My fortunate reading paths led me to many excellent performing arts titles this year, but three books were particularly over-the-top stellar, in my opinion. Here they are, in order by title. All were reviewed in my Pages from the Arts column, and are available at the Dallas Public Library.
On the Road & Off the Record With Leonard Bernstein: My Years With The Exasperating Genius
By Charlie Harmon
The hills were justifiably alive in 2018 with the strains of “Happy 100th, Lenny Bernstein!” as the world celebrated the centenary of one of history’s greatest all-around artists and cultural mover/shakers. In honor of the occasion, several relevant books appeared on reader radar as well, and I found Charlie Harmon’s up-close-and-so-personal memoir of his years spent as Bernstein’s go-to guy both entertaining and illuminating.
Harmon relates, in telling and often uproarious detail, just what was expected of him as Bernstein’s 24/7 “personal assistant” during the final stages of the great man’s life: LB may have no longer been a household word in every household, but he was still an in-demand creator and personality to be reckoned with. The aging genius was often irascible and demanding, and yet still capable of enormous kindness and generosity, all undergirded by affection for his adult children and continued mourning for his late wife Felicia Montealegre, who the bisexual Bernstein would always maintain was the true love of his life. Being such a man’s right-hand person was not a job for the faint-hearted, but Harmon rose to the task and, luckily, lived to tell his many tales. As yet another contribution to our understanding of a unique man’s kaleidoscopic and controversial life and character, this book contributed greatly to the year-long celebration of the total original that was indeed Leonard Bernstein. Thank you, Charlie Harmon. Full review here.
Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution
By Todd S. Purdum
The title says it all. This year, political writer Purdum truly brought musical theater aficionados and interested laypersons “something wonderful” with this dual biography/study of the lives and careers of Dick & Oscar. His skill in blending each man’s personal story—complete with peccadillos, quirks, and not-so-commendable behavior—with their years in tandem as partners in creation is beautifully accomplished from a writing standpoint, and immensely rewarding for everyone coming along on the ride. Purdum is a lifelong fan of the R&H canon, and that’s apparent, though his affection for their work never interferes with his balanced and always engrossing narrative. This comes close to being my “best book” of 2018, and likely one of the finest musical theater titles currently available for all the cockeyed optimists among us. Bravo. Full review here.
The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America
By Isaac Butler and Dan Kois
I’ve not yet had the privilege of seeing Tony Kushner’s masterpiece Angels in America live on stage, but it’s now squarely on my bucket list, thanks in large part to this splendid oral history of the show from its first creative germ to its massive impact on theater worldwide. In celebration of the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s 25th anniversary, and in sync with this year’s imported-from-Britain Broadway revival starring Tony Award winners Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, Butler and Kois assembled reminiscences from the massive number of contributors to the two-part epic’s initial realization and continued longevity over the ensuing decades. Actors, producers, directors, set designers, critics, celebrity audience members and, of course, Kushner himself all weigh in. The authors also included input from those involved with the 2003 Emmy-Award-winning Angels television miniseries adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols.
The sweeping saga they tell is entertaining and beyond inspiring. The “historians” we hear from not only offer behind-the-scenes details of the good, bad and ugly moments involved in the play’s gestation and early productions, but also place the significance of Kushner’s achievement squarely within a broad societal context. The end result is both a fascinating “biography” of an artistic masterwork, and also a snapshot in time, proving once again how essential theater and all performing arts are in reflecting and shaping the society in which they flourish. Not to be missed. Full review here.
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW
Friday, December 28
- The Year in Comedy by Chief Comedy Critic Kevin Beane
- Danielle Georgiou's Sixth Position: A Year of Movement
Saturday, December 29
- The Year in Dance by Chief Dance Critic Cheryl Callon
- The Year in New Dance Works by Katie Dravenstott
- The Year in Dance by Emily Sese
Sunday, December 30
- The Year in Music and Opera by Chief Music and Opera Critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
- The Year in Music and Opera by J. Robin Coffelt
- The Year in Music and Opera by Wayne Lee Gay
Monday, December 31
- The Year in Performing Arts Books by Cathy Ritchie
- The Year in Classical Music Recordings by Andrew Anderson
- The Year in Theatrical Recordings by Jay Gardner
- The Year in Film by Bart Weiss
- The Year in Performing Arts News by Mark Lowry
Tuesday, January 1
- The Year in Theater by Frank Garrett
- The Year in Theater by Jan Farrington
- The Year in Theater by Janice L. Franklin
- The Year in Theater by Martha Heimberg
- The Year in Theater by Jill Sweeney
- The Year in Theater by Teresa Marrero
Wednesday, January 2
- The Year in Theater by Mark Lowry
Thursday, January 3
- A challenge for our readers
Friday, January 4
- Looking ahead to 2019