Kenneth Turan's new history of The Public Theater, Free For All: Joe Papp, the Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told, has been over 20 years in the making. Told in an oral-history format consisting of testimony and first-person accounts from over 150 people connected with Papp (who died in 1991) and the Public over the years, the book turns out to be an invaluable means of preserving some of New York great theatrical voices. (Indeed, about a quarter of Turan's cast of characters is deceased.) Moreover, the oral-history format proves to be an intensely dramatic and extremely enlightening way to tell the story of America's preeminent not-for-profit drama organization.
The excitement stems not out of epic battles or tragic moments for Papp and his theater (though there are plenty), but the conflicting accounts of history offered by each of Turan's subjects. For instance, in the chapter about the successful Broadway transfer of the Shakespeare Festival's musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, both LuEsther Mertz and Bernard Gersten claim credit for the idea of having the Public be the sole investor in the Broadway production, a strategy that -- especially in the case of A Chorus Line -- underwrote the Public's operating budget for years. Turan presents these conflicting accounts without commentary, often back-to-back, just as any good dramatist would allow his characters to speak for themselves.
Papp emerges from this tome even more a legend and less a mere mortal than before. What starts as a biography of Papp and his impoverished childhood in Brooklyn quickly refocuses to Papp's professional life and the company he creates by the second chapter. One can tell that, whether they love him or hate him, everyone who comes in contact with Papp has a deep respect for the man. We are introduced to Papp the businessman, Papp the general, and Papp the socialist -- and it is the latter of these roles that Turan's interviewees unanimously agree deeply informed almost all of Papp's decisions about programming. Nothing that Papp produced could be merely "art for art's sake." He wanted the work he put on to have to have a meaningful and progressive social impact.
If we are to believe that "socializing" theater -- especially in terms of access -- was Papp's mission, as Turan's subjects and the book's title suggest, then he accomplished his goal. Despite instances of wealthy theater-goers hiring line-sitters to get their tickets for them, Shakespeare in the Park still offers the masses the most egalitarian way to see free, world-class productions every summer; audiences are only asked to give up the requisite time it takes to obtain a ticket. This "socialized" or public theater, and the myriad copycat companies that it has spawned, is truly Papp's greatest legacy.
Geoffrey Block's Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Showboat to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber is a critical analysis of some of the most significant Broadway musicals of the last century, including Porgy and Bess, Carousel, and West Side Story. Block's list of subjects is by no means comprehensive -- for example, neither Cabaret nor A Chorus Line are covered -- but by focusing on a select few shows, Block is able to give each a thoughtful exploration. A musicologist by trade, Block gives particular attention to the role of music and lyrics, offering several musical diagrams along the way to illustrate his points. (A rudimentary knowledge of how to read music is important.) In short, Enchanted Evenings is a superb read for more academically-inclined theater enthusiasts.
Despite its title, Dick Van Patten's new memoir, Eighty is Not Enough is not all about his experience playing all-American dad Tom Bradford on television's Eight is Enough. Instead, this easy-to-read romp elaborates on the veteran actor's storied stage career, which includes working with such theatrical luminaries as Max Reinhardt, Fredric March, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne. Since Van Patten started his career as a child actor, this is the rare biography that gives equal time to the subject's childhood, which makes for an engaging read.
Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain is a complete history of the popular revue show of Broadway parodies. With help from a dozen Forbidden Broadway alums sharing their personal memories, creator Gerard Alessandrini guides the reader from the show's beginning at Palsson's Supper Club in 1981 right up to its final (for now) incarnation in 2009. In between, Alessandrini includes well-edited scripts and hilarious lyrics from his ever-changing show, along with numerous color production stills as well as backstage photos of Broadway luminaries like Ethel Merman, Stephen Sondheim, and Carol Channing.
In Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, the beloved song made popular by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis, is given a new context when it is set to Liz Murphy's charming and imaginative illustrations of Bernadette Peters' dog Kramer sledding, caroling, and generally getting into the holiday spirit. (A portion of the proceeds go to support Peters' Broadway Barks charity which promotes the adoption of shelter animals.) All of Murphy's seemingly simple drawings incorporate bits and pieces of printed text, which will confound the curious reader who attempts to decipher the source material. A CD of Peters singing the classic song before a live audience is included in the back; even better, the padded front cover can be used as a picture frame.
Gerald Nachman's Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan's America is a sweeping work of biography, entertainment history, and cultural criticism all rolled into one four-part book. It traces the 23-year history of The Ed Sullivan Show from Sullivan's television debut in 1948 through the advent of rock 'n' roll, which staged its largest invasion of American homes through Sullivan's show in the form of Elvis and The Beatles. Nachman has an encyclopedic knowledge of Americana, and he is particularly good at placing The Ed Sullivan Show in the larger context of America's development.
Theatre World: Volume 65 continues the series' long-running mission of creating the most complete record of American theater in print. A book like this could never be exhaustive, but editor Ben Hodges and company come pretty darn close. With this edition, Hodges reintroduces seasonal reviews at the beginning of each chapter (Broadway, Off Broadway, Regional, etc.) -- a practice that was abandoned in the mid-1990s -- giving Theatre World that bit of analysis that always seemed missing in previous editions. And with lines like "Jane Fonda. Jeremy Irons. Marcia Gay Harden. Jeremy Piven getting sick on sushi," it is clear that this is a yearbook of the American stage that no theater documentarian should be without.
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