The Theatre Guild, established in 1919 by a band of visionaries keen on elevating the level of drama on the American stage, did just that by developing a clutch of American playwrights over the course of the 1920s. They also, as it happened, unwittingly developed an insurgence in the ranks. Two bit-part players (Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman) and an assistant stage manager (Cheryl Crawford) wanted a theatre in which the acting company itself played an integral part in the creation of the work, ideally with scripts developed and written by members of the company.
After a lot of talking — and with partial backing from the Guild — the trio selected a group of 27 actors and took them to Connecticut for the summer of 1931. (These were the pre-air conditioning days, when all but the biggest Broadway hits were dark during the summer.) They lived collectively and returned in September with their first production, Paul Green's The House of Connolly. (The Guild elders, once they saw a runthrough, demanded changes; when the Group triumvirate refused, the Guild withdrew half of the promised $10,000 financing. Crawford struggled to find the rest, with a full thousand coming from a sympathetic Guild playwright: Eugene O'Neill.)
Two dozen plays followed through 1940, with Sidney Kingsley's Pulitzer-winning Men in White and two by ingrown-playwright Clifford Odets (Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy) among the biggest successes. The Group disbanded after only a decade — conflicting egos, politics, the oncoming war and its own commercial success weakened the socialistic underpinnings — but it has continued to have an outsized influence on stage and screen acting. Crawford and two original Group actors — Robert Lewis and Elia Kazan — founded the Actor's Studio in 1947, later joined by Strasberg. Meanwhile, Stella Adler — another original Group member (and Clurman's wife), who felt that the Studio method subverted Stanislavsky's teachings — started her own studio of acting in 1949.
The Group's story is intensively told in "The Group Theatre: Passion, Politics, and Performance in the Depression Era" by Helen Krich Chinoy, edited by Don B. Wilmeth and Milly S. Barranger [Palgrave Macmillan]. Chinoy, who died in 2010, was a longtime academic, spending 30 years on the faculty at Smith College; her books include "Actors on Acting" and "Women in American Theatre." She dedicated much of her attention — over many decades — to The Group, interviewing many of the participants for her 1976 book "Reunion: A Self-Portrait of The Group Theatre." The new volume — an expansion of the former — was left unrealized when the author developed Alzheimer's, and has been finished by her editors. This is a comprehensive and informative look at The Group. It is also dense, if you know what I mean; Chinoy is meticulous, but this is not exactly breezy reading. People interested in The Group Theatre are presumably going to find a great deal of information that will enhance their understanding of this important movement and the dynamic personalities involved, and I gladly recommend this new book to them.
Readers without specialized knowledge of the plays and personalities, though, might have little to hang onto. Similar books about musicals, say, keep us on track because we are familiar with a fair share of the musicals, or at least their cast recordings or songs. Without any such personal links to The Group, we get a succession of details about plays that might as well be interchangeable. Anecdotes and insights, in such cases, are not quite so illuminating. Readers in the 1960s or 1970s would have either seen these productions or grown up hearing about them. Fifty years later, all but a few Group offerings are altogether forgotten.
Thus, consider "The Group Theatre: Passion, Politics and Performance in the Depression Era" a worthy study full of little-known, lost-to-history, and theoretically interesting information. But for dedicated readers.
Another, more long-lived organization dedicated to developing new American plays is the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT, which was founded in 1964 by George C. White and is currently celebrating its 50th Anniversary. In celebration of which we have "The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater" by Jeffrey Sweet [Yale University Press].
The O'Neill allows playwrights (as well as composers and lyricists) a place to investigate their work, early on. Among the titles which have gone on to notable acclaim are John Guare's The House Of Blue Leaves; Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others; three plays by August Wilson (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences and The Piano Lesson); Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's Violet; and three significant Broadway musicals, Nine, Avenue Q and In the Heights. But the successes are not quite so important as all the hundreds of other plays that have been workshopped at the Center's base (which includes O'Neill's childhood home, as memorialized in Long Day's Journey into Night). The O'Neill is not only a utopia for playwrights, but for directors and actors; any number of young performers have passed through the O'Neill, gaining valuable experience and contacts along the way. (Two of them, Meryl Streep and Michael Douglas, have provided twin forewords.) Chicago playwright Sweet has done a fine job of combing through the O'Neill's history; important plays, important playwrights, important directors and important actors weave throughout the pages as he concentrates on numerous aspects of the O'Neill and its various "conferences." What's more, the handsome volume is studded with some 250 photos (edited by Preston Whiteway), and just about every one adds value.
Actor Eric Bogosian is a familiar face, thanks to 20-odd years worth of film and television appearances. He came to notice as a theatre creature in the early 1980s, though, with a series of startling Broadway plays including Talk Radio, Drinking in America and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. Monologues were his specialty, and riveting ones they were. Now, Theatre Communications Group has brought us "100 (Monologues)," which includes the pieces from his six Off-Broadway solo shows plus selections from Talk Radio. We don't hear Bogosian's actual voice here, no, but his voice comes clearly through. The monologues read well and make a powerful collection.
The folks at Hal Leonard have brought us vocal selections from three current Broadway musicals. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder leads the way, with nimble songs by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman featuring impressively dexterous lyrics. Gentleman's Guide — winner of four 2014 Tony Awards, including Best Musical — is happily ensconced at the Walter Kerr, where after a long climb it has worked its way into a sold-out hit. (The score is also available on CD from Ghostlight Records.) Thirteen songs are included in the folio.
Close Tony competition was provided by Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The songs — by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and numerous others — are pulled from the 1960-70 jukebox; but what a jukebox! Twenty-five songs are included, in standard piano/vocal format (rather than the more difficult-to-play arrangements found in the other vocal selection books discussed here). Beautiful, meanwhile, continues to please the crowds at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre — where it is enhanced by the Tony-winning performance of Jessie Mueller — and looks to enjoy widespread success on the road and internationally.
Also on the piano rack is Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Rocky. Based on the iconic 1976 film from Sylvester Stallone (who serves as coauthor and coproducer of the musical), Rocky opened in February at the Winter Garden, featuring a jaw-dropping physical production that culminates by transforming the auditorium into an arena complete with boxing ring. Eleven songs are included in the vocal selections from this ninth musical by Ahrens and Flaherty, the team responsible for Once on This Island, Ragtime, Seussical and more.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)