In Pages from the Arts, we 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 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: A biography of the great singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John, which opens this week at Undermain Theatre.
Go Slow: The Life of Julie London
By Michael Owen
Chicago Review Press, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Singer Julie London’s undeniable physical beauty was only arguably surpassed by the richness of her voice. While her originally hoped-for acting career never truly materialized to her satisfaction, she nevertheless became a 1950s-1960s music icon, despite her periodic discomfort with live performance. In many ways, her outward persona belied the real woman beneath the glitter, but, over several decades, she offered ample gifts to aficionados of superb jazz/pop singing and thoughtful lyric interpretation.
Michael Owen has reinvigorated the Julie London legend in the singer’s first full-length biography. We learn that the sexy, come-hither siren image for which London first gained understandably rapt attention actually masked an introverted wife and mother whose idea of bliss was jamming privately at home in the wee hours with her favorite jazz musicians. The disparate aspects of her life may have clashed at times, but her ardent record-buying fans reaped the benefits.
She was born Gayle Peck in 1926 Santa Rosa, California. Her performing talents were quickly evident, as she sang on the radio and began film acting while a teenager. However, the vast majority of the 20-plua movies London made during her career required no singing, and her roles were largely supporting, in westerns, crime thrillers, and general melodrama.
London would derive no real professional or personal satisfaction from acting. As author Owen declares: “A clearly visible sense of unease prevented her from holding an audience’s attention, and her inability to create a distinct image on-screen—whether as femme fatale or serious actress—dealt a series of fatal blows to her acting career.” While London did achieve television acting popularity in later years, her true talent would manifest itself elsewhere.
London began recording in the early 1950s, and her catalog would eventually encompass over 30 albums. Thanks largely to her flaming red hair, hourglass figure and overall enticing appearance, these records were often marketed with covers featuring London posing on bearskin rugs and the like, for maximum visual impact. As Owen comments: “The provocative, sometimes subliminal message of Julie London’s album covers became the primary sales point for her records, far outstripping any emphasis on their musical contents.” However, while the packaging may have verged on tacky at times, what lay within would more than overshadow the hype.
Arguably, London’s most iconic single was “Cry Me a River,” released in 1955, but as a glance at the track listing for the 2005 two-CD set The Very Best of Julie London reveals, she embraced works from the 1960s alongside time-honored pop and jazz standards. Her final recording was 1981’s “My Funny Valentine” for the film soundtrack of Sharky’s Machine. (The Very Best of Julie London is available at the Dallas Public Library.)
Along the way, London performed live in clubs and stage shows, but often felt shy and awkward with audiences. Basically an introvert by nature, she functioned most comfortably in less public musical settings, surrounded by friends and fellow musicians.
London was instinctively a homebody, wife and mother. In 1947, she married actor/producer Jack Webb of television’s Dragnet fame, with whom she had two daughters. They divorced in 1954 but remained friends, and he would be largely responsible for London’s final acting gig, the role of Nurse Dixie McCall in the NBC-TV medical show Emergency! (1972-79).
In 1959, London married jazz musician/composer Bobby Troup, and their union endured until Troup’s death in 1999, including years starring together in Emergency! They had three children of their own, while London step-mothered Troup’s offspring from an earlier marriage. She reveled in her fruitful home life; as Owen notes, “By her own definitions, Julie London was happy to be known as a wife, a mother, or a friend rather than as a singer, an actress, or a celebrity.”
Julie London’s final years were spent in poor health and seclusion; a chain smoker since age 16, she suffered strokes and heart ailments. She died in 2000 at age 74.
Growing up in the 1960s, I was familiar with Julie London, but this book introduced me to a serious vocal musician who cared deeply about her craft, if not much for the hype often surrounding it. Michael Owen’s depiction of her life and career, and the era in which they flourished, is detailed, if at times workmanlike, but his efforts serve a noble purpose—to re/introduce us to an arguably overlooked singer who achieved solid artistry even with what she herself considered to be limited gifts. (Happily, Go Slow supplements other recently resurrected bits of London lore available online, including film documentaries on her life viewable on YouTube.)
