THE BOOK SHELF: Books by Bryan Batt, Kristin Chenoweth, Carol Burnett and More

Special Features   THE BOOK SHELF: Books by Bryan Batt, Kristin Chenoweth, Carol Burnett and More
 
This month's book selection features memoirs from Bryan Batt, Kristin Chenoweth and Carol Burnett; John Caird's directing tips; an anthology of hip-hop playwrights and a history of Philly's Walnut Street Theatre. Plus, some theatre folks tell us what they're reading.
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She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother: A Memoir
By Bryan Batt
Published by: Harmony Books
Publication Date: May 4, 2010
List price: $24 hardcover; 288 pages, illustrated

Actor Bryan Batt, whose Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include Sunset Boulevard, Saturday Night Fever, Starlight Express, Beauty and the Beast, Cats and Jeffrey; who played ad man Salvatore Romano on AMC's hotter-than-hot TV drama "Mad Men"; and who owns (with his partner Tom Cianfichi) Hazelnut, a New York Times/House Beautiful–celebrated home-accessory shop in his native New Orleans, now adds author to his resume. Heeding the age-old advice offered to first-time scribes to "write what you know," Batt has produced a book about a subject with which he is intimately familiar: his mom. In this "momoir," as publisher notes refer to Batt's tale, the actor turns the spotlight from himself onto his "strong-willed steel magnolia" of a mother. Gayle Batt is described as a woman "who throws elegant cocktail parties while wearing layers of silk chiffon, dripping pearls, and eight months' pregnant . . . the kind of woman who says 'anyhoo' and calls everyone 'Dahlin'.' In other words, she's a dyed-in-the-wool, tough and tender Southern belle who refuses to allow any sort of adversity to rip the fabric of her family. And there was plenty of adversity to go around, including an adulterous, alcoholic husband and her own brave struggle with cancer. But there was also life-affirming joy peppered with a great deal of humor. Batt, notes the publisher, "regales readers with outrageous anecdotes of growing up gay in 1970s New Orleans and brings to life his mother's infectious enthusiasm and unfailing kindness." In the process, he paints a vivid picture of life in the Deep South and pays loving tribute to "this magical and ineffable great lady" whose love and support are unconditional and who "taught her son everything he knows about being a man."

 

A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages
By Kristin Chenoweth with Joni Rodgers
Published by: Touchstone Books
Publication Date: April 6, 2010
List price: $15 paperback; 246 pages, illustrated In a fitting welcome back to Broadway, Touchstone Books has just released in paperback Kristin Chenoweth's 2009 autobiography, with — according to the book's cover — a "New 'Chenolicious' Bonus Chapter." Chenoweth, co-starring with Sean Hayes in the recently opened revival of Promises, Promises at the Broadway Theatre, is the personification of the term "good things come in small packages." At 4-feet-11-inches, the petite blonde with the powerful voice that can belt with the best of them or rise to operatic heights originated the role of Glinda in the still-running musical Wicked, for which she was Tony-nominated, and won the Tony for her role of Sally in 1999's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. On television, she had a recurring role on "The West Wing," won an Emmy Award in 2009 for her portrayal of Olive Snook in "Pushing Daisies" and has made guest appearances on Broadway-musical-fan-favorite "Glee." To tell the story of her life, Chenoweth writes candidly about her Oklahoma roots and includes revelations that run the gamut from stories about her close-knit family and the biological mother she has never met to her recurrent run-ins with Ménière's disease to malfunctioning hair extensions. As the title of her book implies, Chenoweth's journey has brought her to a place where she is able to balance the glamorous life with her strong personal convictions. Or, to quote from the publisher, the star reflects "on what it takes to stand firmly on a foundation of family and faith — while wearing a hot pair of Jimmy Choo platform sling-backs."

 

Theatre Craft: A Director's Practical Companion from A to Z
By John Caird
Published by: Faber and Faber Inc.
Publication Date: March 2010
List price: $20 paperback; 797 pages

Theatre is magic. But those who toil in it understand the practical, know-how required to create that enchantment. One celebrated practitioner, John Caird, the Tony Award-winning director of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982) and Les Misérables (1987), shares his vast experience in the trenches in this comprehensive new book aimed at both the theatre professional and the enthusiastic amateur. Caird's goal is not only to share his expertise but also to stimulate the imagination of anyone creating a play, musical or opera. As he writes in his foreword, "I have tried to write a practical and instructive companion, so I have avoided the use of anecdotal material concerning my own career or anyone else's . . . The best companions in life are not generally those who agree with everything we do and say. If this work contains ideas with which you cannot concur, I hope it will provoke positive ideas of your own." The book, dedicated to "young directors everywhere," includes over 400 alphabetical entries and extensive cross-referencing that offer advice on all areas of directing — from Acting, Adaptation and Agents to Sound Effects, Superstitions, Trap Doors and Wardrobe — and is a practical and important reference tool for the modern theatre practitioner.

