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:
The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America
By Isaac Butler and Dan Kois
Bloomsbury Press, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Twenty-five years ago, Tony Kushner’s two-part Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes forever changed the theatrical landscape, to coin a cliché rooted in truth. And this monumental work currently lives on Broadway yet again, via Britain’s 2017 National Theatre revival directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. But we have a timely print tribute to its greatness in our midst as well: this superb “oral biography” of Angels from birth to present day, is one of the best books I’ll likely read this entire year — a joy from start to finish.
The authors do a masterful job of weaving together verbatim reminiscences from creators involved with the plays: from the premieres of Millennium Approaches via San Francisco’s Eureka Theater Company in 1991, and Perestroika at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum the following year, through the original Broadway production. Then it’s on to other productions done in the US and abroad; to the 2003 multi-Emmy-Award-winning HBO miniseries directed by Mike Nichols; and finally to the National Theatre production now gracing New York City. Along with enlightening reflections from Kushner, we hear from actors, directors, designers, and producers integral to the plays’ early successes, and from other theatre practitioners not directly involved with Angels, but who were nonetheless deeply influenced by the works, especially considering the historical/societal era the plays reflect.
The book’s arrangement of “Acts” is chronological, and prefacing each new chapter of transcriptions is a timeline featuring seminal dates in the plays’ histories plus relevant national developments. We are also treated to sidebars addressing other general issues, e.g.,”Is Pereistroika a Letdown?” “Angels in School,” “Coming Out With Angels,” and “A Generation of Playwrights on Angels in America.”
And the authors devote individual chapters to each of the plays’ major characters (Prior, Roy, Joe, Louis, Belize, Harper, Hannah, and the Angel) with reminiscences from those who have tackled these challenging roles over the past 25 years. This book should ideally be savored from first page to last, but even selective browsing will yield riches.
Here’s a cursory sampling of the voices within the pages:
From Meryl Streep, on the initial impact of the first Angels Broadway productions: “There was no other subject! It was all anybody was talking about. Certain writers meet their moment. They emerge with a sensibility that explains it all to us and we recognize it. I don’t know what that is or how it happens. The play was the Hamilton of its time.”
From actor Scott Parkinson, who portrayed Prior in a 1998 Chicago production: “I hear people calling the play ‘dated’ a lot, or opining about whether it will stand the test of time … But I suspect that it will in fact still be done in a hundred years. It taps into something so fundamental about our struggle with how to change, about how to progress forward as a citizenry, and as a species, and I suspect it will remain relevant to us for as long as those things are relevant.”
From Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Kushner’s ambition in writing Angels was something that both armed and scared every playwright since. It leaves a big wake.”
From playwright Sheila Callaghan: “The huge accomplishment of this play is that it became popular. It seems so unlikely that a nontraditional play, epic in nature, discussing sickness and estrangement within a marginalized community, could have such a widespread impact. But it did.”
From producer Oscar Eustis: “Another thing Angels did was help make the claim that theater is something that belongs in the conversation about the great struggles of our time. It’s not just for the arts pages. It’s grappling with the big issues of who America is and what we would become.”
And from actress Ellen McLaughlin, who originated the role of the Angel: “What I mostly remember from that time in my life was joy. I felt like we were doing something important with the medium that I had given my life to. This is one of the great privileges, the greatest gift I could have ever been given.”
This entire book is also a gift, for both theater aficionados and followers of American cultural/social history. Bravos to all involved, with special thanks to Butler, Kois, and, of course, to Tony Kushner, who started it all.
Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music
By James Rhodes
Bloomsbury Press, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
I never expected to use the phrase “child rape” in this column, but sadly, discussing this book requires just that. But not so sadly, this book’s author is living proof of the power of art in general and music in particular to make a broken life whole again.
British classical pianist James Rhodes indeed embodies the collective mantra in which we all believe, that Art Changes Lives. In his case, the magic of one 88-key instrument sustained him through an existence aptly crystallized in his memoir’s subtitle.
During the 1980s, young James was raped from age six to 10 by the gym teacher in his all-male prep school. It was a different era, wherein child sexual molestation was not yet the red-alert issue about which we’ve all since become sensitized. He survived, albeit with physical and mental damage that would plague him into adulthood. Subsequent decades found him self-destructively “acting out” his early trauma. But beginning at age seven, even as the abuse continued, moments of grace came to him via the piano, and some years later, he encountered further unexpected joy through fatherhood. He shares it all.
