The Back Stage Guide to Broadway
Charles Wright finds Robert Viagas's new guide to New York theater a compact yet comprehensive and useful resource.
But The Back Stage Guide isn't merely a tourist's aid. The author, a veteran theater writer and editor of Playbill Books, has long been well-placed to observe the eccentricities of show business. Claiming to have spent two thousand nights of his life at the theater, Viagas writes in the assured voice of one who not only knows his subject but is besotted with it. As a result, his book offers a peek behind the scenes Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, as well as on the Main Stem. Because it's difficult to write about the business and economics of New York theater without addressing phenomena such as national companies, bus and truck tours, stock and amateur productions, and the national network of nonprofit resident companies, The Back Stage Guide is, ultimately, an introduction to the American theater as a whole.
It begins with a history of theater in Manhattan. "A little history," Viagas modestly calls it, yet his overview is both compact and as comprehensive as it could be without intimidating the beginner. Later, Viagas discusses how the American theater is structured and provides a lexicon of theater lingo and an intricate explanation of "The Season" (including the midwinter slump and how a playgoer can use it to his or her advantage), along with lists of people, plays, and other things that constitute his notion of basic theater knowledge. Some of Viagas's judgments are idiosyncratic; his list of "Names You Should Know," for example, includes Andrew Lloyd Weber, Patti LuPone, and newcomers Sutton and Hunter Foster but omits Harold Prince, Cherry Jones, and August Wilson.
Viagas, who has founded news services for Playbill.com, Theater.com, and Broadway Online, devotes substantial attention to the interactive resources available to playgoers and theater lovers. "Even as the mass media have paid less and less attention to legitimate theatre," he writes, "the number of informational outlets has exploded, largely thanks to the growth of the internet." Acknowledging that "[t]he traditional source of Broadway information has been its newspapers and magazines," Viagas chronicles the dwindling number of such publications, the decreasing attention to the arts in the ones that remain, and the emergence of serious arts journalism online. "A recent industry survey found that more than 94 percent of ticket buyers have internet access," he writes. "That may be either the cause or effect of the presence of about a half dozen large websites and dozens of small ones devoted to breaking news about Broadway."
The Back Stage Guide includes an abundance of facts -- or, more accurately, trivia -- that theater buffs will relish knowing and telling. "New York has seen two musicals about the seemingly unmusical subject of castration," he reports. One was The Knife, a 1987 show "in which Mandy Patinkin starred as a man contemplating a sex change." The other was Rodgers and Hart's short-lived Chee-Chee. With only 31 performances to its credit, Chee-Chee had the briefest run of any musical by Richard Rodgers. "Cut short, you might say," cracks Viagas.
Though factually accurate and eminently browse-worthy, the book bears earmarks of haste in its assembly. Haphazard copy editing has overlooked infelicities in prose, as well as grammatical and typographical errors. At one point, Viagas compares the longest title among Tony Award plays (The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade) with the shortest title among Tony Award plays (Da) and then remarks that both of these dramas won Tony Awards, as though some Tony Award plays haven't.
Tourist guides have been a mainstay of the publishing industry since 1829, when Karl Baedeker unveiled a groundbreaking series for European travelers. For decades, Baedeker's surname was a synonym, in many languages, for the unwieldy volumes clutched by wanderers as they nosed around Chartres, Heidelberg, and other obligatory stops on their Wanderjahren. In the last couple of decades, a New York City family, the Zagats, has given its surname to annual surveys -- first of restaurants and, more recently, of home videos and theater. The Zagats have been innovative in relying on the opinions of ordinary consumers, rather than experts, to cover highly specialized areas of entertainment; but their most useful contribution may be the sleek, handy design of the volumes of the Zagatsurvey®, which slip easily in and out of purses, pockets, and backpacks. Viagas and Back Stage Books have wisely followed the Zagats' lead with a slender, pocket-sized design that makes The Back Stage Guide easy to handle, consult, and stow on one's person.