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Pages from the Arts: June 2018

This month's review of performing arts books: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; and Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.



published Wednesday, June 13, 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 marklowry@theaterjones.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: 

 

On the Road & Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius

By Charlie Harmon

Imagine! Publishing, 2018

ISBN 9781623545277

272 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE

 

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The hills are alive with the sound of “Happy 100th, Lenny,” as the world honors the inimitable Leonard Bernstein in his centenary birthday year: count me among the appreciative multitudes. Not surprisingly, a spate of new books exploring multiple facets of the composer’s life and work is also crossing our paths in 2018, with Charlie Harmon’s engrossing memoir possibly among the best. It’s a rollicking romp in many ways, but this book also reveals more serious aspects of Bernstein’s later-years daily existence known only within his inner intimate circle. It’s an entertaining roller-coaster that may well cause readers to appreciate all the more the composer’s prodigious output, especially in light of the distractions and demands surrounding Bernstein seemingly everywhere he turned.

In 1982, after an interview during which his future boss was clearly intoxicated, Charlie Harmon was hired as Leonard Bernstein’s “personal assistant.” For anyone wondering what exactly being a famous person’s “PA” entails, this memoir offers eye-boggling testimony. As the author states in his opening chapter: “[Bernstein] was the priest in a theology of celebrity, and I was the novice, baptized by fire for four scorching years.”

At the time, Bernstein was not only juggling a monumentally complex travel schedule replete with conducting/teaching/performing engagements all over the USA and abroad, but the great man was also facing a composing deadline—what would become his one-act opera A Quiet Place was due about a year hence, so work sessions with his librettist Stephen Wadsworth also had to be factored into the enormous jigsaw schedule that was Leonard Bernstein World.

Harmon’s duties, among many others, included: assembling and packing at least 30 pieces of luggage for every trip; confirming airline reservations and hotel bookings, plus arranging whatever transportation was needed once Lenny’s feet were planted on terra firma; coordinating the maestro’s daily appointments when he was “home”; attending to Lenny’s massive personal needs pre- and post-concert; copying and/or obtaining his sheet music when required—and, arguably above all, guarding against any potentially embarrassing public moments via his boss’s unquenchable effervescence and impulsiveness, often exacerbated by LB’s frequently mercurial moods, undergirded by drink and Dexedrine.

The jet lag factor alone in Harmon’s new job was daunting, and the daily psychological strain immense, but being in the presence of one of the greatest artists of our time still kept this intrepid PA coming back for more. As he summarizes: “Yes, I had to put my life on hold, but working alongside a creative genius gave me the strongest sense of purpose I’d ever had.”

Harmon saw it all—LB as would-be “rabbi” and natural-born teacher to the world on subjects both artistic and political; temperamental orchestral taskmaster; lover of men despite still genuinely mourning the 1978 death of wife Felicia; and nonstop workhorse decrying to the heavens the burdens and obligations seemingly foisted upon him daily.  But Harmon faced personal struggles along the way, as well, including frequent bouts of exhaustion and depression. LB could be undeniably selfish and thoughtless, but when Harmon needed extensive psychiatric treatment at one point, Bernstein reached for his checkbook without a moment’s hesitation, paying all costs associated with his assistant’s recovery. A complicated man, but never one to be pigeonholed.

When Bernstein died in 1990, he asked Charlie Harmon to “look after my music.” And so he did, serving as LB’s music editor until 1999. Continuing to be part of Bernstein World, even years after his boss’s passing, seemed a foregone conclusion and a natural next step. And we should be pleased to have this book as part of the world-wide celebration of LB’s storied life and undeniable legacy.  Readers will both laugh heartily and increase their admiration for a simply remarkable creator, whose musical footprint is large and indelible. Happy Birthday, Lenny, and thank you, Charlie Harmon.

 

 

True Stories from an Unreliable Witness: A Feminist Coming of Age

By Christine Lahti

Harper Wave, 2018

ISBN 9780062663672

200 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE

 

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If someone woke me in the middle of the night, asking “Who’s your all-time favorite actress?” my immediate reply would be Christine Lahti.

Really? But what of Meryl, Frances, Helen, Emma? Well, they’re all good, too, but ever since I first saw Lahti bring poignancy and integrity to a supporting character in a throwaway “made for TV” movie potboiler decades ago, she’s been everything and more to me as a performer. (The Internet Movie Database reminds me this particular epic was 1984’s Single Bars, Single Women. “Who is SHE?” I asked myself on that lucky viewing day.)

And the years since have only reinforced those initial throes of adoration, as Lahti has amassed Emmy and Golden Globe Awards and several Academy Award nominations for her acting (Swing Shift in 1984 and Running On Empty in 1988). In 1995, she won the Oscar as Best Director, Live Action Short Subject Oscar for Lieberman in Love. Her stage work has included Broadway stints in The Heidi Chronicles, God of Carnage, and Present Laughter, among much else, along with numerous television appearances. While I’ve not yet had the privilege of seeing her perform up close and personal, I’m always eager to hear about her new projects and am thus delighted to witness her yet again in the national spotlight, this time as a memoirist.

