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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
Hamlet Globe to Globe: Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play
By Dominic Dromgoole
Grove Press, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
“The play’s the thing” is only one of the catchy phrases from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that have become second nature to us over the centuries. But in 2014, in observance of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, it also became the guiding mantra for the (then) Artistic Director of London’s Globe Theatre, Dominic Dromgoole, as he and his troupe embarked on an amazing project: to bring said Hamlet to nearly every country on the face of the earth.
Amazingly, as per the title, they succeeded in splendid fashion, visiting almost 200 nations (including North Korea) over a two-year span and covering more than 190,000 miles. This multi-faceted memoir describes their incredible journey and offers much else as well.
Dromgoole’s charming narrative actually embraces three topics: the massive logistics involved in mounting such an enormous tour; Hamlet itself as a work of literature and its continuing relevance to the world at large beyond academia; and numerous verbal snapshots of the countries in which the Globe delivered the Bard, in venues both lavish and ramshackle, facing physical and political challenges along the way.
Why do this at all? Says Dromgoole: “Why not use the potential of the world to transport not terror or commodities, but 16 human souls, armed with hope, technique and strong shoes…and present to every corner of the world, with a playful truth, the strangest and most beautiful play ever written. Why not?” Since, as he notes, “Touring Shakespeare has been a continuous tradition since [his] plays were written,” choosing the ubiquitous Hamlet for this project made sense as well.
His descriptions of how the tour materialized financially and artistically are enlightening; since he never expected all the original chosen actors to stay with the tour the entire two years (though several did), all the roles were double- and triple- cast. In addition, half the company was nonwhite, including several of the Hamlets. Their performance spaces were often less than plush, weather conditions were always a factor, and some countries’ political climates were occasionally daunting, but the multi-year esprit de corps was solid.
Each chapter begins with an eye-boggling chronological list of all the nations visited, beginning in Europe, and then moving on to the Baltics, Latin America, Africa, and more. America was included in the itinerary, of course, with one Barack Obama, no less, attending a stateside performance.
Interspersed with the “let’s put on a show” portions are chapters devoted to a deep analysis of Hamlet itself. All academicians and laypersons who feel confident in their knowledge of the play’s inner workings will nevertheless likely find much to ponder in Dromgoole’s enthusiastic dissection of a work that has so evidently spoken to the world for so many centuries.
Dromgoole also offers extensive narrative descriptions of numerous tour locales and experiences. For readers not enamored of travelogues, these portions may become somewhat tedious, but his discussions of our truly multi-cultural world are telling. Says the author: “What we were doing was similar to On the Road but not the same…For us there was an extra privilege—we were able to give something back. Not just digging but planting also. Something both fragile and sturdy, our beloved Hamlet, with his unique capacity to break hearts and open minds.”
As Dominic Dromgoole remarks in his conclusion: “The Hamlet tour was a small act of binding, a modest attempt to pull geography and history into a shared light, the light shed by an old play. It was a reminder of belonging…that we are bound to others…and that in every small act, of breaking or of building, we birth a future for ourselves and for each other.”
In this age of globalization and ongoing international conflict, this book shows us that a play can indeed be “the thing” to make the world better, for at least a few hours, on whatever stage one can find.
He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly
By Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson
University Press of Kentucky, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
When I think of Gene Kelly, my first mental image is of a youthful-looking man in a t-shirt and khakis, arms outstretched, grinning widely, exclaiming in song “GOTTA DANCE!”
Gene Kelly did not only “have to” dance—this Renaissance man also sang, acted, directed, taught, and choreographed and above all, created a language for dance on film, transforming the artistic potential of cinema forever. In this superb book, Cynthia Brideson and her late sister Sara Brideson bring us what will likely become the definitive biography of Gene Kelly, as they pay tribute to both an innovative creative artist, who was also a devoted parent and caring citizen of the world.
Born in 1912 Pittsburgh, Kelly was introduced to dancing at around age 8; dance lessons would dovetail with the boy’s love of sports, and the adult Kelly would consistently bring an athletic sensibility to all his screen choreography.
He earned a college degree in economics but joined his family in opening a dance studio in the early 1930s. Eventually, Kelly decided to focus on dancing and the entertainment industry as a permanent career. After fits and starts, he became a Broadway choreographer in 1939, followed by his smashing star-making performance in the title role of Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey in 1940. In 1941, he married teenager Betsy Blair, a fellow cast member from an earlier show, and they later became parents to a daughter.