As Owen summarizes: “A teenaged Gayle Peck may have vowed to become a star one day, yet it was the older and wiser Julie London who had the final words on her career. ‘You gotta have the ego for it. And I never really did.’”
Julie London’s ego-less nature notwithstanding, any lover of fine singing should be happy to make her acquaintance.
The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up
By Budd Friedman with Tripp Whetsell
BenBella Books, Inc., 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
I absolutely, unashamedly LOVED this book, far more than I had expected. For baby boomers coming of age during the 1960s and 1970s, it’s an entertaining nostalgia ride but also a frank and enlightening history of American stand-up comedy, immeasurably enlivened by the words of some of the greatest practitioners ever to trod the boards in front of unpredictable audiences in the wee hours of the morning.
In 1965, after years in Boston, advertising executive Budd Friedman returned to his New York City hometown, hoping to make enough money to mount a Broadway show. He opened a coffeehouse called The Improvisation, located on a seedy corner of Manhattan’s W. 44th Street, also nicknamed “Hell’s Kitchen.” It soon became known as The Improv, an instant hit as a “drop-in” space for working actors, those both famous and not-quite-there yet.
But when comedians began showing up to try out new material, The Improv hit its stride, becoming the first venue ever to present live stand-up in a continuous format. While other “Improv” franchise clubs (we have them in Addison and Arlington) have proliferated around the country since those early days, it all started on that questionable Midtown corner, and to say the club’s roster became a Who’s Who of Stand-Up is emphatic understatement.
Friedman tells The Improv’s story engrossingly, and the verbatim reminiscences of his best-known movers and shakers are liberally interspersed throughout the narrative. Reading those commentaries, with texts coordinated by Tripp Whetsell, is akin to having the comedians’ own voices right in your ear. Kudos.
Friedman also devotes individual chapters to those comics he considers the greatest of the great—including Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Freddie Prinze, David Brenner, Larry David, Robin Williams, and Robert Klein. Other noted Improv alumni have included Billy Crystal, Paul Reiser, Jimmy Fallon, Jerry Seinfeld, Howie Mandel, and Drew Carey. Not all Friedman’s memories are golden, but the nostalgia is thick and hearty.
But let’s pause a moment. Notice anything rather gender-specific about all those names? With the exception of reminiscences from Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, and a few other funny ladies, The Improv’s early history and this book are decidedly testosterone-driven. But that’s OK: it was what it was back then, and there’s ample richness in these pages nonetheless.
Budd Friedman is now 85, and The Improv brand has evolved, along with the stand-up comedy scene itself, largely thanks to his own pioneering efforts. While we await the next wave of comedy superstars—male AND female—enjoy the pleasures offered by this wonderful book.
By Annie Baker
Theatre Communications Group, 2016
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Annie Baker, one of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” grant recipients, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for The Flick. She has now brought us John, which premiered off-Broadway in 2015. As with The Flick, its small cast grapples with multiple issues and influences, providing meaty roles for all its actors.
Elias and Jenny are a couple facing challenges. They arrive in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania just after Thanksgiving and take lodgings in a bed-and-breakfast establishment overseen by their hostess and proprietor Mertis. She welcomes them into her home, overrun as it appears to be with seemingly thousands of helter-skelter inanimate objects, at least a few of which seem to take on lives of their own. Later, Mertis’s friend Genevieve joins in, as a spirit of magic realism hovers about the action, with different scenarios, conflicts and issues free-floating amongst the four of them.
John provokes thoughts and raises questions not easily resolved, but also offers much by way of intricate stagecraft and acting substance. Following on the heels of its successful 2015 production of Baker’s The Flick, the Undermain Theatre presents the Dallas premiere of John, running Nov. 8-Dec. 3, and directed by UMT company member Bruce DuBose.
» Pages from the Arts appears on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
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.
- July 2017: 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.
- August 2017: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September 2017:A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October 2017: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending