Both of the May books in the Playbill Readers' Circle are connected with award-winning Broadway productions. The main selection is "A Year With The Producers, One Actor's Exhausting (But Worth It) Journey From Cats to Mel Brooks' Mega-Hit." The script selection is Mary Zimmerman's remarkable adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, recently named winner of the 2002 Lortel Award, and a likely 2002 Tony nominee.
Metamorphoses: You often hear how moving and vital classical drama can be. But when you actually go, you all too often wind up hearing people droning incomprehensibly behind heavy masks, and you decide that this must be theatre for academics. Bad translations and leaden staging get their share of the blame.
But Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of the classic Ovid tales delivers on all the promises, using contemporary form and language to tell the stories of King Midas, Narcissus, Pandora and many others less well known — without ever condescending to either the audience or the material. The intervening 2000 years melt away, and the stories delight, thrill and horrify by turns, just as they were meant to do.
Zimmerman directed her own work on Broadway, telling the stories around a wide pool of water instead of a campfire. The book wisely includes photos from the production, to give a sense of how the pool functions — sometimes literally, as an ocean; sometimes figuratively, as a well of dreams.
Sometimes, Zimmerman goes for a comic effect. Here, Phaeton narrates part of his life story to his psychiatrist. PHAETON: "I went to an expensive school and there were a lot of boys there who were, you know, sons of the rich and famous. And one day we're all on the playground and this one kid, Epaphus, he goes to me, 'So Phaeton blah blah who's your father, what does he do? Blah blah blah.' So I tell him my father's the sun and he says, 'Tell me another,' and I say, 'He's the sun, he's Phoebus Apollo,' and he just basically trampled me, just basically beat the s--t out of me. Like I was lying." Some of Zimmerman's passages are in verse. Some are mimed. Some are played like movie scripts, some like comedy skits; some are framed as Q&A's, some treated as epics. The writing always has a surface brightness, but with depths that echo. In the scene where Alcyone waits on the beach for her sailor husband, Lucina says, "All that night she searched along the shore for her drowned, dreamed husband. But she found nothing, not even footprints, only wave after wave of black water."
Who Will Buy: People who are considering seeing the show and want to know what they're getting into. Fans of Roman and Greek classics. People who have never read a Roman or Greek classic, fearing they'll be musty, but are curious about why everyone seems to quote them and refer to them. Actors who want interesting scenes that have, yes, a contemporary feel.
A Year With The Producers, One Actor's Exhausting (But Worth It) Journey From Cats to Mel Brooks' Mega Hit by Jeffry Denman.
This is a well-written and well-edited production diary of the Broadway hit, as told by Denman, a member of the ensemble who plays several small but brightly-etched character parts (the blind violinist in "King of Old Broadway", the flighty choreographer in "Keep It Gay"), and who understudies the role of Leo Bloom.
The main body of his picaresque story takes you through auditions, rehearsals and opening night for The Producers, but the book is helped by having a slightly wider focus as well. The early chapters cover Denman's final days as Munkustrap in the last Broadway cast of Cats, and narrates the bittersweet closing night before he begins rehearsals for The Producers. So you get two mega-hits for the price of one. The climax of the book is not the opening of The Producers, but the week the author went on as understudy to Matthew Broderick opposite Nathan Lane.
It's a peculiarly magnetic read, like any diary. We get the portraits of Mel Brooks, of Nathan Lane, of "Stro" (Susan Stroman) of Matthew Broderick. But the most vivid character is the author himself, basically a sweet-tempered creative man who perfectly captures a kind of wisecracking, optimistic, intellectually astute individual that you often encounter backstage at professional shows. To paraphrase Mel Brooks in another context, he always philosophically hopes for the best, and expects the worst.
Denman gives a real sense of what auditions, rehearsal halls and dressing rooms look, feel, sound and smell like, and his book is a great primer of "life upon the wicked stage." If you don't know what a "put-in," a "10-of-12," or an "invited dress" are, you will by time you put this book down.
Denman describes the difficulties of maintaining a marriage while on the road, the challenges of dealing with backstage politics and the joys and frustrations of collaboration, such as suggesting a piece of business that becomes part of the show — and then gets cut. He tells what it's like to keep up morale in a group of people in a crucible of stress, and what it's like to deal with illness, injury and disappointment, such as when "Stro" won't give him a day off to perform for Fred Astaire's daughter. But there's also the inexpressible sweetness of acing a big audition, hearing the orchestra play the score for the first time, feeling the swell of hard-earned laughter flowing across the footlights, and pulling a stunt that makes Mel Brooks laugh.
It plays like a one-man cabaret show between covers, and it all rings true.
Who will buy: Anyone who wants to know that it takes to get into a Broadway show, and what being in a Broadway show is really like.