Rhodes’s narrative is profane and brutally candid, though he purposely eschews graphic descriptions of what was done to him as a child. Nevertheless, the rhythms of his stream-of-consciousness-oriented writing style can be off-putting at first, but I soon found myself swept along on his tide, largely in amazement at what he has managed to accomplish despite his early trauma and the later challenges resulting therein. As he states in his “Prelude”: “[My life story] provides proof that music is the answer to the unanswerable. The basis for my conviction about that is that I would not exist, let alone exist productively, solidly — and, on occasion, happily — without music.”
Along those lines, Rhodes labels his chapters “Tracks,” i.e., classical works of particular significance in his life’s memory, and he briefly discusses each piece and its composer before resuming his narrative. He especially credits Bach’s Chaconne for Solo Violin with providing him with a mental “safe place,” whenever anxiety struck: “It set me up for life; without it I would have died years ago, I’ve no doubt.”
Nevertheless, Rhodes’ professional path to the piano took numerous detours, including drug use, cutting, and temporary institutionalization, but he finally made his concert debut in 2008. He also married and fathered a son — the other all-encompassing love of his life, and yet a potentially daunting one: “I had a lot of qualities I wanted to embody as a father. It included words like strong, available, ever-present, patient, secure, married, loving. And I fell far short on all of them save for that last one. Loving.” Passion for his son withstood a divorce and Rhodes’s ongoing post-abuse issues, fortifying him in tandem with his music.
Rhodes’s career has embraced recording, concertizing, speaking out on issues surrounding the classical music industry in general, and maintaining a steady presence on YouTube. But learning new pieces at the piano continues to bring him peace, purpose and steady vision: “This is what life is for me. It is exhilarating, inspiring, rewarding, and dignified. It applies not just to music and writing but to relationships, love, friendship, care….In my small little world, it feels like a revolution….It gives me permission to stop being a victim and contribute something deeper to my world.”
A footnote: Rhodes’s ex-wife attempted to halt this book’s publication in order to protect their son from learning the details of his father’s childhood trauma. But a British high court ruled in favor of free speech, and Rhodes’s powerful tale appeared on schedule. Its pages make for tough yet revelatory reading, told with unstinting honesty and ultimate triumph.
By Paula Vogel
Theatre Communications Group, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Last year, I had the privilege of seeing Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel’s first-ever work produced on Broadway, Indecent, directed by Rebecca Taichman, who won a 2017 Tony for her efforts. A small group of gifted performers tells the powerful story of Sholom Asch’s incendiary (for its time) 1907 play God of Vengeance, which became immediately controversial for its negative slant on Judaism but most especially for its depiction of same-sex love between two women. The Asch play’s original Broadway production in 1923 resulted in the arrest, indictment and conviction of the entire cast on charges of obscenity. (Donald Margulies’s adaptation of God of Vengeance is available at the Dallas Public Library: http://catalog.dallaslibrary.org/polaris/view.aspx?isbn=9781559362337 )
Vogel worked closely with Taichman on bringing God of Vengeance’s story to life circa 2017. Each cast member portrays numerous characters, except for Lemml, the play’s endearing stage manager, who finds new purpose for his life since the fateful evening he first heard Asch read the script aloud to a gathering of Jewish writers. Lemml subsequently devotes the remainder of his days to the God production and its cast, and helps keep the original play alive in spirit till the bitter end via a concentration camp. As we watch the troupe’s decades-long struggle, we’re treated to musical numbers, much humor, and a fine display of versatility as the performers change identities within an eye’s blink.
I have only one, perhaps unavoidable, caveat regarding this script. Being able to see the production live adds enormously to Indecent’s overall impact, as the play utilizes back-of-stage screen projections explaining locations, chronology and plot points, along with some dialogue translations from Yiddish to English and vice versa. Not all of this information may be totally graspable in print form. (The Broadway production has aired on PBS’s Great Performances, but, as of this writing, no commercial DVD of that broadcast yet exists.) While Vogel’s script absolutely conveys the excitement and ultimate poignancy surrounding the God of Vengeance saga, for maximum satisfaction, audiences ideally deserve to experience this work up close and personal.
Several regional companies are already including Indecent in their season offerings. Let’s all hope some DFW theaters will very soon join the crowd.
» 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.
- April 2018: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.