 

Plays from the Boom Box Galaxy: Theater from the Hip-Hop Generation
Edited by Kim Euell with Robert Alexander
Published by: Theatre Communications Group
Publication Date: March 2010
List price: $19.95 paperback; 420 pages

In her introduction to this new anthology of vibrant work from established and emerging hip-hop theatre artists, Kim Euell, a playwright, producer, dramaturg and educator who was inspired by the form to choose a life in the theatre, seeks to define the appellation. "There are several definitions of hip-hop theatre," she writes. "The original definition is: theatre that uses at least one of the four elements of hip-hop culture (MCing, DJing, etc.) to tell a story. Robert Alexander elaborates: 'For something to be truly a hip-hop theatre piece it has to contain certain elements of schizophrenia and rebellion, creativity and destruction' . . ." The pieces presented here range from a "spoken-word performance concert" to "performed letters from a father to an unborn son" to multi-character solo-performance to more traditionally structured plays. "Hip-hop theatre artists," writes Euell, "are deeply committed to the goal of self-definition and of critiquing the culture." This collection puts the work of these groundbreaking writers into cultural/historical perspective. Divided into three sections — "Ruminations on Identity," Cautionary Tales" and "Transformationals" — it includes the work of Zell Miller III (The Evidence of Silence Broken), Cristal Chanelle Truscott (Peaches), Carl Hancock Rux (The No Black Male Show), Psalmayene 24 (Free Jujube Brown!), Tommy Shepherd and Dan Wolf (Beatbox), Jake-ann Jones (Death of a Ho), Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Word Becomes Flesh), Aya de Leon (Thieves in the Temple) and Will Power (Flow).

 

America's Longest Run: A History of the Walnut Street Theatre
By Andrew Davis
Published by: Penn State Press
Publication Date: May 30, 2010
List price: $44.95 hardcover; 424 pages, 44 illustrations

It's not often that a theatre itself becomes a star, but such is the case with the Walnut Street Theatre, whose rich history has been entertainingly put forth in this new book. The Philadelphia house, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, has the distinction of being America's oldest theatre and has played host to a roster of noted actors over the past 200 years, including Edwin Forrest (who debuted there at age 14); Edwin Booth (who purchased the theatre in 1863); Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore; Katharine Hepburn; Ethel Waters; Marlon Brando; Julie Harris; Will Rogers; The Marx Brothers; Lauren Bacall; Robert Redford; and Jack Lemmon, among many others. "This book," notes the publisher, "documents the players and productions that appeared at this venerable house and the challenges the Walnut has faced from economic crises, changing tastes, technological advances and competition from new media." The theatre opened as an equestrian circus on Feb. 2, 1809. By 1812 the circus had been converted to a legitimate theatre with President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette attending its premiere theatrical production, The Rivals. Throughout its life, the Walnut has evolved and adapted to suit the theatre-going public, offering every sort of entertainment — from spectacle to opera, melodrama, musicals and Shakespeare. It became a burlesque house to escape demise during the Depression, and at one point or another had a life as a film and vaudeville house, a Yiddish theatre and as the Philadelphia headquarters for the Federal Theatre Project. Purchased by the Shubert Organization in the 1940s, the Walnut was the tryout locale of plays headed to Broadway, such as A Streetcar Named Desire, A Raisin the Sun, The Diary of Anne Frank and Mister Roberts. Today the theatre operates as a self-producing, nonprofit regional theatre.

 

This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection
By Carol Burnett
Published by: Harmony Books
Publication Date: April 6, 2010
List price: $25 hardcover; 288 pages, illustrated

