THE BOOK SHELF: "Theatre World," "Playbill Broadway Yearbook" and a Press Agent's "Backstage Pass to Broadway"

By Steven Suskin
November 3, 2013

This week's column looks at "Theatre World Volume 68: 2011-2012," the 2012-13 "Playbill Broadway Yearbook" and press agent Susan L. Schulman's "Backstage Pass to Broadway."

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The fall season has arrived, and with it two annual volumes celebrating Broadway and non-Broadway theatre: "Theatre World Volume 68: 2011-2012" by Ben Hodges and Scott Denny [TW Media/Applause] and "The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: Ninth Annual Edition," 2012-2013 edited by Robert Viagas [Playbill/Applause].

Both are indispensable to those of us who need intensive information about the shows and the people. With "Best Plays" seemingly extinct — the last published edition covered the 2007-08 season — readers should be all the more supportive of the two, newer series.

"Theatre World" has been chugging along since the 1945-46 season; the first cover girl was Laurette Taylor, from the original production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. It is my most-used reference source; I've got the full run on three shelves above my desktop, and woe to me should they ever tumble down. As with "Best Plays," the annual ran into serious economic problems a dozen years ago and faced grim prospects. Under the direction of Ben Hodges, though, "Theatre World" has rebounded. The new edition — with James Corden of One Man, Two Guvnors on the spine — is the handsomest yet, and the 16-page section of color photos is especially tasty. (Loyal fans of the series will be glad to hear that the technological problems which marred last year's volume have pretty much disappeared.)

The heart of the book, as always, are the Broadway and Off-Broadway listings featuring credits, casts and production photos, which are supplemented by Off-Off-Broadway and Regional sections. There is also an Awards section, listings of longest-running shows, theatre obituaries, and a comprehensive index.

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It seems like only yesterday that the "Playbill Broadway Yearbook" came along, although they tell us that this is already the ninth edition. The book sees itself as something of a high school yearbook for Broadway. Each show has its own section, including not only credits and photos, but individual photos of the cast and staff, as well as group photos of backstage workers and front-of-house staff. Most shows include a scrapbook section, compiled by a "correspondent" from the show (usually a cast member). These give us a sense of the backstage world of each, individual show, and you'll come across plenty of amusing material therein.

The new edition details 81 shows, including holdovers. (Here's the place to find information on cast replacements in long-running musicals.) Every show gets equal treatment, and the book is crammed with color and black-and-white photos in an eye-catching layout. This is the season of Matilda The Musical, Kinky Boots, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and Pippin; but in the "Broadway Yearbook," every show is a hit.

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The Broadway press agent's lot is not a happy one, necessarily. There are ups and down and ups and downs, as your work experience is to some extent dependent on the success of the plays and musicals you represent. Even a smash hit — with an egotistical monster as star, director or producer — can be long-running torture. If you are level-headed, sensible and have a sense of humor, though, you can make a fulfilling career of it. So goes the lesson of "Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent" by Susan L. Schulman [Heliotrope].

Schulman is what we might call a veteran. She was thrust directly into the cauldron early on, when Lauren Bacall, about to star in her first musical, the 1971 Applause, decided that she wouldn't talk to anyone in the press office except Schulman, a lowly assistant to an assistant. Bacall, as we all know, was no piece of cake, but the star decided that she could trust the 23 year-old novice, and the novice carefully protected her star.

Schulman, who is still actively toiling in the field, dwells on the highlights of her 50 years, both the best and the worst. She was with the difficult Zero Mostel on his last show, during which he died during the out-of-town tryout; the exacting Bob Fosse on Dancin'; the commanding George C. Scott; and more. A full 16 pages are given over to the disastrous 1997 Johnny Mercer revue Dream and how it was fully and fatally sabotaged by its star, Lesley Ann Warren. Schulman convincingly explains how one person can willfully destroy everything for everyone. There is also an extended section of the trials and tribulations of the 1996 stage musical State Fair.

"Backstage Pass to Broadway" is not, perhaps, exactly a backstage pass to Broadway. But it does cover a good deal of ground, not only giving the reader a fair picture of what a theatrical press agent does but also a realistic glimpse at what really goes on.

(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.)