Harold Prince

Pages from the Arts: February 2018

In this month's review of performing arts books: A memoir by Harold Prince, a love letter to the late Roger Rees, Jenna Fischer's survival guide for actors and more.

published Wednesday, February 7, 2018

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 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 terrific memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice's love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer's survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez's The Royale, which will soon by staged by Kitchen Dog Theater.



Sense of Occasion

By Harold Prince

Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2017

ISBN 9781495013027

343 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE



What a résumé…

Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiorello!, Funny Thing Happened/Forum, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Sweeney Todd, Evita, On the Twentieth Century, Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Parade—and the list continues.

These seminal shows were all produced and/or directed by Harold Prince, who at age 90, is still open for business and offering his keen reminiscences in this unique memoir.

How is it “unique”? In 1974, Prince wrote Contradictions: Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre, which covered his career to the mid-1970s. For this new volume, Prince reprints every chapter from Contradictions but adds his current-day “Reflections” (i.e., corrections, clarifications, and revised opinions) after each one. Once the earlier narrative ends, Prince shares his post-1974 thoughts in several new sections. This may be a different approach to autobiography, but it offers readers a fuller look at Prince’s experiences and lessons learned throughout his monumental career.

Prince couches his soup-to-nuts anecdotes and opinions in a conversational narrative. His latter-day conclusions about present-day theatre and its ongoing issues are enlightening. Here’s a sampling, from both portions of the book:

The Pajama Game cost $169,000, and Damn Yankees cost $162,000. This is somewhere in the neighborhood of the budget for shoes and wigs in a current Broadway production. Today, you can produce an independent feature film for what it costs to do a one-set straight play on Broadway.” (2017)

“It may be useful to point out the obvious: popular music used to be theatre music. In 1954, when The Pajama Game opened, there were three number-one Hit Parade songs in its score…When theatre music ceased to be popular music, it encouraged me and my collaborators to seek more unconventional subjects. We could get much more serious, eventually moving into opera territory.” (2017)

 “[Many of my directorial ideas] capitalized on the special relationship of live actors and live observers. It is that relationship which is exclusively ours in the theatre. Film and television cannot touch it. And properly appreciated, it gives us the chance to make connections, to string unseen emotional bonds between actor and audience. The business of physical contact is the least of it.” (1974)

“The advent of television and electronic instruments has pushed the audience back in its seats….Do we not run the risk of mechanizing the theatre until it becomes so slick it loses its ‘liveness’? The American musical has for the last fifteen years been overpackaged, overproduced, lacking in content. Content is the key word…As soon as the technical things precede the text, we are in trouble.” (1974)

And, from a speech Prince delivered in 2005:

“For those of you who agree that what the theatre lacks is creative producers, I see a rosy future. To achieve it, we must define what makes our product uniquely different from television and film and build on the living relationship of live audiences and live performances…Theatre is far more engaging than sitting in a seat at a movie house or on your couch at home and ‘receiving’ entertainment. I would urge you to forget LED walls and holograms and settle on what stage scenery does best: invite imagination.”

In Sense of Occasion, living icon Harold Prince offers famous names, places, and backstage lore mixed with a healthy dose of reflection and abiding love for the art to which he has devoted the last six decades. Attention should be paid.


Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music

By Jan Swafford

Basic Books, 2017

ISBN 9780465097548

321 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE 



Anyone in the market for a thorough yet concise overview of classical music’s development, as shaped by its mover-and-shaker composers, should visit this book. Scholar/teacher/composer Swafford does a fine job in guiding lay readers through his vast topic “From the Beginning” to “Modernism and Beyond,” with well-placed commentary along the way.

But do note: Swafford announces early on that his focus is exclusively on instrumental music, i.e., opera is mentioned only fleetingly. But even with that caveat, much substance is here for the taking.

Conversationally yet knowledgeably, the author offers overviews of each historical period and devotes short-to-medium-length chapters to the composers who contributed seminally to their particular eras. Swafford shares some biographical background, but mainly lifts up and analyzes each man’s most important pieces (and they are all men, of course), as he highlights their titles in boldface.