It is virtually impossible for me to write about Carol Burnett with anything remotely resembling objectivity. I am hopelessly hooked and can pinpoint the birth of my Burnett bias to when I was seven or eight years old. There I'd be, virtually every Tuesday night from 1961 to 1962 (admittedly, Wikipedia helped me out with the night of the week), pleading with my parents to let me stay up way past my bedtime to watch Carol Burnett on "The Garry Moore Show." The memory is so vivid that I can still visualize the little black and white TV on the metal stand in their bedroom and my place on the carpet in front of it. Oh, the star of the show with the soft voice, bow tie and the scrub-brush 'do was warm and funny, and his tall sidekick definitely had the silliest name I'd ever heard: Durward Kirby. But it was Carol Burnett — in all her rubber-faced, loose-limbed lunacy — who elicited my weekly plea. (The folks were a soft touch, by the way. I always promised — and lied — that I'd be able to get up for school the next day, and invariably they'd give in because they understood; they couldn't resist her either.) Burnett, of course, went on to perform in almost every arena of show biz, most notably on her eponymous variety show. In its 11-year run on CBS, "The Carol Burnett Show" created comedy sketches that became instant classics, such as "Went With the Wind." Can anyone watch Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara hatch her plan to refashion her velvet curtains into a makeshift dress without doubling over at the memory of Burnett's "Starlet"-curtain rod stretched across her shoulders — explaining to Harvey Korman's equally hilarious "Rat" Butler, "I saw it in a windah, and I jest couldn't resist"? The show won 25 Emmy Awards and turned Burnett into a national treasure, made "official" in 2003, when she was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor. In addition to starring on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress, Moon Over Buffalo and Putting It Together, Burnett turned playwright in 2002 with Hollywood Arms. The play, based on her 1988 memoir about her childhood, "One More Time," was written with her late daughter Carrie Hamilton. In her new memoir, the title of which is taken from the song with which she will forever be linked, Burnett tells the story of her rise in the business and, with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor, recounts anecdotes about the people she met and befriended along the way, such as the time she made a fool of herself over Jimmy Stewart (on whom she had a mad crush since childhood and with whom she developed a close friendship), her idol and mentor Lucille Ball, Cary Grant and longtime "chum" Julie Andrews. Burnett takes readers behind the scenes of the aforementioned "Gone With the Wind" spoof (she credits costume designer Bob Mackie for his inspired curtain-rod creation), recalls how her famous Tarzan yell saved her from getting mugged, and recounts a prank with Julie Andrews that went awry when First Lady Lady Bird Johnson caught them in a mock lip lock. She also shares personal stories of the more sorrowful moments in her life with candor. You'll cry, you'll laugh and you'll fall in love with Burnett all over again. It's like I said: objectivity is out of the question.

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WHAT'S ON MY NIGHTSTAND

 

HUNTER RYAN HERDLICKA
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is making his Broadway debut as the angst-ridden, viola playing Henrik Egerman in A Little Night Music (Walter Kerr Theatre). The Dallas native, a 2009 graduate of Carnegie Mellon, has appeared in such regional productions as Fiddler on the Roof, Othello (with the Utah Shakespearean Festival), The Fully Monty and Disney's High School Musical.

What he's reading: "Free For All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told" by Kenneth Turan
"One of my dreams since freshman year of college has been to perform in the Public's Shakespeare in the Park. A teacher suggested the book to me, and I haven't put it down since I bought it a few days ago. The author has interviewed over 100 actors such as Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep to help tell Joe Papp's brilliant story of founding the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in performing, writing, directing, or building a company of their own. A rich and vivid read."

For more about "Free for All", see Playbill.com's Shelf Life of December 2009.

DICK SCANLAN

Dick Scanlan is currently represented on Broadway by Everyday Rapture (American Airlines Theatre), the musical he co-wrote with the show's star Sherie Rene Scott — and for which he and Ms. Scott have just received a 2010 Tony Award nomination for Best Book of a Musical. He co-wrote the book and wrote the lyrics for 2002's Tony and Drama Desk–Award winning Best Musical Thoroughly Modern Millie and with composer Jeanine Tesori wrote the song "The Girl in 14G" for Kristin Chenoweth's debut album, "Let Yourself Go." Scanlan, a former actor who originated the role of Miss Great Plains in the Off-Broadway musical Pageant, is also author of "Does Freddy Dance," a novel published in 1995, and his short fiction is included in the inaugural edition of "Best American Gay Fiction" (Little, Brown).

What he's reading: "The Rules of Engagement" by Anita Brookner
"It is a quietly devastating, finely etched study of a lifelong friendship between two women in modern-day London. I am reading it because Anita Brookner wrote it, and I read one, if not, two of her novels a year. I think "Rules" is my 16th. She is one of my favorite authors (although that is an eclectic list). She is arguably an acquired taste, because in her books, nothing appears to be happening: one woman takes a lonely walk on a rainy night; another makes herself and omelet and forgets to eat it. Ah, but underneath! The inner lives of her characters are tumultuous and tender and achingly human."

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