As the new year arrives, I take the opportunity to clear the shelf of 2011 items that I haven't yet had the opportunity to include on our Playbill Book Shelf. All are theatre-related, one way or another, and should interest readers who are interested in the varied areas covered.
Peter Filichia needs no introduction to readers of this column. He has for many years written reviews, Broadway columns and books; he has also earned a reputation for being highly supportive of new and emerging talent. Unlike many of his colleagues, he actually seems to love theatre and the people in it — even when he is forced to admit that he doesn't appreciate a particular show. His newest book, "Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons" [Applause] is not unlike his prior offering, "Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and the Biggest Flop of the Season." Here, he applies classifications from sports — MVP, Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year and more — and shoehorns them into Broadway musical seasons. This is sometimes a stretch, and Filichia maintains a sense of humor about it. The format, though, allows him to write innumerable perceptive essays on Broadway musical people — and that is the delight of the book. Filichia breezily fills the pages with information, trivia and miscellany, making "Broadway Musical MVPs" a trove of such things.
Scott Miller, founder and artistic director of New Line Theatre in St. Louis, has written a handful of musical theatre books over the years (including "Deconstructing Harold Hill" and "From Assassins to West Side Story"). Now comes "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals" [Northeastern University Press], in which he explores what he calls Broadway's "new, postmodern Golden Age." Times have changed, in society and on stage; "America is no longer the country that Rodgers and Hammerstein and Jerry Herman wrote about." That's for sure, yes; although I don't quite know that this "sex, drugs and rock & roll" era includes such postmodern Golden Age musicals as Sweeney Todd, Annie, Ragtime, The Producers and Light in the Piazza.
But that is neither here nor there. Miller takes ten musicals — The Wild Party (the Andrew Lippa version), Grease, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, I Love My Wife, Bat Boy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and High Fidelity — and examines them thoroughly and thoughtfully. (Who ever thought we'd see a scholarly consideration of High Fidelity? Or I Love My Wife, even.) Readers might not necessarily ascribe to Miller's notion of the importance of these musicals; wholehearted agreement is not required. What's important here are the well-rounded discussions, combining analysis, history and anecdotes.
Passionate about theatre books? See what the Playbill Store has on its shelves.
Remember when Proteus and Valentine — those two gentlemen of Verona — take the boat from Verona to Milan? What boat from inland Verona to inland Milan? This is the sort of question that intrigued Richard Paul Roe, a gentleman from Pasadena. The late Mr. Roe spent 20 years roaming Italy on a quest to map locations of Shakespeare's ten plays set thereabouts (including The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest and A Midsummer's Night Dream). Poor Will Shakespeare has for centuries been denigrated for his deficiencies in Italian geography; surely Proteus and Valentine had to travel by land. (I've taken the train, myself, an option not available to those two gents.) By digging through libraries and digging through archives and refusing to give up, Roe located a 1713 map showing a canal connecting the Adige (in Verona) with the Po at Ostiglia; then you just bear right where the Po meets the Adda until you hit the Martesana Canal, at Trezzo, which at the time led right into the inner ring of Milan. Easy. A notion that sounds like it might be trivial turns out to be something more, in "The Shakespeare Guide to Italy" by Richard Paul Roe [Harper Perennial]. This is a literary detective story, really, and serves as a travel guide to those who love both Shakespeare and Italy. Roe subtitles his book "Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels," and that is certainly apt. Mark Rylance, who before he started monopolizing acting awards on Broadway served as founding artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, offers a cryptic book jacket blurb: "Unless someone can prove him wrong, anyone who claims to have written the plays of Shakespeare needs to show some Italian travel documents."
Browsing through this lavishly illustrated, high-quality paperback, I discovered that the Sagittary in Venice — where Othello lodged with Desdemona — is the modern-day Frezzaria, a street down which I have often trod. Roe also tells us that the gondola landing where Othello meets Desdemona is on the Fondamenta Orseolo, literally at the doorstep of my favorite hotel. Which is to say that once you become immersed in "The Shakespeare Guide to Italy," you might want to make another visit to Venice, Verona, Milan and environs. And take Roe's book along.
Back in 2006, the Library of America gave us "Arthur Miller, Collected Plays 1944–1961." Now follows the second volume, "Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1964-1982", which like its predecessor is edited by Tony Kushner. The former volume has Miller's classics such as All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge — a quartet the playwright could not be expected to match in his later years. (His first successful play, All My Sons, was produced when he was 31. After the Fall, the first play in the second collection, opened when he was 48.)
There is something to be said, though, for reading the later and lesser work of great writers. Miller had quite a bit to say over these years, and his writing is always interesting; the fact that the plays were relatively unsuccessful and unloved does not make them of less literary worth. In fact, many of them are provocative. Along with After the Fall comes Incident at Vichy, The Price, The Creation of the World and Other Business, Up from Paradise, The American Clock, The Archbishop's Ceiling, the one-acts Elegy for a Lady and Some Kind of Love Story, plus the script for the 1980 TV movie "Playing for Time." Also included are relevant prefatory notes by the playwright. The Library of America does its usual first-rate job, another in a string of authoritative and handsome editions of great American literature. If you have the two Tennessee Williams volumes, you might like to place the two Millers beside them. Passionate about theatre books? See what the Playbill Store has on its shelves.
Sitting on the shelf browsed but unread are two books which touch on the early 21st century phenomenon called Wicked. Felicia Ricci, a standby Elphaba in that musical's San Francisco company, wrote a blog about her adventures (which included dozens of performances in the role over eight months). Ricci has turned the blog into a book, "Unnaturally Green: A Memoir" [FLR]. Readers interested in life upon the Wicked stage will find it here. "Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical" by Stacy Wolf [Oxford] is precisely what the subtitle suggests. I don't know if I buy into Wolf's arguments, which start with "Heterosexual Subjects and U.S. Symbologies" and go on from there. Wolf's first heroine of feminism seems to be Miss Adelaide of the post-nasal drip, and she continues to — needless to say — Elphaba in the "W" musical. A jacket blurb from Stephen Schwartz tells us "it revealed things to me about my own show I didn't know were there." I wouldn't wonder if the Messrs. Loesser, Sondheim et al might second that sentiment. *
On the sheet music front, Alfred Music Publishers has reissued two Funny Girl titles in conjunction with the big spring Broadway revival of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical. Which, as it turned out, never made it into rehearsal. The vocal score has returned in a new lay-flat format, which is to say that it is spiral bound. In the interests of science, I ran a comparative test at the keyboard. The contents are identical to the original 1964 score. The new one is far easier to play, thanks to the new format; no more battling to keep the book from toppling off the piano rack. The new one is also easier to read, being in a darker black ink on a brighter white page. Of course, my old vocal score has a printed list price of $9.00, while the new one lists for $55. But $9 was virtually the price of an orchestra ticket for Funny Girl; the show had a $9.60 top, and that was with Streisand and without premium seats. Today's $55 vocal score price won't even get you into the balcony of most current musicals, which I suppose makes the new edition a relative bargain. Alfred also gives us a new edition of the Vocal Selections. Eleven Funny Girl songs, plus the title song from the 1968 movie — which is not the up-tempo "Funny Girl" that was initially published (and recorded by Streisand) but cut from the show.
Finally, we have the paperback release of "Broadway Nights" by Seth Rudetsky [Vantage Point]. Seth is, let us say, uniquely original and wildly funny. So is this book of his.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.) *
Passionate about theatre books? See what the Playbill Store has on its shelves.