THE BOOK SHELF: The Colorful History of Ming Cho Lee and the Laugh-Out-Loud Life of Martin Short

News   THE BOOK SHELF: The Colorful History of Ming Cho Lee and the Laugh-Out-Loud Life of Martin Short
 
This month's column discusses "Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design" and Martin Short's "I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend."

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Ming Cho Lee is not the most famous or revered name in the annals of Broadway scenic design; I imagine that at least a few readers are thinking, who? Lee came along in the 1960s with a new and unconventional vision for stage design, which was anything but comfortable or commercial. Thus, the majority of his two dozen Broadway shows were little seen, relatively speaking. Those that were seen were memorable, though; without doing an intensive survey of the question, Lee might be the only person in Broadway history to have a Tony nomination for a one-night flop. Billy it was called, a 1969 musical based on "Billy Budd," and the set was as remarkable as the show wasn't. Lee might have set a record of another sort: three of his seven musicals closed on opening night, the other two being Here's Where I Belong and La Strada. All three within 20 months!

Lee's proper province, I suppose, was in the non-profit world. He spent many years at Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival; one of his first design jobs was at the Delacorte in 1962 — the George C. Scott Merchant of Venice — and he went on to do more than 30 shows for Papp including the opening attraction at the Public, Hair. (The Broadway design, though, came from another newcomer, Robin Wagner.) Two of Lee's most successful — or at least most viewed — Broadway sets were for transfers from the Delacorte, the 1971 musical Two Gentlemen of Verona at the St. James and the 1972 Much Ado about Nothing at the Winter Garden. (The latter production, set around 1900, was altogether luscious to look at.) Other Broadway visits included The Shadow Box, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf and his one Tony winner, K2 — in which the astonishing set was an ice-covered ledge of the second highest mountain in the world.

But Broadway was never the ideal place for Lee. While working at the Public and other nonprofits, Lee started teaching at Yale in 1969 and ultimately became chairman of the Design Department. As such, he has taught generations of theatre professionals; not just designers, with playwriting and directing students also taking his classes. Thus, Ming's view of theatre has influenced hundreds of theatre professionals, which led to a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013.

The remarkable nature of Lee's work can be seen in "Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design" by Arnold Aronson [tcg]. This is a lavishly colorful coffee table book; a first for the Theatre Communications Group, one of our foremost publishers of theatrical scripts. The illustrations are accompanied by a fascinating text. The 19-year-old Lee fled Shanghai during the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, landing at Occidental College in California. After two years there and a year at UCLA, he left school for New York where he was immediately accepted as an assistant to Jo Mielziner, who over the prior decade had revolutionized stage design with The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, South Pacific and Death of a Salesman. Mielziner put Lee to work on such shows as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Most Happy Fella and Look Homeward, Angel. In 1959 Lee moved over to Boris Aronson, an innovatively modernistic but "difficult" designer who had yet to receive his due (although that was to change in 1964, with Fiddler on the Roof). By that point, Lee was on his own; his first major Broadway job was the Jerome Robbins/Anne Bancroft production of Mother Courage and Her Children in 1963. "A Life in Design" is filled with colorful designs and a colorful life. If your shelf already holds those grand tomes featuring the work of Jo and Boris, you're going to want to add Ming.

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Martin Short is currently over at the Jacobs Theatre, presumably convulsing audiences in Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play. If you're not planning to catch him there, you can do quite well with his new book, "I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend" [Harper]. This is not a comprehensive autobiography, mind you; just the actor talking in seemingly off-the-top-of-his-head manner. But Short is a very funny and apparently very wise man, which suggests that he carefully and meticulously toiled over every single breezy paragraph.

Short goes back to his Canadian roots as a happy-go-lucky Irish Catholic boy in Hamilton, Ontario. And not so normal by the standards of the rebellious '60s: He'd sit in his attic room with his reel-to-reel recorder and tape his own versions of Frank Sinatra albums, cutting from the instrumental sections to sing his own vocals (in place of Frank) and continuing with the accompaniment. Or at least, that's what he tells us. "Martin Short Sings of Songs and Loves Ago" he says he called it, so earnestly that it must be so.

Short clowned his way through college — playing Felix Ungar to classmate Eugene Levy's Oscar Madison in what must have been an interesting Odd Couple — and launched his career in the notable 1972 Toronto company of Godspell. (Victor Garber, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner and Short, with musical direction by Paul Shaffer.) Then to "Second City," "SCTV," "Saturday Night Live," and Hollywood (with films like "Three Amigos!" and "Father of the Bride"). We know him best from his Broadway visits in The Goodbye Girl, Little Me and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.

"I Must Say" is not simply warmhearted and funny. It is warmhearted and laugh-out-loud funny. I prefer reading books from the page, since it lets you savor what you wish to savor. I can only imagine, though, that the audiobook is a comic whirlwind even if you do miss some of the story because you're too busy laughing. (Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"; "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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