Fleshing It Out!
Book lovers have a wealth of choices this month, including a new companion book to the Broadway musical Spring Awakening.
The interviews and background go a long way in explaining how Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 play about the pubescent children of the German bourgeoisie was adapted into a Tony Award-winning rock musical. Most enlightening are the interviews with the show's composer Duncan Sheik, author and lyricist Steven Sater, director Michael Mayer, and members of the design team, which are presented as a round-table discussion and set against pre-production work and sketches. For instance, one section shows pages lifted from Mayer's journal to explain how the creative team came to the decision to put audience members on stage. One gets the feeling of sitting in on an early design meeting.
Disappointingly, the special feature that sounded most promising is also the most poorly executed. The "graffiti" in the margins appears all too infrequently. When it does appear, it is only to highlight text already in the main body of the book, like in a magazine, and not to comment on it, as one would expect graffiti to do. (The one exception is a brief re-creation of Melchior's illustrations on the "sex essay" he gives Moritz.) Ultimately, what had the potential to create an entirely new layer of conversation around an already engaging subject matter comes off just as a gimmick.
***************Every lover of the stage has perhaps secretly dreamed of walking the boards of old Broadway. It is a rare breed of individual, however, who dreams of making the phone calls, writing the contracts, and raising the cash to put on a Broadway show. Iris Dorbian's Great Producers: Visionaries of American Theater (Allworth Press) pays homage to the valiant men and women behind the curtain.
This competent and easy to read tome is not definitive on the subject of producing -- nor does it claim to be. Still as most of Dorbian's subjects are still active in the business, all of the anecdotes shared in the book are interesting enough to be noteworthy. But scandal-mongers take note: The book never quite rises to the level of a "tell-all" (with the possible exception of stories about the late, infamous David Merrick).
The earlier chapters about now-dead impresarios like David Belasco and Florenz Ziegfeld are thin on research, providing a basic overview of each man's life and accomplishments, but little more. The later chapters on modern-day producers like Margo Lion and Daryl Roth are much more informative, mostly because they are based on first-hand interviews with their subjects. Reading the lengthy quotes by Fran Weissler is like having her right in front of you. This first-hand approach makes it very easy to assess the theatrical values and practices of each producer, noting where they diverge and where they come together.
*************************************The title of Mary C. Henderson and Alexis Greene's The Story of 42nd Street (Back Stage Books) is a bit misleading, since the authors focus solely on the history of the block between 7th and 8th Avenues, ignoring the far more western part of the street that remains a center of Off-Broadway. However, this volume does provide a stunning pictorial history of its chosen section of one of America's most infamous thoroughfares, including several then-and-now shots comparing the historic street with its current state.
Indeed, the pictures really are the reason to buy this book. Henderson and Greene have chosen photographs that exemplify a bygone era on Broadway, including several mis-en-scene production shots featuring hundreds of supernumeraries in non-musical plays. The authors exhibit a rich knowledge of those plays, the actors in them, and the artists behind them.
One still wishes the book wasn't quite so formulaic. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the 12 theaters that once lined 42nd Street, and after the first few chapters, a pattern emerges: After a rich early production history, the theatre in question is forced to start showing films shortly following the stock market crash of 1929. These films invariably act as a gateway to burlesque and pornography; the theatre falls into disrepair, and is very often abandoned completely until the early 1990s when it is either rescued or demolished. Some of the major players in this process include the non-profit organization New 42nd Street, Inc which redeveloped several of the historic theaters, as well as corporate entities such as Disney, American Airlines, Hilton Hotels, and Madame Tussaud's, just to name a few. Ultimately, The Story of 42nd Street makes a handsome coffee table book for Broadway aficionados, but is far less useful for serious students of urban anthropology.
Other books of note: The New York Library for the Performing Arts has used its resources for two worthwhile new books: Historic Photos of Broadway, New York Theatres, 1850-1970(Turner Publishing), with text by Leonard Jacobs, and Divas: The Fabulous Photography of Kenn Duncan (Universe), featuring text by Stephen M. Silverman and a foreword by Bette Midler, one of the late lensman's favorite subjects. Speaking of divas, Tony Award winner Diahann Carroll has written her memoir, The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way (Amistad); Mary Martin, Helen Hayes, Lauren Bacall,and Bette Davis are among the many glamorous subjects captured in black-and-white photographs by Ronny Jaques in Stolen Moments (Gliterati Incorporated); while a revised version of Ellis Nassour's Honky Tonk Angel (Chicago Review), a biography of the late country singer Patsy Cline, is now on the shelves. Serious theater lovers might want a copy of Christopher Shinn's edgy two-hander Dying City (TCG), as well as the recently published 2005-2006 edition of John Willis and Ben Hodges' annual Theatre World anthology (Applause).