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: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.
Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz
By Fred Hersch
Crown Archetype, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
One of my all-time favorite albums is 1989’s Short Stories, with superb vocals by Manhattan Transfer co-founder Janis Siegel and dynamic piano accompaniment, including great instrumental solos, by one Fred Hersch. I’d not heard of Hersch when I first bought the recording, but his name stuck in my brain and I followed his career in bits and pieces in the years that followed, including his coming-out announcement in 1993 combined with the news that he had been HIV-positive since 1984. Fortunately for us all, Fred Hersch is still alive, kicking, performing, and, now, writing.
He’s given us a gentle, candid, and perceptive memoir with an absolutely perfect title—“good things” have indeed taken their sweet time arriving in his life, but Hersch can now reap the benefits of a career that’s earned him massive respect and admiration over the decades, and of a personal life filled with challenge and ultimately rich survival.
His journey as a jazz pianist, composer, teacher and trio member began in Cincinnati, where he was born in 1955, and studied piano and composition while still a youngster. He discovered jazz at Iowa’s Grinnell College, eventually focusing on that genre at the New England Conservatory of Music. Why jazz? Hersch reflects: “I thought about my reluctance to devote myself to the classical repertory after hearing Horowitz play canonical pieces so spectacularly, and it struck me: in jazz, it’s individuality that matters most. With this music, musicians are completely free to be themselves within the tune. Difference matters—in fact, it’s an asset, rather than a liability…In jazz, difference is the key element that makes the artistry possible.”
As his fledgling career began in the 1970s, Hersch gradually affiliated himself with various combos and trios, including occasional recordings and musical interactions with many legendary jazz greats. As he evolved within his chosen musical category, he also grappled with his gay identity, convinced he needed to remain closeted for the foreseeable future. In his words: “I knew I was a jazz musician and wanted to become fully established as a successful one. And I was a gay man and wanted to succeed at that, too…So I plowed ahead at fulfilling both sides of my identity—but separately, toggling between the two…I saw the two as mutually exclusive and elementally incompatible.”
Through the 1980s, Hersch became known as a jazz pianist’s pianist, both as a solo performer and as leader of various trios, garnering multiple Grammy Award nominations, for his frequent recordings. (Hersch’s 2017 Grammy-nominated CD Open Book is available at the Dallas Public Library.) His personal life was somewhat less successful, as it included periods of sexual promiscuity and several failed relationships. In 1984, Hersch learned he was HIV-positive but delayed publicly announcing both his sexual orientation and his diagnosis for nine years. He eventually found a life partner in Scott Morgan, while his health challenges were ever-looming.
In 2008, Hersch became gravely ill and was placed in a medically induced coma for two months. His subsequent rehabilitation was daunting and massive, as he had lost all muscular function due to his inactivity and hence could no longer play the piano. Hersch describes his experiences during and after his ordeal in harrowing yet ultimately positive detail, as he would indeed rise from the figurative dead to perform for live audiences yet again.
As he puts it: “The experience of living in a coma and coming out of it was absolutely transformative to me. The coma was the B.C./A.D. point of delineation in my history as a man and as a musician.” From that very ordeal came Hersch’s 2011 composition Coma Dreams, a multi-faceted stage show tackling the interplay of dreams and reality, as he himself uniquely lived it during his ordeal.
Today, at age 62, Fred Hersch continues to record, perform, accompany, teach, perform charity work, and serve as mentor and exemplar for a new generation of jazz pianists. And he shares it all in this fine book.
He is frank yet thoughtful and eloquent in his reminiscences, and always engrossing. And as an added bonus for music history buffs: he offers observations and insights into the 1970s-1980s jazz scene, lifting up in fondness and gratitude numerous movers and shakers who assisted his career trajectory. For anyone at all interested in the genre, this memoir offers much.
“Good things” have indeed come at their own pace for Fred Hersch, and we can be thankful for his honesty, passion, and devotion to both his art and to living a full, contributory life. He summarizes: “My identity as a gay man, someone with AIDS, and a coma survivor has informed the music I have made over the years. Everything in me has gone into my music. In the end, though, it’s the music that matters---not what went into it, but how it came out.”
We are all the richer for it.
The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts
By Charity Tillemann-Dick
Atria Books, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
As I learned myself six years ago during my recovery from a broken back, the human body is a remarkable thing. The human spirit’s not too shabby, either.
In 2004. Charity Tillemann-Dick, a 21-year-old coloratura soprano and the fifth of 11 children, was anticipating a life and career filled with opera, recitals, and continuing artistic growth—until the day she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a devastating lung disease which can kill its sufferers within five years, unless a transplant can be performed. Despite physical struggles and daunting setbacks, Tillemann-Dick received double lung transplants in both 2009 and 2012, and returned to concert/lecture stages, buoyed by her deep religious faith and the support of her family and future husband. She shares her story in riveting fashion.