Kelly found his way to Hollywood in the 1940s, affiliating with MGM, home of the famed “Freed Unit” (as in Arthur Freed), specializing in film musicals. The 1940s and 1950s saw Kelly at his performing and creative zenith, in such classics as Cover Girl, Anchors Aweigh, The Pirate, On the Town, An American in Paris, Summer Stock, Brigadoon, It’s Always Fair Weather, and, of course, Singin’ In The Rain, to name a few.
Along the way, Kelly co-starred and collaborated with such legends as Judy Garland (who he adored), Vincente Minnelli, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Stanley Donen, Vera-Ellen, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and even, briefly, Fred Astaire. Kelly’s goal soon became to create what he termed “cinedance”—on-screen dance routines that could not be duplicated live on stage. Each of his films would boast some sort of unique dance “special effect” never before seen on celluloid.
As the years progressed, and the Hollywood musical began to lose popularity as a genre, Kelly continued to innovate as he could, albeit with mixed popularity. For example, his 1956 all-ballet Invitation to the Dance, a labor of love for him as an example of how ballet could translate to the big screen, failed to find audiences. But he also took breaks from his dance work to perform in non-musical films, most notably as Natalie Wood’s love interest in 1958’s Marjorie Morningstar, and as reporter E.K. Hornbeck in 1960’s Inherit the Wind, receiving fine notices for both.
When his association with MGM ended, Kelly moved on to directing challenges that weren’t always successful—e.g. 1969’s Hello, Dolly!—but he also embraced television, producing and starring in several award-winning dance “specials” for the smaller screen. Even in his 80s, Gene Kelly continued to promote dance and the creative possibilities of cinema. He died in 1996 at age 83.
The Bridesons do an admirable job of detailing Kelly’s career and life in all its facets, but without overwhelming readers with arcane detail. All his major films and their signature choreographic numbers are engrossingly discussed in depth. And they bring a balanced approach to their subject—as they point out several times, along with being a genial “regular guy” more often than not, Gene Kelly was also a dance perfectionist and, while on the job, could be a demanding-verging-on-tyrannical director/dance captain. It’s all here.
As is evidence of Kelly’s remarkably scandal-free personal life during his years in Hollywood. He and Betsy Blair—who shared a liberal political outlook and participated in the petitions and protests of their time—divorced after 16 years together but remained friends. His second wife, Jeanne Coyne, had been his long-time dance assistant; with her, Kelly had two children while in his 50s, before Coyne’s death from leukemia in 1973. In 1990, he married Patricia Ward, who survived him. By all accounts, Kelly was one of Hollywood’s true family men, devoted to his offspring, and maintaining a wide circle of loyal friends.
While Gene Kelly stayed interested in film and dancing to the end of his life, he did eventually “retire” from active performing. As he put it in the early 1980s: “I’ll be 70y years old soon. And when you get to that age, you don’t jump over tables. Every dancer and every athlete stays too long. I hope I didn’t.”
Gene Kelly’s exit from the bright lights was as graceful as his dancing, but, as we learn from this outstanding biography, the man who declared he’s “gotta dance” left a remarkable legacy befitting a singular pioneer and an even finer man.
By Lynn Nottage
Theatre Communications Group, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
This year, Lynn Nottage became the first female playwright to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama—her Sweat took the 2017 honors, as did her Ruined in 2009. In my layperson’s reading experience, Pulitzer Drama winners can be all over the map, relatability-wise, but Sweat seems to land on the more positive end of the scale. The play’s Broadway debut production, directed by Kate Whoriskey, concluded its brief run in late June.
Nottage’s setting is Reading, Pennsylvania, where a group of factory workers habitually congregates at a local bar to share the load of their concerns and complaints. In 2000, the economy threatens their livelihood, so the need for financial survival preoccupies their thinking. While all the bar denizens have history and inter-relationships, our focus is often drawn to friends and co-workers Tracey and Cynthia. They each have sons who will be company men as well, though that’s not immediately clear.
When Cynthia is promoted to a management position over her peers in the factory, friendships are tossed out of kilter and tensions flare, leading to incidents with ramifications years down the line. In fact, Nottage frequently alternates the action between 2000 and 2008: this can become confusing at times, even for readers, though I’m told that live audiences were visually reminded of the chronology switches along the way.
Sweat’s dialogue is vivid, and while it’s an ensemble work in many ways, the script offers numerous characters substantial solo moments. Nottage’s extensive research on Reading and its residents brings texture and historical context to her plot. As a brief slice of an America that cannot be ignored, no matter what the nation’s political climate, Sweat offers substance and food for thought worthy of the Pulitzer medal.
> Nottage's first Pulitzer winner, Ruined, will be produced locally by Echo Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center, Sept. 7-23
» Pages from the Arts will appear on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones. (Except in July 2017, published on Monday, July 10.)
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- 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.
- May 2017: 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 biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.