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:
Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker
By Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff
University of Texas Press, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
We’ve rolled up the sidewalks on Women’s History Month for another year, but Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff has nevertheless brought us an entertaining look at a legendary female performer: the idol of no less an icon herself than the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, who channeled this woman’s spirit in many of her early stand-up routines. She’s the one and only Sophie Tucker (1887-1966).
Tucker’s good friend Jimmy Durante said this about her: “When I listen to Sophie, I know I’m hearing an awful lot of show business.” Her multi-decade fame encompassed vaudeville, the early days of popular recording, nightclubs and eventually television. The self-declared “red hot mama” who fought for the right to be overweight, openly Jewish, less than stunningly gorgeous, and bawdily sexual at any age parlayed her substantial singing voice, riveting stage presence, and garrulous personality into a formidable career. We should all welcome Tucker’s “renaissance,” bolstered by Sklaroff’s fine biography.
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish in 1887 Russia, but her large family eventually settled in Hartford, Connecticut. At age 16, she married Louis Tuck (later becoming “Tucker” professionally): their union produced Sophie’s only child Albert, but after the couple split, the young mother left the baby in the care of her siblings in her determination to seek performing fame and fortune in New York City. While she and Bert established a relationship of sorts in later years, her sense of guilt for seemingly abandoning him never truly abated.
In the early 1900s, Sophie managed to break into burlesque, though, in keeping with the times, part of her act consisted of singing in blackface, belying Tucker’s own lifelong allegiance to racial equality. “Fat girl” jokes also entered her repertoire to stay. In 1909, Tucker debuted with the Ziegfeld Follies, and her fame increased apace. Agent extraordinaire William Morris became her long-time manager, and she began a recording career, including the song “Some of These Days,” which became Tucker’s signature tune and the title of her 1945 autobiography. Her ethnic heritage was showcased in another famous recording, 1925’s “My Yiddishe Momma,” which became popular around the world, and was even banned by Hitler’s government for evoking Jewish culture.
Vaudeville was Tucker’s life blood for a major part of her career, but as it faded into the ether, she stayed viable by turning to nightclubs, a milieu she never truly left. Feature films were another possibility, but her visibility in that medium would be minimal, as her appearance and overall persona seemed to limit the pool of suitable roles. That said, however, Tucker’s popularity soared during the 1920s through the 1940s, when she was arguably one of the best-known entertainers in the world. Into the 1950s and 1960s, she kept up with the times by embracing television to an extent, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and other popular variety programs.
Along the way, Sophie nurtured fans and acquaintances. She famously maintained huge scrapbooks containing review clippings, plus copious memorabilia amassed hither and yon. Most significantly, however, she pointedly collected the names and contact information of nearly every individual she personally met while touring the country, so she could alert one and all in advance when she was headed back to their cities for return engagements. It worked, as the lucky “contact-ees” responded in kind by flocking in droves to every Sophie Tucker re-appearance. Near the end of her life, Tucker donated those voluminous scrapbooks to the New York Public Library.
Tucker’s sexually suggestive patois and come-hither song delivery weren’t reflective of her own personal life, however, as she would unsuccessfully marry three times. She attributed this reality to the theory that she was too financially independent for most potential husbands’ comfort. But her song choices and patter between numbers nonetheless highlighted her romantic inclinations
Tucker was a trailblazer in yet another way: author Sklaroff describes her as one of the first celebrities for whom philanthropy was a way of life. As she comments: “Tucker was part of creating an industry standard in the four million dollars she raised for charity; charitable contributions are now something that celebrities come to understand as a responsibility of tremendous fame.” Among Tucker’s most frequent beneficiaries were Jewish- and civil-rights-related causes.
Sophie Tucker died of cancer in 1966, at age 82. Sklaroff says in conclusion: “Sophie Tucker worked to create the largest, most fantastic career, never forgetting the dreams she had as a girl…Her words, lyrics and writings urged people to learn from each other, to listen carefully, to study hard in the pursuit of any trade. Formally, she was an entertainer, but for most Americans, she transcended the arena of performance. Dare to think big, help people in need, never back down no matter who you are: these were the messages Tucker conveyed to all who listened.”
This book offers an enjoyable portrait of a remarkable woman, one whose legacy deserves periodical unearthing. And it complements well the 2014 documentary The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, available at the Dallas Public Library (here). Hail another icon for our next Women’s History Month, or all year round.
Being Wagner: The Story of the Most Provocative Composer Who Ever Lived
By Simon Callow
Vintage Books, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Actor/director/author Simon Callow has balanced his multiple careers to splendid effect, offering us well-received biographies of Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, and Charles Laughton, along with volumes of personal memoirs and career advice for actors. But his latest biography is my first experience of him as a writer, and it was joyously worth the wait. After all, it’s about Richard Wagner (1813-1883): what’s not to anticipate with relish?
In a compact yet substantive volume, and with sardonic-ness in full throttle, Callow gives us the life of a “provocative” man indeed: an undeniable genius of music theater, yet also a supreme egotist and distasteful anti-Semite. As the author states in his foreword: “Wagner was titanic, demiurgic, super-human, and also, frankly, more than a little alarming. No one was ever neutral about him. His personality was so extreme, so unfettered, that he struck many people as teetering on the edge of sanity…From the beginning, Wagner got under people’s skin.”
