Theater News

BOOK REVIEWS: The Astaires, Conversations With Anne, and Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater

Three new worthy books examine some of the theater world’s greatest artists.

Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, the brother-sister dance team that is the subject of Kathleen Riley’s new history, The Astaires: Fred & Adele (Oxford University Press). While the former is certainly better-known than the latter, owing to the immortalizing power of celluloid, Riley argues that the Astaires actually had a much more game-changing impact on popular culture and the American musical.

The children of stage-obsessed Austrian immigrants, Fred and Adele Austerlitz were groomed for the spotlight from an early age, moving with their mother Ann from their native Nebraska to study dance in New York City.

We then follow the Austerlitz children (who eventually become the more aristocratic-sounding “Astaires”) from their early vaudeville misadventures through their meteoric rise to fame under the radical tutelage of choreographer Aurelio Coccia, the mentorship of established dance team Vernon and Irene Castle, and the financial support of impresario Charles Dillingham.

In the 1920s, the Astaires were not only the toast of Broadway, starring in such hits as For Goodness Sake, Lady, Be Good!, and Funny Face, but the darlings of the London stage cementing, as historian Len Platt put it, “the crucial identification between ‘America’ and ‘musical’ for the next 50 years.” Theirs was a frenetic and comical routine, driven as much by their athletic dance moves as their irrepressible personalities.

Throughout the work, Riley taps into the emotional inner-lives of her subjects and parses their motivations. She offers a particularly vivid portrait of Adele, the mischievous pixie who would come to typify so much of the “flapper” aesthetic — only to leave show business at the height of her career to marry British aristocrat Lord Charles Cavendish.

Best of all, Riley offers a snapshot of an era: whether they were dancing a scandalous Charleston with Lady Mountbatten or dining with the recently-married Irving Berlin in Paris, the Astaires always seemed to be at the center of excitement in the jazz age.

Conversations with Anne (TCG) is a collection of discussions held over the last decade between director and playwright Anne Bogart and some of the most influential theatrical voices in America. Julie Taymor, Paula Vogel, and Tina Landau are just a few of the 24 interviewees that make up this sizable tome, and they all speak about their histories, their passions, and their works with remarkable candor and thoughtful introspection.

The topics of conversation are often rarefied in the extreme. Peter Sellars talks about incorporating centuries-old Kazakh folk music into ancient Greek drama, while Richard Foreman elaborates on his general hatred of theater and emotional group response. The chapter with Bill T. Jones is especially revelatory in the subjects of identity politics in performance and the subversive recycling of preexisting works of art into something new.

While there is much wisdom to be gained from these sages of the stage, it is not always apparent. Bogart clearly speaks the language of her globe-trotting, experimental theater-directing subjects, but her occasionally-obtuse statements often do more to obfuscate their ideas than reveal them to the reader. As a result Conversations with Anne is best taken piece by piece; one is advised to read a section and then allow a few days to digest it before tackling another.

Jeffrey Magee’s Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater (Oxford University Press) is an intelligent and thorough analysis of the stage works of one of America’s most-enduring composers — the man who led Jerome Kern to comment, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music” — focusing on the legendary songsmith’s craft instead of his personal life.

By the time Berlin was contracted by producer Charles Dillingham to pen his first stage show, Watch Your Step, he was already an accomplished composer on Tin Pan Alley, having written the wildly successful “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Before his career came to an end nearly a century later, Berlin had penned thousands of songs, as well as such classic musicals as Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam.

One of the book’s strengths is that Magee examines Berlin’s musical populism — he always insisted that his favorite songs were the ones that had the widest acceptance — through the lens of Berlin’s childhood as a Russian-Jewish immigrant growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, busking for change as a “singing waiter.”

While Berlin was in some ways a musical chameleon — his style changed with the country’s times and tastes — Magee is particularly adept at placing Berlin’s works in the context of their respective ages, making this a particularly worthy read for scholar and layperson alike.

Indeed, the excellent chapter on the World War II revue show This is the Army, offers a detailed account of how Berlin would update the show to fit the time and location (it toured throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific, performing for the GIs) of its performances.

ON THE SHELF: Theatre Communications Group offers a slew of new plays to augment your summer reading list, including David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, Mojo and Other Plays by Jez Butterworth, and Annie Baker’s The Vermont Plays, which include Circle Mirror Transformation, and Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas. Meanwhile, take a jump to the left with Dave Thompson’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Music on Film (Limelight Editions), a pocket-sized guide to the midnight cult phenomenon, and lyricist Steven Sater explains what exactly he meant by “A Song of Purple Summer” in A Purple Summer: Notes on the Lyrics of Spring Awakening (Applause).