarkable longevity for a non-musical play. Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning script shows why this 3 ½ hour drama about the breakdown of an Oklahoma family is so popular and critically acclaimed. It is simply some of the most exciting and relevant writing to come to the stage in years.
In the preface to the 2007 American Edition of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy about 19th-Century Russian intelligentsia, the author writes, "I wish I'd written it this way first time round, but I didn't know enough then." Whether or not you've read the original text, Stoppard's engaging and thoughtful play is not one to be missed. Stoppard has a true gift for revealing the human side of the great thinkers that are the subject of his plays without losing sight of their intellectual achievements. (FYI: Grove Press has the complete trilogy available in a single paperback, and also offers a collectible box set with each play printed separately in hardback.)
Billy Elliot: The Musical opened on Broadway last month, but the very successful London production of the Elton John-Lee Hall tuner has been captured by David Scheinmann in Billy Elliot: Through the Lens. Scheinmann presents his photos chronologically, from early rehearsals through the opening night curtain call, with no words accompanying to act as filters; and he has a distinct talent for candidly capturing dedicated artists hard at work. Like the film and musical, this book has the power to be deeply inspirational to young performers.
Historic Photos From Broadway: New York Theater, 1850-1970 is a remarkable collection of theatrical photographs from the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the Performing Arts Library. Presented chronologically, these black and white photographs seem carefully selected to offer the reader a glimpse of something rare, like in one photograph that shows a seated audience in 1895. Author Leonard Jacobs' commentary is valuable and witty, with a hint of playful sarcasm. For example, of the now-demolished Garrick Theatre, he dryly notes, "A fascinating parking garage stands on the site today."
Walnut Street Theater's managing director Bernard Havard and artistic director Mark D. Sylvester have compiled Walnut Street Theatre (Images of America: Pennsylvania), a charming pictorial history of the Philadelphia showplace, which actually opened its doors in 1809 as an equestrian circus. By 1812, however, the Walnut was producing plays, and since then its boards have hosted some of America's greatest actors -- including Booths, Barrymores, and Fondas -- to entertain everyone from the average Philadelphian to great presidents and foreign dignitaries. Indeed, the Walnut's opening night as a playhouse had both President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in the audience!
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