Book Review

The Marvelous Memoirs of Cyndi Lauper, Arthur Laurents, and David Rothenberg

“I left home at seventeen,” writes Cyndi Lauper in the first line of her new book Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir. But unlike many a teenage runaway, Lauper became an international pop superstar, gaining fans, friends, and even a few enemies along the way.

Co-author Jancee Dunn perfectly captures Lauper’s Queens-bred matter-of-factness – so much so that the whole book feels like one big gab session. She certainly doesn’t mince words about the people with whom she has clashed over the years – calling CBGB founder Hilly Kristal “a cheap bastard” and her Vibes co-star Jeff Goldblum, “really awful.”

Lauper is also not shy about reflecting on the events of her life with her own brand of political and social commentary. In fact, she has imbued her memoir with a distinctly feminist perspective that offers some startlingly fresh insights.

For example, in discussing the rockers that came before her, she writes: “To me that whole generation and their free love, with male musicians being big peacocks and the women walking quietly behind or next to them, was a bunch of crap.”

Of course, Lauper’s self-admitted lack of a filter has gotten her into her fair share of trouble over the years. After she told Steven Spielberg that his idea for her Goonies music video was “not very creative,” he decided not to direct the video at all. Indeed, Lauper often repeats the refrain: “I always say the wrong things to the right people.”

But this singular artist has obviously done something right: both her pop music and avant-garde fashion have undoubtedly paved the way for later acts like Lady Gaga. And her story goes on, not just as a recording artist, but as a theater composer for the upcoming Broadway-bound musical Kinky Boots, now playing in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre. Perhaps we’ll hear all about it in her next book.

Conversely, there will be no next book for the late writer and director Arthur Laurents. But in his final memoir, The Rest of the Story: A Life Completed, the brutally honest Laurents admits to having adopted a different approach to the truth in his waning years.

“Just because something is true, you don’t have to write it,” he opines, “Nor do you have to say it; although I still have to stop myself from doing that.”

Indeed, the most innovative feature of this memoir is the existence of two narrators: the Arthur Laurents of 2009 and the Arthur Laurents of 2011, who comments in italics on his younger, rasher 91-year-old self, and often seems to regret the time he spent on contention.

Nonetheless, The Rest of the Story is still rife with Laurents’ famously stinging critiques. Many are directed at the press: he compares the New York Times‘ short-lived gossip column to “a middle-aged woman walking out of church to shake her booty at a downtown club.” In assessing the work of New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel, Laurents muses that “[his] compliments are reserved for his clients.”

Laurents is equally sharp in his criticism of American politics, particularly the Hollywood “red scare” of the 1950s that saw him blacklisted and exiled to Paris for two years. An activist to the end, Laurents observes of George W. Bush’s administration: “The injustices committed every day by the Bush government made the injustices of the House Un-American Activities Committee seem like a smalltown misdemeanor.”

Yet one positive thing that comes shining through Laurents’ book is his unequivocal devotion to Tom Hatcher, his partner of 52 years, who died of lung cancer in 2006. Much of The Rest of the Story is a love song written in beautiful and dynamic prose.

An equally fascinating, if less celebrated, life has been lived by Broadway publicist and social activist David Rothenberg, which he recounts in his superb autobiography Fortune in My Eyes.

Rothenberg began his career as a press agent, rising quickly in his field at a relatively young age to work on the fabled 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton. However, Rothenberg quickly became unsatisfied with the star-driven aspect of Broadway and looked for an opportunity to use the stage to effect change in society through the fomentation of a larger conversation.

He accomplished that goal by producing Fortune and Men’s Eyes, John Herbert’s groundbreaking 1967 Off-Broadway play about a young man’s experience in prison. That experience led him to create The Fortune Society, a still-thriving not-for-profit organization that offers services to facilitate the successful reintegration of ex-convicts into the mainstream.

So how did an upper-middle-class Jewish boy with a passion for the stage end up devoting part of his life to ending recidivism? As Rothenberg writes, “Curiosity about people unlike yourself makes living exciting.”

Rothenberg also gives his readers a glimpse into his personal experiences in some of the most politically contentious events of the 20th century, including the Attica Prison Riots and the conflict between the Contras and Sandinistas in Nicaragua. His political prose is occasionally acerbic, but never cynical, in articulating his fundamental belief in the basic goodness of humanity.

Ultimately, though, this book is a welcome reminder that theater can be used to make the world a better place.