Before revolutionizing theater in general and opera in particular, Wagner displayed his voluble tendencies to all who surrounded him: “…he drank, he fornicated, he debauched, he hung out with dangerous, crazy people; he talked, talked, TALKED about the subject of subjects: himself, and of course, art, inseparable notions in his mind. He was Rimbaud, he was Kurt Cobain, he was James Dean.” Callow’s observations laced with tongue placed firmly in cheek flow throughout.
In the midst of formulating his ideas about theater, steeping himself in literary legends and mythology in preparation for composing what would become his monumental operas, and eventually creating the Bayreuth Festival, Wagner also faced complicated love affairs, political strife ultimately affecting his livelihood, poverty, and the periodic need to escape creditors. But interspersed with these challenges came writings on any and all subjects stirring his passions, not the least of which was his animus towards followers of the Jewish religion, epitomized by his 1850 pamphlet Judaism in Music.
Despite the fact that some prominent Jewish composers and musicians had actually supported Wagner in his early career, he nevertheless believed, as a devoutly nationalistic German, that, says Callow, Jews were “rootless, foreign people who have diluted our heritage to the point where it’s invisible…these people with their international connections, who exist beyond nation, beyond history.” Wagner’s passionate personality would indeed lead him to dark places, making a fair assessment of his artistic achievement chronically challenging. But throughout this book, Callow leaves heavy musical analysis of Wagner’s compositions to others, focusing instead on the composer’s variegated life and the internal forces shaping him as an artist and a man.
Richard Wagner died in 1883. As Callow summarizes:
“What he wrote cannot be confined. It remains as restless, unsettling, destructive, sublime and dynamic as it ever was. He is everywhere. Music was changed utterly by him. …He is a whirlpool at the [center] of musical culture, dangerous and dynamic. He is the discomfort we must live with…Only a truly uncommon human being could have been the conduit for his work… We should be grateful, even if we may be glad that we don’t have to spend too much time in his company.”
Simon Callow brings us a quirky yet stylish look at an undeniably unique cultural figure who cannot be ignored, as much as we might want to give it a try every now and then.
Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London's National Theatre
By Nicholas Hytner
Knopf Publishing, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Director Nicholas Hytner has helmed some of Broadway’s most significant plays and musicals over the last few decades. To wit: Miss Saigon, The Madness of George III, Carousel, One Man Two Guv’nors, and The History Boys, along with overseeing War Horse, Frankenstein, A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Jerry Springer the Opera, plus directing the George III and History Boys film adaptations. The original play productions were West End transplants courtesy of London’s National Theatre (NT), for which Hytner was Artistic Director from 2003 to 2015. This enjoyable memoir chronicles his creatively eventful tenure.
After years of experience at both the NT, opera houses, and other British arts organizations, Hytner succeeded Richard Eyre as the National’s Artistic Director. He comments early in the book: “I spent 12 years as director [of the National], thinking about what to put on its stages, about what made an evening in the theatre good and about what was good about the theatre. And I rarely thought alone. I talked, my colleagues talked back, they shaped my thoughts…I stole from the best, and the balancing act I will never be able to perform is the one that does justice to how much I enjoyed it.”
Hytner’s years at the NT were marked by both artistic and administration openness to new ideas and concepts in service to audiences and theatre-makers alike, including lower ticket prices and live cinema broadcasts of NT plays around the world. His memoir’s title is brilliantly apt: his time at the top was indeed a continual “balancing act” among administrators, playwrights, directors, performers, and designers, and we learn much about his interactions with each group in collaboration towards mounting specific productions.
In particular, he worked fruitfully with authors Alan Bennett, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, Martin McDonagh, Richard Bean and, of course, Shakespeare; with directors Marianne Elliott, Howard Davies and Danny Boyle; and with actors Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, James Corden, Zoe Wanamaker, Richard Griffiths, and Fiona Shaw, to scratch the surface. His accounts of specific NT productions from soup to nuts are engaging, shot through with Hytner’s continual sense of awe and gratitude, laced with charm and generosity of spirit. It’s a well-rounded look at the operations and broad-range conceptual thinking behind one of the great theaters of our time. A fine read.
And in the category of “I couldn’t resist,” here’s Hytner’s recollection of one special night during the Broadway run of One Man, Two Guv’nors starring Tony-Award-winner James Corden in a role often allowing for improvisation, depending on whichever famous person might be in attendance:
“One day, when James asked for help with the trunk [a prop usually carried offstage by people chosen at random from the audience], he spotted a man in a big blond wig, who seemed very eager to be selected. James brought him up.
“’What’s your name, sir?’ he asked him.
“’Donald,’ said the man, whose wig may have been a comb-over. The audience jeered. Donald didn’t have many fans on Broadway.
“’And what do you do?
“’I’m in real estate, and I’m the host of TV’s The Apprentice,’ said Donald, swelling with needy self-delight. James patted his bottom [Corden’s usual modus operandi during trunk removal] as he carried the trunk offstage. The Broadway audience laughed indulgently; they thought Donald was a joke, entirely inconsequential.”
» 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.
- December 2017: 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.
- 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.
- February 2018: A 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.
- March 2018: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale.