THE BOOK SHELF: Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Actors' Equity, Yip Harburg, Stella Adler and More

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30 Dec 2012

Cover art for
Cover art for "Performance of the Century."

The sheer volume of theatre-related books published in 2012 has us playing catch-up this month, with the Equity bio "Performance of the Century," "Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights" and Ethan Mordden's look at Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya among the tomes.

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In a day when some long-established unions are under siege — not so much by employers, oddly enough, but by politicians — it is heartening to report that Actors' Equity Association is happily celebrating its centennial year. Equity was an unlikely new union, in 1913; here were men and women who had by and large never lifted a hammer, clerked an emporium, nor entered a factory. Under what farfetched notion could they be considered organized labor?

But protection for actors was sorely needed in a day when you weren't paid for rehearsal, your job could at any moment be terminated under the nebulous "satisfaction clause" — as in "I am not satisfied with your work so you're fired" — and it was not uncommon to find yourself stranded halfway across the country when your show closed and management disappeared. (Management, somehow, usually had enough money to buy themselves railway fare.) Thus began Equity, which has protected actors and stage managers ever since. And not without some rough times along the way.

Equity has celebrated the anniversary by — what else? — commissioning a book. Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors' Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater by Robert Simonson [Applause] does, indeed, recount the conditions that led to the founding of the union and what came after. This makes quite an interesting story, mind you, peopled with all sorts of famous names and odd circumstances.

Those of us at all familiar with the history are aware there were initially two unions, Actors' Equity and Chorus Equity. Simonson reveals the reason: while chorus members strongly supported the strike of 1919 — and those chorus girls were highly effective at luring press coverage to the picket lines — dancers "weren't necessarily considered proper actors by the profession." Thus, a separate club with a separate door. We also learn one of the reasons for the longtime affection between Broadway professionals and the former management of the Algonquin Hotel; during the strike, proprietor Frank Case provided Equity's press agents with a set of rooms — complete with free room service.

But talk of unions and such matters does not necessarily make for an entertaining book. Which is where the notion of "Performance of the Century" comes in. It is impossible, of course, for any committee to vote on the best performances of 100 years unless the committee members are age 115 and up. Simonson, though, has assembled a fair assortment of "great" performances, although it is unfortunately skewed toward today. (Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Anna Deavere Smith, yes; Lunt/Fontanne, Kit Cornell, Julie Harris, no. And who, in a survey of a few dozen great performances, would choose to select Miyoshi Umeki?)

Even so, these great performances are for the most part well selected and well described. "Performance of the Century" is not only about union and stars; Simonson — the former editor of Playbill.com who still contributes news and feature stories to the site, and to Playbill magazine — touches on myriad aspects. There are chapters on theatres across the land, USO troupes, stage management, civil rights, the blacklist era, and more. At the same time, the book is filled with relevant sidebars from performers famous and not. All of it is capped by hundreds of photos — well-selected ones, not the usual shots generally used in books of this sort — and even a Hirschfeld/Norkin-like caricature cover by Justin "Squiggs" Robertson. All told, this is a smart-looking and smart-reading book, with Simonson doing an especially impressive job.

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