Playbill Readers' Circle for July: 'The Richard Rodgers Reader' and 'Noel Coward: Three Plays'

Playbill Readers' Circle for July: 'The Richard Rodgers Reader' and 'Noel Coward: Three Plays' Both of the July books in the Playbill Readers’ Circle contain the words of great men of the theatre from the first half of the 20th century — one of them gay; the other, by some contested accounts, a homophobe who had his longest and closest partnership with a gay collaborator. Both were geniuses in their own way.

Both of the July books in the Playbill Readers’ Circle contain the words of great men of the theatre from the first half of the 20th century — one of them gay; the other, by some contested accounts, a homophobe who had his longest and closest partnership with a gay collaborator. Both were geniuses in their own way.

"The Richard Rodgers Reader" (Oxford University Press) by Geoffrey Block:
Rodgers has been much in the news and on people's minds lately as his June 28 centenary was marked with live concerts, TV specials, stage revivals, etc. A year ago, biographer Meryl Secrest came out with a controversial biography of the composer of The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, South Pacific and some 40 more Broadway musicals. That book went behind the melodies and Rodgers' carefully tended avuncular public persona, showing how he could be emotionally distant, imperious, condescending and petty with both co-workers and family.

"The Richard Rodgers Reader" covers some of the same issues, but with a completely different approach. Geoffrey Block, a professor of music history, has collected writings by and about Rodgers and his works from an amazing variety of sources. Some will be familiar, like Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Co.," but many more are fascinating and archival, like Walter Kerr's original review of Do I Hear a Waltz, an essay by Richard Adler on Rex, Leonard Bernstein's lecture on Rodgers' place in the development of musical theatre, a book preface by Rodgers' daughter, composer Mary Rodgers Guettel.

And then there are the many remarkable pieces written by Rodgers himself, including a letter in which he crows how his 1928 score for Chee-Chee (about castration, no less) is a breakthrough work for him; and an appreciation of composer Jerome Kern (his predecessor as Hammerstein's composing collaborator) that reveals as much about Rodgers himself as about Kern.

And the book doesn't shy away from controversy. It includes Diahann Carroll's mixed feelings of dealing with an apparently homophobic and racist Rodgers on No Strings, and a comprehensive attack by Gerald Mast on the staginess of every Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical, especially South Pacific, where he notes that the locations are used like painted drops: scenes are shot on beaches, but no one ever touches the sand or enters the water. Never forgetting that Rodgers' music is ultimately more important than his personal foibles, the book also offers Winthrop Sargent's scholarly appreciation (from The New Yorker) of Rodgers' musicianship, which theatre composers get all too rarely.

Just when you think "The Richard Rodgers Reader" is going to be academic, it turns out to be as fascinating as a good novel. It's not a whodunnit, but a how-dunnit. How did such a cranky, bourgeois guy create those soaring melodies? By letting many people pay respects or take shots, the book creates a three-dimensional portrait of a complicated and brilliant man.

Who Will Buy: People curious about the "real" Rodgers, people who like reading backstage stories, people looking for a little controversy, people seeking to learn more about how some of the greatest hits got written, people trying to find out more about the creation of a specific show, people curious if all the revisionist histories are accurate.

"Noel Coward: Three Plays" (Vintage): Perhaps it should have been no surprise that Howard Davies' sexy Broadway revival of Private Lives won the 2002 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Noel Coward's "intimate comedy" is one of the most frequently revived plays on Broadway, having had at least six major Broadway productions since its 1931 New York debut.

If you're curious why this play never seems to wear out its welcome, this published version of the script has the answer. In telling his story of a divorced couple who run into each other on their respective second honeymoons — and then run off together — Coward appears at his wittiest, naughtiest and most sparkling. At the same time, Private Lives functions well as drama, showing the complexity and humanity of the astringent characters.

Some of the lines are sentimental and anti-sentimental at the same time: "You're looking very lovely, you know, in this damned moonlight." Some invert our expectations: "I can't bear to think I'm married to such rugged grandeur." Some are infamous: "Women should be struck regularly, like gongs." Some vividly imagistic: "We were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle." These and many other lines leap from page to lip, and beg to be spoken aloud — which is, of course, their point.

With a foreword by Coward biographer Philip Hoare, "Three Plays" also contains scripts for Coward's Blithe Spirit and Hay Fever, both of which offer similarly unorthodox looks at marriage (or, looks at unorthodox marriages).

Who Will Buy: People who are going to see Private Lives, people who are considering going to see Private Lives, people who have seen the show and are interested in similar works from the same author, people who aren't going to see the show but are curious to see what all the fuss is about, people who are tired of puerile sitcom and movie romances and are yearning for a more adult look at relationships — but still want to laugh.

—Review by Robert Viagas, Playbill Broadcasting