That said, readers looking for a chronological cradle-to-present-day, behind-the-scenes recounting of Lahti’s life and career will need to look elsewhere, as she instead offers a more scattershot, impressionistic series of essay-vignettes, including some professional moments but mainly focused on her family, including two parents and multiple siblings. As she puts it: “This is a collection of my true stories. They are my emotional memories, the goo that surrounds the facts, the parasitic muck that attaches to them. These are the stories that altered me in some way, even just temporarily. …I’ve been a clumsy feminist, finding social footing only to be knocked down again. And I keep finding new veils to be lifted.”

Lahti was born in 1950 Michigan, the third of six children of a general surgeon father and housewife/professional artist mother: seemingly a fully functional family, but, as she eloquently shares, with darker undercurrents. (She herself has successfully raised three children with husband Thomas Schlamme, an award-winning director who she married in 1988.)

When Lahti began acting at age 23, she was told by an agent that she was “not special enough and too tall.” Happily for us all, she proved the naysayers wrong, as her screen and stage career has continued apace for more than 40 years. However, she acknowledges one of Hollywood’s many sad truths: “I’m in my mid-60s, and the more exciting acting offers have gotten fewer and farther between. …Why are there so few great parts for women in their fifties and sixties? There’s a shelf life for actresses?” We’ve Heard This Song Before…

Lahti does share a few Hollywood vignettes, including the viewed-by-a-national-TV-audience night in 1994 when she found herself occupied in the ladies room at the precise moment when her name was announced as a Golden Globe Award winner for the drama series Chicago Hope. As only he could, Robin Williams generously ad-libbed for the audiences as the cry went out “Where’s Christine?” Lahti finally beat her hasty, breathless path to the microphone, announcing to the world with chagrin, “Sorry, Mom, but I was in the bathroom.” She also relives the birth of her first child on a Mississippi movie set, doing love scenes with total strangers, and dealing with earthquakes after relocating to Los Angeles from New York City.

But her most affecting chapters touch on less jovial subjects, including physical abuse suffered in her youth via the hands of her brother; her schizophrenic sister who died young despite family support efforts; and especially her parents, including estrangement from her father and viewing her mother through varying prisms as Lahti matured into feminism.

In “The Smile of Her,” Lahti reflects on the woman for whom hearth, home, and total deference to a husband were everything during her adult life—frustrating for her daughter to witness as both women grew older. But after her mother’s death, Lahti realized that the “smiles” that never seemed to fade from the older woman’s face actually masked volumes. As she summarizes: “I wish I hadn’t spent [so much] time blaming her, wanting her to be different. I wish I could have told her how much her journey helped embolden mine.” Lahti’s perceptive and gentle observations punctuate her texts throughout.

I hope Christine Lahti will once again prove the skeptics wrong as her performing years continue, but in the meantime, her future as a writer seems assured as evidenced by the insights and wit she shares in this book. My first eye-opening impression of her via that small screen almost 35 years ago has only grown richer, as I eagerly anticipate what we’ll all be seeing from her next.

 

 

Cost of Living

By Martyna Majok

Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 2018

ISBN 9780822236542

91 pp.

This book is available at the Dallas Public LibraryCLICK HERE 

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
Martyna Majok's Cost of Living from the 2017 Manhattan Theatre Club production

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner gives us two couples, with a “caretaker” in each pairing. Truck driver Eddie reunites with his estranged wife Ani after she suffers a debilitating accident (which he caused), and John, a Harvard doctoral student with cerebral palsy, hires young Jess as his home health aide.

Only four characters and minimal sets would seem to guarantee future productions of this work around the country, but there’s a twist. In her published script, playwright Majok requests: “Please cast disabled actors in the roles of John and Ani.” When the play premiered off-Broadway in 2017 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Ani was portrayed by Katy Sullivan, an above-the-knee amputee, and John was Gregg Mozgala, who indeed has cerebral palsy. This play is thus clearly unique, if not groundbreaking, on several fronts.

Scenes alternate between the two couples, without intersecting until the very end. Ani and John have strong, often abrasive personalities and go far in disabusing stereotypes and their helpers’ expectations (and ours). All four characters carry psychological baggage to the table, mixed with humor and frankness. Along the way, Majok shows audiences that, as the New York Times put it, “the biggest handicaps are the universal ones: fear and disconnection.”  Cost of Living is a powerful tango of sorts, bringing both disability and great humanity into our consciousness. It is a quiet yet telling new recipient of America’s foremost drama award.

 

 

» Pages from the Arts appears on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones. 

 

 PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS 

 

2017

  • 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.

2018

  • 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 2018A 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.
  • May 2018: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
 Thanks For Reading




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Pages from the Arts: June 2018
This month's review of performing arts books: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; and Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
by Cathy Ritchie

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