Pages from the Arts: May 2017

In this month's review of books about performing arts and artists, we look at works about Steppenwolf Theatre, Venezuela's El Sistema music education program, and comedy great Joan Rivers. 

published Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Editor's note: 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 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 that 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 this edition of Pages from the Arts, Ritchie reviews a book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a fascinating biography of the late, great comedian Joan Rivers.



Photo: Steppenwolf Theatre
Steppenwolf Theatre Company's original production of The Grapes of Wrath



Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago: In Their Own Words

John Mayer

Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016

ISBN 9781474239455

261 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE



The photo gallery labeled “Ensemble” at the front of this exceptional book says it all: some of the finest stage and screen actors/creators alive today. Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, John Malkovich, John Mahoney, Glenne Headly, Kathryn Erbe, Gary Cole, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Martha Plimpton, Joan Allen, William Petersen, Austin Pendleton, K. Todd Freeman, Bruce Norris, Amy Morton, Terry Kinney, and many others. Such a feast.

Illinoisans Sinise, Kinney, and Jeff Perry founded Steppenwolf in 1974, and it has since become a regional theatre legend both in Chicago and elsewhere, as several of its lauded productions have also made their way to Broadway, garnering Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes along the way.

In his masterful book, John Mayer brings to life the Steppenwolf history and mystique in a winning meld of well-turned exposition and engrossing “spoken” reflections from many of the actors and behind-the-scenes creators who helped shape the theatre in its early years and beyond. (DFW performer and teacher Gail Cronauer, formerly an Illinois State University professor, is also briefly quoted and cited as an “inspirational force” for Steppenwolf’s young founders in the theatre’s early days.) These exceptional folks remain in the “Ensemble” by consistently returning from Hollywood and parts eastward to appear in new productions. In addition, Mayer periodically groups his meaty interview transcripts into stand-alone chapters entitled “In Their Own Words.”

Mayer also shapes his narrative by focusing on three watershed Steppenwolf productions that proved singularly influential in the company’s growth and expanding reputation. They were: 1980’s Balm in Gilead by Lanford Wilson, 1988’s The Grapes of Wrath by Frank Galati, which traveled to Broadway and won the Best Play Tony, and last but not least and arguably one of Steppenwolf’s finest moments, ensemble member Tracy Letts’s 2008 stunner August: Osage County, winner of several Tony Awards and that same year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Mayer’s use of these particular milestones in Steppenwolf’s artistic development as fulcrums around which to structure his engrossing content adds immeasurably to his book’s appeal and impact.

As the author summarizes at one point: “The efforts of Steppenwolf gradually influenced changes throughout the American theatre and fueled the ongoing paradigm shift that had begun to ease New York’s stranglehold on the industry, and helped to shift attention out to the many regional theatres across the country, for which the Steppenwolf story was an inspiration and a guide.”

Steppenwolf Theatre continues to enrich the cause of regional theatre throughout America. While it will be interesting to see how the recent death of its long-time artistic director Martha Lavey (a pivotal figure in this book) may impact the troupe’s future paths, even for those theater-lovers unable to experience Steppenwolf’s greatness in person, this outstanding “living history” will enlighten and delight.


Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music

Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth

W.W. Norton & Co. Publishers, 2016

ISBN 9780393245646

408 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE


José Antonio Abreu

Never underestimate the power of one person’s dream.

In 1975, Venezuelan educator and social activist José Antonio Abreu created the first publicly financed musical performance ensemble for children and young adults; their initial practice sessions took place in an underground parking garage. Abreu’s “movement,” which came to be known globally as “El Sistema,” took as one of its mottos “Social Action for Music.” Now, several decades later, more than 400 music centers thrive worldwide, providing instruction and artistic enrichment for some 700,000 young musicians—the majority of them living in their cities’ more impoverished neighborhoods.

In their filled-to-the-brim personal survey of the El Sistema phenomenon, Tunstall and Booth take readers on a whirlwind tour of many current groups, including some in Europe and even the United States—such as Fort Worth’s own B Sharp Youth Music program, which fosters “positive youth development through ensemble based music instruction.” But, to a large extent, the authors focus on Latin America, the original birthplace of the entire El Sistema movement, and arguably the greatest ongoing showcase of its success.

While classical works have always been El Sistema’s performance mainstay, many of the youth orchestras have included other musical genres in their repertoires, and choral groups have been created as well. And the numerous “citizen artists” devoting substantial portions of their professional time and talents to the movement in a “pedagogy of joy” (and who the authors describe as “the heart of the Sistema endeavor”) have included the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel—himself an El Sistema alumnus—and the late Dallas Symphony Orchestra maestro, Eduardo Mata.

Over the decades, the effects of El Sistema instruction, with its backbone of daily rehearsals and frequent public performances, have clearly been life-altering for the youthful musicians. The authors offer verbal snapshots of numerous orchestra performers enjoying increased family unity and a vast sense of creative accomplishment, fortified by deep friendships with their fellow players as they gain valuable life experience in working together towards desired goals. As Tunstall and Booth note: “It is the ‘chance of their lives’ to do well that keeps [the children] galvanized—the chance to rise out of poverty, to do something the world values and rewards, to help their families and make them proud.”

While the vast majority of El Sistema orchestra members do not pursue professional musicianship in adulthood, the early lessons learned easily translate into personal and career success in later years. Say the authors: “…the vision of Sistema programs is that consistently aiming at high goals, and often reaching them, nurtures the habit of mind and heart of taking on high goals throughout a productive, contributive life.”

