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Peter's Digest

At the office, Filichia searches for recent theater-related books. logo
You know what's one of the best things about working at a daily newspaper? The table where our book reviewer puts all the new review copies that he's either finished reading or never chose to tackle in the first place. It's a strange sort of bookshop that I frequent several times a day in the hope of finding hardcovers, trade paperbacks, and uncorrected proofs of books like Kander and Ebb's Colored Lights, for which I made about 18 trips a day until it finally showed up there. Hey, when an Ethan Mordden book on musicals is about to debut, I drop by the table every eight or nine minutes. And sometimes I'm delightfully surprised, such as I was a couple of weeks ago when I spotted Barry Singer's Ever After, about the last 25 years of musical theater -- until I read it and discovered that it's the worst book about musical theater written in the last 25 years.

Most of the time, I have to wade through books that are of less interest to me -- so let me know if you'd like a copy of Vince Smith's A Chimp in the Family, Suzanne Clores' Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider, or Slavoj Zizek's Organs without Bodies. And then there are the outright disappointments. How my heart soared when I came across The Perfect Play, a novel by Louise Wener. But then I opened the flyleaf and read, "A funny and heartfelt novel of high-stakes poker, lost love and gambling on oneself," I returned it to the shelf.

Still, I keep searching. Often, I scrutinize books that might have a theatrical connection or two. For example, Nola Tully's Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes, subtitled "A Celebration of James Joyce, Ulysses, and 100 Years of Bloomsday," contains "assorted wit, praise, parody, caricature, bon mots, and reminiscence, all inspired by Joyce's immortal novel." I wondered if, in the middle of quotations from C.G. Jung, Edith Wharton, and Ernest Hemingway, Tully would include Anne Croswell's lyric from her 1963 musical Tovarich. In "A Small Cartel," a party's host asks one of his guests, "Have you read Ulysses yet?" and the reply is "Only the final 50 pages" -- the notoriously salacious ones that got this book banned in America. Alas, an exhaustive search through the Tully book's 112 pages showed that the author had indeed missed the Tovarich reference.

Then I noticed Patricia Harwin's Arson and Old Lace. Did it have anything to do with Arsenic and Old Lace, the runaway hit that was the first-ever play to run more than 1,000 performances both in New York and in London? No. According to the back cover, "Catherine Penny's daughter reminds her, 'You're a librarian, not a detective.' But Catherine, suddenly single in her sixties, finds it easy to slip into sleuthing mode when she her new town's quaint stone walls and lace-curtained windows lurk dark secrets and whispers of witchcraft." So I put Old Lace back in its old place.

Here's one that had to be good: Shakespeare's Trollop. I mean, we all so enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, imagine how much fun we'd have with Shakespeare in Lust! But the back cover of Charlaine Harris's recently published paperback states, "Shakespeare, Arkansas, is home to endless back roads, historic buildings, colorful residents -- and the occasional murder." Bah. Still, Harris clearly has a thing for Shakespeare, given that her main character is named Lily Bard.

What about The Game of Life, subtitled "How to Succeed in Real Life No Matter Where You Land?" Anything about Broadway here? Well, author Lou Harry urges that anyone who has a baby boy should avoid naming him "Trinculo (and just about any other name out of Shakespeare)." Oh, I don't know. There's Aaron (Titus Andronicus), Adam (As You Like It), Alexander (Troilus and Cressida), Anthony (Romeo and Juliet) -- and that's just the A's. Also, I'm not sure that Harris has a point when he says that no one should name his kid "Cornelius (or any other name from Hello, Dolly!)" I pity the child who's called Horace, but Barnaby isn't so bad. Stanley or Manny aren't great but Danny and Hank are okay. (You do know who those four last named characters are in the show, don't you?)

What's also interesting about The Game of Life is that, later on, Harris urges people not to invest in Broadway productions because "a show in development for years can close after opening night." But he does suggest that people put their money in regional theaters -- "The Hartford Stage, the Goodman Theatre, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival" are among his choices. At any of those, he says, the money "would go a long way towards helping a theater repair its seats, stock its costume department, upgrade its lobby, or spread the word about its work." Granted, but Harris doesn't say that, at least in the commercial theater, there's a chance you'll get back that $15,000 or that at regionals you're donating, not investing. Still, I agree with his statement that you get a good feeling in knowing that "you were one of the 'angels' who made it possible."

Then I picked up The Oxford Dictionary of Nicknames -- over 1,800 of them, compiled by Alexander Delahunty. Glad to see that he included The Admirable Crichton, Anne of 1000 Days, The Artful Dodger, The Card, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Evita, Give 'Em Hell Harry, The Great White Hope, The It Girl, and Mack the Knife. But The Baker and The Baker's Wife, whom Delahunty mentions, have nothing to do with Into the Woods. Instead, they're Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, so called because of that 1789 morn when they "generously" gave bread to starving Frenchmen. For those who have heard of Beau Brummel only through Gypsy and Annie, here's more info on the man (1778-1840) who became famous for wearing new-fangled trousers instead of breeches. Those who thought that Frank Rich's 13-year tenure as chief drama critic of the New York Times made him the first "Butcher of Broadway" are informed that, no, the distinction originally belonged to Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943), the inspiration for The Man Who Came to Dinner. And speaking of Sheridan Whiteside, "Sherry" did make the book but as a nickname for Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who wrote The School for Scandal. You may not have known that detractors of Sarah Bernhardt called her "Sarah Heartburn" or that Ethel Merman was called "The Golden Foghorn"? Finally, Delahunty points out that Don Quixote was nicknamed The Knight of the Rueful Countenance -- not the Woeful Countenance, as a certain musical would have us believe. Just another mistake that Man of La Mancha made.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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