Editor's note: With this, TheaterJones adds a new entry to its roster of monthly columns. In Pages from the Arts, we'll review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.
Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know, too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.
If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.
In our first Pages from the Arts column, Ritchie reviews a biography of Tony-winning Weatherford native Mary Martin, Joel Grey's autobiography, and Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals; and contributor M. Lance Lusk has thoughts on a book about playwriting from T.J. Walsh of Texas Christian University and Artistic Director of Trinity Shakespeare Festival.
Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin
New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Available at the Dallas Public Library
David Kaufman brings readers a lively new journey through the career and personal life of an iconic star who enchanted audiences for decades both on stage and via the small screen, though often to the detriment of her family life. As far as his extensive research could lead him, Kaufman arguably offers the fullest portrait of Mary Martin to date.
Martin, born in 1913 Weatherford, Texas, sang and taught dancing in her hometown. Her brief marriage to high school football star Ben Hagman produced son Larry of future Dallas fame, but Martin would leave her child in her mother’s care on her way to California for fame and fortune.
Her hard road of auditions and less-than-glorious films finally resulted in discovery by Oscar Hammerstein II. Later came Cole Porter’s 1938 Leave It to Me, thanks to which Mary Martin became an overnight Broadway sensation with her inimitable rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” To coin a cliché, she never looked back.
From there, the world was treated to Martin’s South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun (the national tour), Peter Pan (both on stage and television), The Sound of Music and I Do! I Do!, albeit with a few significant failures along the way, and her multiple Tony Awards notwithstanding. She also found a comfortable niche in television, with, for example, her live-to-kinescope reprises of Peter Pan becoming perennial classics.
In 1940, Martin married Richard Halliday, who not only fathered daughter Heller, but also became his wife’s manager, and, arguably, her unyielding protector from all things disagreeable in her life. (Halliday was also alcoholic and homosexual.) As Kaufman details, Larry Hagman’s relationship with stepfather Halliday was tortured for decades and thanks to their lengthy separations during his childhood, Larry and his mother were also periodically estranged. Martin’s laser-like devotion to her career, coupled with Halliday’s personal and professional dominance, would cause considerable family turmoil.
Halliday’s death in 1973 brought new uncertainty to Martin’s life, leading to some ill-advised career choices, though she hosted a successful PBS talk show, Over Easy, in the early 1980s. In 1982, she survived a serious automobile accident that killed her press agent and critically injured her close friend, actress Janet Gaynor, but recovered sufficiently to return to her television show, inspiring audiences yet again. Mary Martin died of cancer in 1990.
In his engrossing narrative, Kaufman skillfully integrates his own research with material from Martin’s 1976 memoir The Heart Belongs and Larry Hagman’s 2001 autobiography Hello Darlin’, plus reminiscences of numerous Martin employees, co-stars, and associates, most of whom vouch for her personal goodness and love for her audiences. The end result is a multi-faceted portrait of a more complex woman than her pristine stage image may have indicated.
As for the lingering question of Martin’s sexuality: Kaufman reveals that, surprisingly, one of the few books Martin read in her youth was the GLBT classic The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall. And her deep relationship with Janet Gaynor always inspired knowing nods and raised eyebrows. However, while never shying away from the issue, Kaufman offers no irrefutable evidence that Martin was ever indeed a lesbian.
Thanks to David Kaufman and his blend of admiration and honesty, we are reintroduced to a remarkable woman who was Broadway to multiple generations and, like her beloved Nellie Forbush, a “cockeyed optimist” to the last.
— Cathy Ritchie
The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built
New York, NY: Sarah Crichton Books, 2016
Available at the Dallas Public Library
Even longtime Shubert Alley denizens will be entertained and enlightened by veteran producer/dramaturge Viertel’s keen yet charming explication and analysis of the inner workings comprising what one considers a typical Broadway musical. The word “built” in this book’s subtitle is very fitting, as, with humor and panache, Viertel reveals the strategy and structure behind what is heard in a musical’s performance and why it’s heard in that particular place and time in the work as a whole.
He does this cleverly, by lining up his chapters in the same sequence as a show’s unspooling elements—beginning with an overture, then on to the “opening number,” and from there to what he characterizes as an “I Want” song for the lead character (such as “The Wizard and I” from Wicked ) then on to so-called “conditional love songs” (“I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls) and “tent poles” (“Tevye’s Dream” from Fiddler On The Roof), and first-act closings. Then we have chapters corresponding to the second act’s “main event,” the crucial “next-to-last scene” (Louise and Rose’s final conversation in Gypsy), the ending, and the curtain call. There’s even an “intermission” in which we hear the author’s fond memories of watered-down orange drink!
In each chapter, Viertel offers plentiful examples to illustrate the guaranteed method behind the madness of musical theatre creation. While such method may prove more successful in some shows than in others (and he offers some possible reasons for this), a given musical’s undergirding framework is nevertheless always there to respect and appreciate.
Viertel bathes his readers in appreciative nostalgia as he dissects many of the finest musical theatre classics ever created. For him, these include Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Oklahoma!, Fiddler On the Roof, Music Man, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The King & I, The Pajama Game, Gypsy, and Carousel.
