THE BOOK SHELF: Memoirs by Hal Holbrook and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Stanley Green's "Show by Show," Plays by Enda Walsh and More Mormon
By Steven Suskin
Paging through "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain" by Hal Holbrook; "Luck and Circumstance" by Michael Lindsay-Hogg; the new edition of Stanley Green's "Musicals Show by Show"; Enda Walsh's "The Small Things and Other Plays"; and The Book of Mormon's sheet music.
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For his senior honors project at a small Midwest college, an aspiring actor and his young wife assembled an hour-long platform piece called Theatre of Great Personalities — Hamlet, Victoria & Albert, The Brownings — which they then take out on a series of grinding tours to schools and community groups throughout the South. One of the eight skits features the 23-year-old actor slathered in makeup as Mark Twain. After almost a decade of trials, tribulations, and the breakup of the marriage, the actor is doing 20 minutes of Twain at a tiny upstairs cabaret in Greenwich Village. (Yes, Mark Twain in a smoky, boozy, afterhours nightclub!) One night someone brings in Ed Sullivan, who puts the act on his Sunday night variety show. This leads to a smashingly successful Off-Broadway run, which results in the actor — finally — getting the chance to act on Broadway and elsewhere without those three-hours of makeup.
This is more or less the story that is told in "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain" by Hal Holbrook [Farrar, Strauss and Giroux]. In the course of this, Holbrook recreates a world of small university theatre and touring-out-of-the-back-of-a-station-wagon-in-the-days-before-Interstate-highways that has altogether disappeared. And a fascinating world it is, too, with dedicated teachers and bookers and showfolk of the sort that don't seem to exist anymore. (I was surprised and pleased to find one of my closest friends there in Lakeside, OH, in 1948, helping find props for that initial tour — and later offering the couch in his fifth-floor Prince Street walkup whenever Hal came to New York looking for work.)
The book only takes us through the Off-Broadway opening of Mark Twain Tonight in 1959. Holbrook, of course, went on to a celebrated and distinguished acting career which includes a Tony Award and multiple Emmys.
But this is only part of the story. Consider a fellow whose parents desert him when he's two; whose father briefly returns — only to be committed to the state insane asylum — when he's six; who is then sent off to a Dickensian boarding school, where he is abused by a sadistic headmaster; and who never sets foot in Los Angeles without thinking that maybe, somehow, he will find his mother. Holbrook, who is now 86, tells how he has lived under a shadow of depression, with fears of suicide or — worse! — ending up like his father.
"Harold" is a mesmerizing double tale, with theatre — and Mark Twain — on the one side and a tortured upbringing which Hal Holbrook can't quite shake on the other.
And here's another eyebrow-raising tale of life with show people, off stage. Imagine growing up in the exotic world of Hollywood royalty, with a full-fledged movie-star as mother. Imagine a strange existence with father and stepfather, while rumors increasingly reach your ears that your true father is one of the few geniuses of the modern world. Imagine spending 50-odd years trying to sort out these rumors despite denials from your mother about the genius in question: Orson Welles, who uncharacteristically always treated you affectionately. Imagine finally resolving at 70 that you are indeed your father's son and writing a memoir to set the record straight, only to discover — after finishing your first draft — that you are truly and unquestionably the son of Orson. Whom you greatly resembled as a child, by the way; and then, there's the fact that you've spent your entire lifetime struggling with a weight problem.
To say that "Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age in Hollywood, New York, and Beyond" by Michael Lindsay-Hogg [Knopf] makes an interesting tale is an understatement. It is also a well written one; Hogg seems to have inherited much from his mother, actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, and from the paradoxical Mr. Welles. The author is an accomplished director in his own right. After appearing onstage as a teenager with Welles in the 1960 Dublin production of Chimes at Midnight, he began a career behind the camera filming the British rock 'n' roll television program "Ready Steady Go!" This led to a series of music videos/promos with The Beatles and later The Rolling Stones. (At his job interview with the Beatles, George Harrison asked Lindsay-Hogg if he'd ever seen "Citizen Kane"; the boys had decided that the first video, "Paperback Writer," should look like that.)
Lindsay-Hogg went on to a career in more adult television (including "Brideshead Revisited") and as a stage director (with Normal Heart, Whose Life Is It Anyway? and Agnes of God among his credits). So the man — who has inherited his official father's title and is thus now a baronet — has quite a life to relate. But it is Welles who looms over the affair like a shadowy air balloon in the sky, obscuring the sun.
Back when I first started writing about Broadway, the reigning king of the field — and just about the only person turning out first-rate books — was a fellow named Stanley Green. Green died in 1990; most of his work has fallen out of print. One of his final projects, though, has proven enduring; first published in 1985, it has been periodically updated until we now have "Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Seventh Edition" by Stanley Green, revised and updated by Cary Ginell [Applause]. This book is what they call an evergreen, or more properly an ever(Stanley)Green. While competing tomes discuss more musicals with more extensive information — more than you might necessarily want or need, it sometimes seems — the "Show by Show" series remains pertinent and concise, and now continues up through the musicals of 2010.
Irish playwright Enda Walsh was known here until recently mostly for his 1996 play Disco Pigs, which I confess somehow passed me by. He has now, quite suddenly, burst into the New York spotlight with his fine book for the musical Once, currently at New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village but soon to open uptown at the Jacobs. (Do get your tickets.) Two nights before Once opened, Walsh had another local opening: Misterman, at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. December 2011 truly seems to be Walsh's month, with the publication of "The Small Things and Other Plays" by Enda Walsh [TCG]. Although who can tell? Perhaps Walsh will have something special to celebrate come June. Meanwhile, this volume includes the scripts for eight plays, including The Small Things, Disco Pigs and Misterman.
On the sheet music front, last season's best and most ridiculously enjoyable musical is now available for your piano. We refer, needless to say, to "The Book of Mormon: Sheet Music from the Hit Broadway Show" by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone [Alfred]. All 16 musical numbers, as heard on stage. These seem to be pretty much full arrangements of said songs; if you want to do "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" in your living room, here it is! The book is handsomely designed, as has every scrap of material generated by the Mormons thus far. (The Broadway Mormons, not the ones in Utah.) Generously illustrated, of course, with eight (thick) pages of full-color shots.
(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.)
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