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Making Book

Notes on a no-holds-barred memoir by Kaye Ballard, a very funny Broadway guidebook by Seth Rudetsky, and other recent tomes. logo
Someone who should know about the subject recently told me that theater book publishing is dying, but the large number of tomes that have recently arrived at TheaterMania indicates otherwise. Indeed, so many books have crossed my desk over the past few weeks that I'm not going to pretend I've read them all thoroughly. I have, however, done a lot of skimming; so here are some notes on several items of interest.

The fact that musical comedienne Kaye Ballard's estimable career didn't turn out to be even more stellar is probably due partly to her reputation for speaking her mind and not being very good at showbiz politics. Happily, Ballard's outspokenness -- and her humor -- are given full rein in her memoir, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years (Back Stage Books). There's juicy stuff here about her Broadway hits, The Golden Apple and Carnival, and about the 1973 flop Molly -- which, she writes, "had a solid cast, a very good score by Jerry Livingston and Leonard Adelson, a so-so book by Leonard Adelson and Louis Garfinkle, and an inept director [Paul Aaron] who had no idea what he was doing!" Ballard worked with many of the major figures of 20th century showbiz, and she freely shares her opinions of them. She also gives us the lowdown on the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies (with Donna McKechnie, Ann Miller, and a slew of other stars) and her TV work, including Cinderella (with Julie Andrews) and the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law (with Eve Arden).

The new coffee-table book Mamma Mia! How Can I Resist You? (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is guaranteed to appeal to the long-running musical's legion of fans. (I am not among them.) Subtitled "The Inside Story of Mamma Mia! and the Songs of ABBA," it offers what it promises -- and it contains lots of great photos, many of them printed in large format and in gorgeous color.

United Stages Publishing's new edition of Doric Wilson's And He Made a Her, which comes with a rare live recording of the play's premiere at the Caffe Cino in 1961. Remastered from a decaying reel-to-reel tape, this fascinating recording features the performances of the original cast, including Paxton Whitehead. It also allows us to hear the voice of Joe Cino, proprietor of the legendary Off-Broadway venue that nurtured such talents as John Guare, Robert Patrick, Sam Shepard, and Lanford Wilson. The book and disc have been released in conjunction with United Stages' publication of plays by such current writers as David Bell, Mark Finley, Ry Herman, Sheldon Senek, and Kathleen Warnock.

If you're planning to produce a play or musical on the non-professional level, you should definitely check out John Kenrick's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals (Alpha). Kenrick thoroughly covers such topics as "Great Shows for Beginners," "Facilities," "Financial Realities," "Auditions and Casting," "Basic Stagecraft," and "Selecting Production Staff" in a highly informative, entertaining way.

Will Power: How to Act Shakespeare in 21 Days (Applause), written by John Basil with Stephanie Gunning, is filled with advice on "Cracking the Capitalization Code," "Picking Out Punctuation," "Playing With the Pace," "Finding Your Focus," etc. Shakespeare can be a really tough nut for present-day performers to crack. Within the limits of a textbook, rather than an instructional video or recording, Basil and Gunning do a wonderful job of explaining how to tackle the Bard's canon, though the title of their tome is rather sloppy. (Shouldn't it be "Learn How to Act Shakespeare in 21 Days?")

Training of the American Actor (TCG), edited by Arthur Bartow, is an excellent resource for thespians who want a basic description of the 10 major acting techniques. Here, the methods espoused by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Jerzy Grotowski, and other gurus are explained in lucid detail by some of their foremost teachers. (Bartow recently retired from his position as artistic director of the drama department of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.)

Seth Rudetsky is a hilarious, openly gay Broadway maven, and Alyson Publications offers items of interest to gay readers. So it's no shock that Seth Rudetsky's The Q Guide to Broadway, from Alyson, is positively bursting with campy humor. Though marred by a fair number of inaccuracies and omissions, the book will keep you laughing as the author's zingers keep coming. Two examples from the very first chapter: "Eighth Avenue used to be a red-light district, but Disney cleaned up the neighborhood and the hookers hoofed it farther west. Now if you want to see scantily clad ladies and gents shaking their business, get a ticket to Chicago." And: "In Oklahoma!, Laurey's 'Out of My Dreams' ballet dramatically shows the conflict she's feeling between good-guy Curly and dark, dangerous, and slightly sexy Jud (not unlike my college diary entry dated October 5th, 1988, when I was torn between a good-natured T.A. and a 'bad boy' oboe major)." In subsequent chapters, Rudetsky dishes about "Broadway-Insider Lingo," "How to Snag a Ticket and Navigate Broadway," and "CDs You Should Own But Have Never Heard Of," among other topics.

Far less amusing is Brad Schreiber's Stop the Show: A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater (Thunder's Mouth Press). There's no lack of stars involved in the stories told here, from John Gielgud to Tallulah Bankhead to Daniel Day-Lewis to Marissa Jaret Winokur, but most of the "insane" and "absurd" incidents recounted are really quite dull. Yes, there is a fabulous anecdote about John Barrymore making up the lines for an entire scene of a play that he was doing in London, and forcing the actor who was sharing the scene with him to do the same. But far more typical is Schreiber's story of how, at the opening of Cats on Broadway, "Ann Miller ran into newspaper columnist Earl Wilson. Giddy with the energy of the evening, Miller kidded, 'You know what? I'm going to open a show across the street called Dogs.' Never kid a newspaper columnist. The next day, Wilson wrote in the New York Post, 'Ann Miller wants to open a show called Dogs.' " If you find that funny, put this paperback on your list.

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