Music also kept Tillemann-Dick motivated and focused. As she recalls early in her narrative, her first operatic experience was seeing Hansel and Gretel as a child: “I felt the weight of responsibility that Hansel and Gretel felt for each other through the musical lines that bound them together: their joy and their terror. Slowly, it dawned on me that this music was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I was only five, but I was a woman transformed.”
In graphic, yet compelling detail, she shares her pre- and post-transplant experiences, as her entire body endured internal trauma and faced long and daunting rehabilitation. And since lungs were involved, her eventual ability to sing was always in question.
Along the way, Tillemann-Dick also faced challenging family dynamics, doctors espousing differing degrees of positivity towards her future, and the slow growth of her bond with her then-boyfriend and eventual fiancé/husband: would they indeed have a future together? In time, she at least had a partial answer regarding her voice: “While I still never quite feel like I’m taking a full breath, my body begins to belong to me again. But not just me. Now, I’m a collaborative endeavor: a partnership between the lungs, their former owner, and me.”
Tillemann-Dick’s road to recovery was slow and tortuous, but ultimately successful, and since her transplants, she has resumed singing in public while also becoming a fixture on the lecture circuit on behalf of organ donation. Her first-person, present-tense narrative is immediately engrossing: admittedly painful reading at times, but turning away is never an option.
However, in the interest of full disclosure: I have seen online comments regarding Tillemann-Dick and this book, decrying the fact that she has already received two transplants in her young life while other critically ill persons are dying before receiving even one such procedure. Food for thought, albeit perhaps a discussion for another time. For now, suffice to say that for Tillemann-Dick, achieving her “encore” entailed much uncertainty and frequent despair, but we can nevertheless be glad for her ultimate and ongoing reunion with the music that gives her (new) life such special meaning.
The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M.B. Curtis
By Richard Schwartz
RSB Books, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
We all know Abraham Lincoln met his premature end in 1865 while sitting in a theatre, but how much do most of us know about what 19th-century American theatre life was really like, or the names of prominent performers of that time? Take, for example, one Maurice—aka, “M.B.”—Curtis (1849-1920). In Richard Schwartz’s largely engaging biography, readers learn both about a multi-faceted man of many careers, and concurrently about the lively era in which he lived and performed.
Curtis, born Mauritz Strellinger in 1849 Bohemia, became “M.B. Curtis” upon launching his acting career in America. His signature role was that of Samuel Plastrick, the main character in the comic melodrama Sam’l of Posen or The Commercial Drummer by George H. Jessop and produced on the New York stage in 1881. A “drummer” was a Jewish traveling salesman, and Curtis became the first actor to portray such a salesman as a leading character, not to mention in a work with content transcending the common stereotypes of Jewish characters at that time. As a New York newspaper noted in Curtis’s 1920 obituary: “He was the first actor to put a modern Jew on the stage… It was the first attempt to put before the public any genuine study of the Jew immigrant in this country.”
Curtis purchased the play’s copyright in 1883, and continued portraying Plastick in various productions into the 1890s, while also becoming quite wealthy from his efforts. Thanks to that windfall, and his immigrant’s devotion to his adopted country, Curtis was able to literally arrange for the Statue of Liberty to be lit in 1886 when Congress became deadlocked shortly after the monument’s dedication: hence this book’s title.
Curtis’s national popularity as an actor was immense, yet he branched off into other careers, while always keeping “Sam’l” in his back pocket. He became a real estate developer, a hotelier, and a silent-film industry pioneer, among others. But he also plunged into notoriety in 1892 when he was arrested and charged with killing a police officer while in a drunken state. After four trials, and two hung juries, Curtis was finally acquitted, but both his finances and reputation were permanently ruined.
He attempted to revive “Sam’l” on stage periodically via sequels to his earliest successful play, but found many audiences were now laughing at his character rather than with him. Curtis died at age 70 in 1920.
Schwartz’s rags-to-riches-to-rags chronicle of Curtis’s life and times is engrossingly written, and includes numerous illustrations from that era. However, a slight warning: the author’s frequent tendency to quote verbatim lengthy reviews of Curtis’s performances, the actor’s own recollections of life events in their entirety, and detailed excerpts of testimony surrounding Curtis’ multiple murder trials, somewhat derailed his narrative momentum for me. Paraphrases and a few well-placed ellipses might have been just as effective.
However, beyond this caveat, Schwartz brings readers the life of a way-famous performing artist of whom most of us have likely never heard—a trailblazing actor for his time, and a media celebrity before that label became common currency. Making M.B. Curtis’s acquaintance is indisputably worth a reader’s time.
» 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
- November 2017: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John.