Ideally, readers will have quick aural access to each composition Swafford spotlights, but even if that’s not possible, he clearly explains the rationales behind his choices. This book can be browsed if desired, but it also makes for enjoyable reading from first page to last. And along the way, Swafford offers moments of levity without lurching into excessive cuteness.

For example, concerning Richard Wagner: “No doubt you’ve gotten the idea by now: Wagner was a piece of work on a monumental scale, a monomaniac, a cad, a user, a virulent anti-Semite—and a brilliant, revolutionary, overwhelming artist who believed the world owed him a living. Perhaps the world did, but still.”  And from his chapter on Franz Liszt: “Female fans would flock to his recitals to be transported in ways that resembled something between the screaming rock-star concerts of the twentieth century and a shark feeding frenzy. Liszt fed the frenzy with James Brown-like antics onstage: fake fainting fits, being carried offstage and staggering back, and so forth.” Such commentary never seems forced or distracting.

There are instances where Swafford analyzes his chosen compositions more technically; these paragraphs will likely seem dense(r) to non-musicians, but can be easily skimmed if necessary.

The author concludes: “The human spirit is endlessly creative, and musicians, like all artists, will keep doing what they do. In the process, they will continue to reveal…enchanting, provoking, frightening, exalted, comic, rude, marvelous things. Whether presented in terms of sounds, strings, brass, stone, wood, canvas, or what have you, in the end, art is all made of the same inexhaustible material as the human spirit.” Jan Swafford has offered readers a fine welcome to a constantly evolving art, and world.



Finding Roger: An Improbably Theatrical Love Story

By Rick Elice

Kingswell Publishing, 2017

ISBN ISBN 9781484785744

249 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE 



In May 2015, I eagerly approached the Broadway theatre housing Kander and Ebb’s final musical The Visit, thrilled at the prospect of seeing the legendary Chita Rivera and Roger Rees live and in person. But the dreaded “At This Performance” lobby sign told us all that Rees would not be appearing that night. I was of course disappointed (although his understudy, Tom Nelis, was excellent), but I sensed there was something more serious behind this cancellation than just the desire for a night off. Weeks later, my suspicions were confirmed when Rees withdrew from the production altogether due to serious illness. He died on July 10, 2015, at age 71.

Rees was diagnosed with a glioblastoma in the fall of 2014 but was determined to stay with the show as long as physically possible. I learned later that as his condition deteriorated, affecting his sense of direction and memory, fellow cast and crew members posted boldly-lettered signs backstage addressed to Rees, reminding him, via arrows and exclamation points, of how and where to reach the stage and other areas—an amazing gesture on behalf of an obviously-loved colleague. I’m always moved when thinking about that.

Rees’s long-time partner/then husband, writer Rick Elice, has now brought us a combination pictorial biography and memoir of the man he loved for over three decades. He uses a series of so-called “Roger Reports” to chronicle their life together before and after Rees’ final illness; these messages to friends and loved ones are lavishly illustrated with personal “Rog and Rick” photos and from Rees’s stage career, though images of Rees near the end, as his condition deteriorated, are somewhat painful to view.

Rees sprang to seemingly overnight glory, of course, with his 1981 triumph in the marathon-length production of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby for which he won the Tony Award. But his theatre work across the pond was vast and varied even before then, including a major stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He and Elice initiated an across-the-ocean courtship in the early 1980s before settling down as a couple back in the US; Rees proudly became an American citizen in 2009.

Rees was also a director, teacher, audiobook narrator, visual artist, tap dancer, and singer who loved gardens and castles, being on stage, his friends and family, and above all, his husband. Elice quotes verbatim many of the remarks made by a multitude of mourners at Rees’ September 2015 memorial service. Two examples:

From Terrence McNally: “No actor played simple decency as effortlessly as Roger Rees. He personified it. Very few actors do. Decency—it’s simply a word. We know when we’re in the presence of it. We all just basked in Roger’s….His cup of human kindness was infinite and bottomless.”