But his perspective ranges widely: he also embraces more recent contributions to Broadway such as Hairspray, Company, Rent, City of Angels, Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, The Producers, The Wedding Singer, Caroline or Change, and Spring Awakening. Finally, he tips his hat with affection and admiration to Wicked, The Book of Mormon, and Hamilton.
In a fine appendix to his discussion, Viertel also offers thumbnail evaluations of each of his spotlighted shows’ cast albums, including recordings from those few shows not thoroughly analyzed within his text. These opinionated snippets are as substantive and entertainingly presented as his preceding chapters.
Thanks to Jack Viertel, theatregoers will likely never again experience a musical in quite the same way, but that’s not a bad fate at all. This book is highly recommended for all folks with Broadway show tunes in their hearts.
— C. R.
Master of Ceremonies: A Memoir
Joel Grey, with Rebecca Paley
New York, NY: Flatiron Books, 2016
Available at the Dallas Public Library
In this outstanding autobiography, the Tony- and Academy Award-winning actor shares his eventful life on the stage and beyond. His slow but steady road to stardom is engagingly described, including candid discussion of his equally significant personal journey through decades of hiding his sexual orientation, even while achieving long-hoped-for professional success.
Born in 1932 Cleveland, Joel Katz learned about show business at the feet of father Mickey, an actor/comedian/musician popular on the “Borscht” club circuit. Mickey was frequently accompanied in his act by eager-to-perform young Joel, who began his own career in the 1940s with the Cleveland Play House’s children’s theatre program. As an adult, Grey became a reasonably successful nightclub song-and-dance performer, though he longed for Broadway stardom.
In 1966, Grey won the role of his lifetime—the notorious “Emcee” in the original Hal Prince-directed production of Cabaret. As Grey reveals, his singing-only character was not initially scripted to be quite so noxious, but at one rehearsal, he spontaneously added some coarse “business” to his paces, to Prince’s surprise and approval. The new “business” became permanent.
For his portrayal, Grey would win both a Tony Award and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cabaret’s 1972 film version. (His memories of working with director Bob Fosse are less than positive.) Grey’s subsequent musical stage work would include the title role in George M!, the 1996 revival of Chicago, and 2003’s Wicked, plus numerous television appearances. In 1984, he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
As Grey worked his way to success, however, he also lived covertly with his sexual orientation. He became aware of his gayness, or perhaps bisexuality, at an early age, and had affairs with both men and women as a teenager and into adulthood. But the 1950s and subsequent eras demanded concealment. Having always wanted a family of his own, he married actress Jo Wilder in 1958, and he describes her in this book as “the true love of my life”.
Their marriage lasted nearly 25 years and produced two children (including actress Jennifer Grey), but, in the early 1980s, fully revealing his sexual past to Wilder led to a difficult divorce. Eventually, however, Grey felt able to explore new LGBT-related artistic possibilities, including a starring role in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart on Broadway in 1985. Today, at age 84, having publicly revealed his orientation in 2015, Grey concludes, “I’m still singing (in the same key), still dancing (but slower), and, finally, getting a bit of my heart’s desire.”
Master of Ceremonies will likely be one of the finest memoirs I read for some time to come. Grey’s prose is keenly descriptive, witty, and poignant, with deep quality matching its author’s other remarkable talents. So, “willkommen” to a wonderful book, and an exceptional man.
— C. R.
Playwrights and Power: The Making of the Dramatists Guild
Thomas J. Walsh
Newton, Ill.: Smith & Kraus Publishers, 2016
In Thomas J. Walsh’s brisk and engaging study, Playwrights and Power: The Making of the Dramatists Guild we learn that the drama is not exclusive to the stage, and the relationship between the written word and performance is often complicated, contentious, and ever evolving. The book concerns itself primarily with the history of the Dramatists Guild of America; however, some of Walsh’s most interesting writing, itself a prelude to his overarching subject, are his treatment of the early days of copyrights in Elizabethan England, and especially his insightful treatment of the slippery subject of authorship, and the tension between stage and screen and its ramifications on the writer.
Walsh, a Professor of Theatre History at Texas Christian University, and founding Artistic Director of the critically acclaimed Trinity Shakespeare Festival, is able to draw upon his research and scholarship skills and meld them with his extensive experience as a director to provide an evenhanded, yet practical, account of the playwright’s plight throughout history.
Playwrights and Power fills a necessary gap in “the conditions, dynamics, and history of playwriting in the United States,” principally in regards to the founding of the Dramatists Guild. Walsh’s work provides a detailed study of that organization, including its major players, the battles within the industry, its metamorphoses, and its crucial function to protect the permanent rights of its members.
The book is indispensable for those with professional and personal interest in playwriting in America, and for readers keen on pondering the meaning of authorship embodied in academia (“death of the author”), Hollywood (director as author, and studio as owner), and particularly in the theater where collaboration and the director’s vision can make authorship murky. Powerful stuff indeed.
— M. Lance Lusk
» Pages from the Arts will appear on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones. In upcoming editions, look for reviews of two new biographies of Van Cliburn, a biography of Gene Kelly, a beautiful tome about a current Broadway hit, and more.