Not everything El Sistema-related has automatically flowed smoothly over the decades, however, so the authors also devote chapters to the financial and reputational challenges the movement has sometimes faced since 1975. But Tunstall’s and Booth’s bottom line remains positive and forward-looking, as does that of El Sistema itself. Thanks to one man’s singular artistic vision, innumerable young lives have changed for the better, and untold audiences around the world are the better for it.

(For an additional perspective on El Sistema, I also recommend Tricia Tunstall’s 2012 title Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, available at the Dallas Public Library, here.)


Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses and Liberation of Joan Rivers

Leslie Bennetts

Little, Brown & Company Publishers, 2016

ISBN 9780316261302

418 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE


Joan Rivers

She may have been in equal parts loved and disliked by the public, but there was no ignoring the cultural phenomenon that was Joan Rivers.

In her 81 years, she was a stand-up comedian, best-selling author, Emmy-winning television and radio talk show host, Tony-nominated Broadway actress, business entrepreneur, reality show producer/participant, and fashion arbiter/commentator to the stars. Not to mention a dedicated philanthropist, passionate arts patron, devoted mother and grandmother, and generous, caring friend and employer. But she could also be cruel, demanding, thoughtless, and often lacking in what others perceived as good taste and appropriate behavior. Joan Rivers was undeniably a driven, walking kaleidoscope.

Author Leslie Bennetts offers Rivers the comic trailblazer with both shining moments and ugly warts on full display. Utilizing copious reminiscences from friends and associates who alternately loved and despised her,  Bennetts gives readers a compelling look at a complex woman whose imprint on the entertainment industry has arguably still not been fully acknowledged since her untimely death in 2014.

Joan Molinsky was born in 1933 Brooklyn. From an early age, she believed herself to be singularly unattractive, and this fueled a life-long determination to succeed despite that perceived lack of beauty. While Rivers always longed to be a “serious” actress, she blasted into stand-up comedy in the 1950s and 1960s, laboring in the male-dominated nightclub trenches until finally breaking into television with appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and, most significantly, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Her early-to-mid-60s’ stints on the latter show represented her “big break,” and Carson’s personal fondness for Rivers—exemplified by his early on-air prediction, “You’re going to be a big star”—led to her becoming the show’s permanent guest host in 1983. But Rivers’ tide would turn dramatically.

Bennetts devotes a full chapter to the events that led to Rivers’ very public downfall. When she announced plans to leave the Tonight Show in 1986 to helm a new nighttime talk show on the fledgling Fox Network, she allegedly failed to alert Carson in advance and/or ask for his blessing. Or did she? Conflicting accounts at the time prompt us to ask, what did Johnny know, and when did he know it? Bennetts posits a few theories.

Carson’s on-air bonhomie notwithstanding, he was a complicated man who offended easily and carried grudges to the grave. Rivers’ perceived thoughtlessness and ingratitude after a 20-year mentorship made her persona non grata on the Tonight Show for decades, and irreparably severed their personal relationship. Ironically, Rivers was fired from the Fox talk show a year after the contretemps.

Rivers’s husband Edgar Rosenberg was her work partner, manager and father of her only child, Melissa, though he was generally not well liked within his wife’s entertainment circles. After decades of a tumultuous yet still functioning marriage, Rivers’ world shattered once again in 1987 when Rosenberg committed suicide following his wife’s ouster from the Fox talk show for which he had been executive producer. His death left his widow cut adrift financially and professionally.

But Bennetts engrossingly describes Rivers’ slow rise back to entertainment prominence, including some brief stints acting on Broadway, her long-time dream. During her final decades, Rivers rebounded with best-selling memoirs, behind-the-scenes and on-air involvement with the QVC TV shopping network, creating the “red carpet event” at award ceremonies via her notorious Fashion Police show, and always, always, performing stand-up comedy routines anywhere and everywhere, routines reflecting universal themes yet attuned to the issues and personalities of the day.

Rivers was also devoted to numerous charities, especially the AIDS service organization God’s Love We Deliver, on whose behalf she would win an edition of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice at age 75. She was a diehard reader on many subjects, a passionate theatergoer, and loyal and generous to countless friends and employees.

That said, Bennetts does not sugar-coat Joan Rivers’ less palatable traits. It’s all here—her seemingly obsessive plastic surgeries, her need to be surrounded by gaudy luxury in her home and on her person, and the “fat shaming” and other verbal cruelties publicly inflicted on fellow celebrities in her no-holds-barred comedy routines, with Elizabeth Taylor arguably her most notorious victim. As Bennetts states: “By the time she got famous, anger had become the hallmark trait that defined [Rivers’] public persona for the rest of her life”—especially “anger” towards beautiful women seemingly squandering the natural gifts with which Rivers herself was never blessed.

Rivers’ sudden death in 2014 as a result of allegedly botched minor surgery is also depicted in detail by Bennetts, along with the public reaction to Rivers’ passing, wherein many of her close associates believed her death still did not inspire the tributes and legacy she deserved vis-à-vis her pioneer standing as one of the few women in comedy during a decidedly male-centered era. Such controversies may never totally be resolved, but in the meantime, Bennetts’ well-researched and balanced look at a remarkable woman’s life satisfies on many counts.


» Pages from the Arts will appear on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.



  • February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
  • March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
  • April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
 Thanks For Reading

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Pages from the Arts: May 2017
In this month's review of books about performing arts and artists, we look at works about Steppenwolf Theatre, Venezuela's El Sistema music education program, and comedy great Joan Rivers. 
by Cathy Ritchie

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