From Marshall Brickman: “He was kind, he was empathetic, he was generous and funny and dependable. And in a career spanning fifty years, he never missed a performance. I’ll say that again: in a fifty-year career, Rog never missed a performance.”

This heartfelt book will inspire readers to re-visit the career of Roger Rees, be the focus London’s West End, Broadway, or the sound-sets of Cheers and Law and Order. I am now even more saddened that I did not see him in The Visit that night, but I’m glad nonetheless to have spent indirect time in the presence of a great actor, and an even finer human being.



The Actor's Life: A Survival Guide

By Jenna Fischer

Benbella Books, Inc., 2017

ISBN 9781944648220

254 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE



I am not an actor or performer, aspiring or otherwise, so thus may not be the ideal person to evaluate a “how-to” book for such folks, but some “outsider” eyes might bring something useful to the table nonetheless. In any case, this particular “outsider” is pleased to be here, because Jenna Fischer has given us a delightful book, for lay people and arts professionals alike.

Fischer is best known for her stint as Pam Beesly on the Emmy-winning comedy series The Office (2005-2013) for which she was herself Emmy-nominated, but hers was far from an overnight success, as she relates in entertaining and inspirational fashion. While her focus and advice largely pertain to film and television work, her own resume also includes copious live theatre experience, so many of her suggestions are applicable to all types of would-be performers. And her book’s title is 100 percent fitting, as Fischer not only offers guidance in finding work, but also in shaping an artistic life surrounding such jobs, and she shares numerous survival coping strategies that she herself honed over years of professional struggle.

What makes a good headshot; how to find an agent/manager; dealing with “day jobs”; getting into the actors’ union; auditioning; “how things work on a set”; “how to persevere”—all are topics tackled by Fischer in wise yet entertaining prose, chock full of anecdotes and “don’t do what I did”-type advice. While Fischer’s sense of humor is undeniable, she is emphatically serious where it counts, making this book as substantive as it is enjoyable to read. Here are a few of her nuggets.

“Acting is a serious craft, a learned skill that needs to be developed. If you just want to be famous, become a reality star.”

“I got my very first paid, on-camera acting job in Los Angeles. Was it a role in a Martin Scorsese film? Uh, no. It was a role in a sex education video for mental patients upon their release from UCLA Medical Center. Imagine me at Thanksgiving, telling my family about that career milestone.”

“You cannot possibly get every role you audition for….View the audition process as a spiritual journey, focused more on the work rather than the results…..Your job as an actor is to create a consistent body of work. It is not to book jobs.” [Her emphasis]

I gleaned so much from this book about what all goes into creating even just a few minutes of screen-able film. Early in her career, Fisher would sometimes spend an entire day or more in preparation for her two-line speech, but so be it. As she emphasizes, you do your work, however brief or tedious, with integrity and professionalism. Acting for a living requires drive, dedication, and persistence—and a little firm yet encouraging guidance from someone who’s walked the walk doesn’t hurt, either.

Jenna Fischer offers a bounty of riches, for both would-be thespians and the lay people who love watching them on stage or on screen. Major kudos.


The Royale

By Marco Ramirez

Samuel French, 2016

ISBN 9780573705304

89 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE


In 1905, Jay “The Sport” Jackson longs to become the heavyweight champion of the world. But he is African-American, so achieving that dream is unlikely. When Jackson hooks up with a crooked promoter and gets a chance to fight an aging, retired, white champion, his personal history becomes enmeshed with the sordid reality of the world around him. Playwright Ramirez offers a full cast of meaty roles for performers of color, with several scenes bringing powerful and poignant surprises. This play had its world premiere in 2013, and was produced at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2016. Dallas’ Kitchen Dog Theater offers its regional premiere March 1-18.


» Pages from the Arts appears 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.
  • 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 2017Biographies 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.
  • December 2017Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.


  • January 2018: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue.
 Thanks For Reading

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Pages from the Arts: February 2018
In this month's review of performing arts books: A memoir by Harold Prince, a love letter to the late Roger Rees, Jenna Fischer's survival guide for actors and more.
by Cathy Ritchie

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