2018 will bring us a veritable cascade of performing arts titles—memoirs by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sally Field, Christine Lahti, Marcia Gay Harden, Peter Davison and Kenny Leon among others—along with new biographies of Paul Robeson, John Latouche, Richard Wagner, Robin Williams, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Al Hirschfeld, Bob Fosse, and Leonard Bernstein, plus whatever histories or “how to” offerings may be hiding around the corner.
But here’s a recap, in order by title, of the 2017 books I found most significant and enjoyable; all were reviewed in my Pages from the Arts column (links at the end of each blurb). They are all available at the Dallas Public Library.
The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up
By Budd Friedman with Tripp Whetsell
Any comedy connoisseur, no matter his or her age, will find much to relish in this masterful oral history of The Improv, which opened in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in 1965, making it the first venue devoted to the art and craft of “stand-up”. Budd Friedman offers a lively, engrossing narrative of his own role in the club’s founding and development, but the stars of this show are the words of the Improv-associated comics themselves in all their raconteur glory. Folks coming of age in the 1960s to 1980s will bask in the nostalgic glow of so many familiar and beloved names, while younger aficionados will gain an entertaining and valuable perspective on how stand-up comedy evolved into its current form, be its present-day quality controversial or thriving. This book is a treasure from start to finish. Full review here.
Much Ado: A Summer with a Repertory Theater Company
By Michael Lenehan
Not all theatre marquees overlook a Broadway street. In fact, this nation is blessed with a plethora of regional performance venues that have become vital fixtures in their communities and in the lives of their performers and audiences. Author Lenahan shadowed one such group in 2014—the American Players Theatre of Spring Green, Wisconsin—and offers a revealing and inspiring look at this “heartland” venue as it mounted a summer production of Much Ado About Nothing. From the actors themselves to the directors, designers, costumers, and box office personnel, we witness dedication, joy, and creative inspiration in abundance, lack of Tony Awards notwithstanding, with their rewards instead taking the form of devoted, appreciative audiences. This is a delightful journey which will leave readers enchanted, and hopefully energized to seek out their own cities’ hidden theatre treasures. Full review here.
Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano
By Andrea Avery
This memoir resonated with me in multiple ways. Student musician Avery contracted rheumatoid arthritis at a young age, as did my father at age 30 back in the 1950s. While the author was able to benefit from drugs and treatments unimagined back in my father’s day, their daily physical challenges and chronic sufferings were very similar. Avery faced the additional concern of being a serious pianist—how could she continue that aspect of her life, when her physical dexterity and overall stamina were continually jeopardized? In this graphic yet heartfelt story, Andrea Avery brings readers along as she forges ahead with her complicated life, making accommodations as required, yet never retreating from her need to bring forth the music giving her existence meaning. A riveting read, inspiring on several levels. Full review here.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago: In Their Own Words
By John Mayer
This title is somewhat akin to The Improv, but with Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre as its raison d’etre. Company member Mayer details the theatre’s history and growth, highlighting its early movers and shakers along the way (including Artistic Director Martha Lavey, who died this past April at age 60), but reinforcing his observations with the “own words” of its actors, directors, and others, thus adding depth and texture to Steppenwolf’s basic chronology. This chronicle is a roller-coaster read that is never less than thrilling, and a fine tribute to one of America’s outstanding arts organizations, one which still encourages new works, from-the-gut acting, and creative outreach to all. Full review here.
And finally, a double-header...
Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story---How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War
By Nigel Cliff
When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph, and Its Aftermath
By Stuart Isacoff
As we approach the 60th anniversary of local-pianist-made-good Van Cliburn’s triumph in 1958’s Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, two books this year detailed both the competition itself and Cliburn’s life before and post-victory. Each title offers an enlightening reading experience, but the riches are compounded when the books are read in tandem.
While the authors’ emphases differ slightly, each man nevertheless portrays the background politics surrounding those fateful days and nights in Moscow, the fevered competition itself, and, especially, Cliburn’s somewhat less-than-stellar life and career in the years following the ticker tape parade, the Time Magazine cover, and all the rest. It’s good for us to be reminded how important Cliburn’s victory was to American arts, politics, and international relations back in the day—when a “piano player” made the entire world seemingly stop dead in its tracks to think about the arts for a while. An amazing turn of events, all catalyzed by a unique man—a moment in our national cultural history it behooves us never to forget. Thanks to these two fine volumes, we never shall. Full reviews here.