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:
Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution
By Todd S. Purdum
Henry Holt & Co., 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
In many respects, we have Dee Dee Myers to thank for this book, whose title echoes its quality.
Former President Bill Clinton’s press secretary was brainstorming with her husband, political writer Purdum, who was seeking a new book topic. Following the age-old wisdom of writing about something you know and love, she suggested he go with one of his lifelong abiding passions — the music and lyrics of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. The rest is happy reading history, with the end result one of the best performing arts titles we’ll likely experience this year. Purdum masterfully shows how the works of R&H became part of the wallpaper of American life in both subtle and obvious ways, and how they forged a singular path in musical theater history. I loved every word of it.
In high-quality, companionable prose, undergirded by a wealth of research, Purdum unspools the team’s story in don’t-want-to-put-it-down fashion. Both Dick and Oscar endured varying degrees of commercial success with other partners before teaming up in the early 1940s — Rodgers with the brilliant yet plagued-by-demons wordsmith Lorenz Hart, and Hammerstein with the dean of composers Jerome Kern, as they produced the seminal 1927 masterpiece Show Boat. But when Rodgers could no longer deal with Hart’s alcoholism and unreliability, a new creative dynasty arose.
Purdum takes readers chronologically through the men’s eventual partnership, beginning with 1943’s monumental Oklahoma! through 1959’s The Sound of Music, with Oscar’s 1960 death from cancer bringing a sudden end to an era. The blockbuster titles in between those bookends speak for themselves: Carousel; the Pulitzer-Prize-winning South Pacific; The King and I; the live television broadcast of Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews; Flower Drum Song. As we’ve witnessed in this current Broadway season alone, there’s always an R&H revival alive on the boards somewhere.
Along with the basic “what show premiered when” facts, Purdum offers a wealth of interesting supplementary material. He skillfully delineates Dick and Oscar’s differing personalities and modes of operation (e.g., they rarely wrote their music and words while sharing the same room). Dick became legendary for the speed with which he composed the melodies we all recognize, while Oscar usually labored more slowly and thoughtfully on his lyrics, though he was able to make lightning-fast word changes when needed.
We also learn about their political leanings (including Oscar’s extreme liberality and affiliation with organizations considered suspect per the McCarthy era), and their personal lives: both men wed women named Dorothy, step/fathered children, and broke their marriage vows on occasion. And both nurtured Achilles heels: Dick’s periodic bouts of severe depression, and Oscar’s somewhat standoffish approach to childrearing.
Oddly enough, neither man was ever completely convinced that his collaborator truly liked him, though Rodgers was clearly devastated by Hammerstein’s death. (He wasn’t alone. On the occasion of Oscar’s passing, choreographer Agnes de Mille offered: “What a heritage he left us!....Girls and boys are going to talk with his words, with his point of view, long hence, and may perhaps not be aware whom they quote. He will be in the air they breathe.”)
Purdum seamlessly utilizes Dick’s and Oscar’s own words in illustrating their life story as a team — quotes from personal letters and interviews abound. And he offers musical theater aficionados additional treats, as he periodically quotes and compares early drafts of Hammerstein lyrics with their final completed versions: e.g., “If I Love You,” “Edelweiss,” “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” and others. Such interjections illustrate the skill and humanity Oscar brought to his legendary songs — the same craft that he generously shared with young “Stevie” Sondheim, to whom Hammerstein became a mentor and surrogate father.
In tandem with their artistic creativity, both Rodgers and Hammerstein were also astute businessmen, and Purdum consistently integrates details of song copyrights secured, deals negotiated, contracts signed and corporations established as the men strove to protect their creative property and to maximize their benefits therein.
Their business acumen aside, however, not everything touched by Dick and Oscar turned to never-ending lines around the box office during their years together. Among their less successful efforts — at least financially — were Allegro (1947), Me and Juliet (1953), and Pipe Dream (1955). These seeming failures deeply disappointed the men at the time, although Pipe Dream was briefly resurrected in 2012 thanks to Broadway’s “Encores!” series.
Dick and Oscar would largely be dissatisfied with their blockbuster shows’ eventual film versions, with 1958’s South Pacific proving a particular letdown due to some ill-advised cinematographic decisions. For the most part, R&H and Hollywood would prove an uneasy mix during their partnership, though Rodgers did appreciate 1965’s The Sound of Music, made and released after Hammerstein’s death.
As much of a dual juggernaut as their collaboration would seem to be, however, Dick and Oscar never plied their trade in a vacuum, and Purdum offers snapshots of the many behind-the-curtain artists that formed the R&H creative team over the decades: Agnes de Mille; director Joshua Logan; producer Theresa Helburn; playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; author James Michener; orchestrator Richard Russell Bennett, composer/music arranger Trude Rittman, and set designer Jo Mielziner, among others.
And then there were the performers with whom we’ll long associate the R&H “brand”: Gertrude Lawrence, Yul Brynner, John Raitt, Ezio Pinza, Juanita Hall, Shirley Jones and arguably above all, Texas’s native daughter Mary Martin. (And as for Martin’s still-debated sexual orientation, Purdum offers for his part that she was “apparently sexually ambidextrous,” and maintained a “long and discreet relationship” with actress Janet Gaynor.)
Purdum keenly depicts the backstage sturm und drang faced by each R&H production, both pre-premieres and after the runs began, and often with humor. For example: at the premiere of Carousel, “Stevie” Sondheim wept “copious tears [at the] story of marital discord and parental regret… When the curtain at last rang down, tears were in order for another reason: the show had run four hours — 30 to 45 minutes too long.”
While Dick was determined to work with other collaborators after Oscar’s death, none of his subsequent shows, including No Strings (1962) Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965) and I Remember Mama (1979), came close to capturing the R&H magic. Rodgers also faced daunting health problems and died of cancer in 1979.
Even the team’s most celebrated output endured its share of criticism along the way. Their worldview, as expressed in Hammerstein’s optimistic and humanity-loving lyrics, may seem overly saccharine and unrealistic to contemporary ears, as it did even back in their heyday. But as Purdum suggests: “Whatever instinct guides creators to know just which stories will make satisfying and successful musicals, Dick and Oscar possessed it in spades. Like even the greatest sluggers, they produced their share of doubles. But their home runs have more than withstood the sternest test of all: the test of time.”
By paying heartfelt homage, in absolutely smashing fashion, to two remarkable creators who truly shaped the 20th-century entertainment landscape, Todd S. Purdum has brought us all delight, and much musical food for thought. This book should also pass that “sternest test of all” and become one for the ages. Bravo!
To Play Again: A Memoir of Musical Survival
By Carol Rosenberger
She Writes Press, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
I confess I was unfamiliar with the pianist Carol Rosenberger before this memoir came along. Mea culpa to me, as she has had a prolific recording, performing, teaching, and disc-producing career (as director of Delos Records) over the past four decades. But it’s primarily her struggles with physical challenges and their aftermath that form the basis of the story she now shares.
Born in 1933 Detroit, Rosenberger began her affair with piano at a young age. As she recalls: “I’d been playing piano for as long as I could remember…The sound drew me into it…it seemed to fill me and the space around me. Even then, I couldn’t get enough of that sound and the thrill of producing it.”
At age 21, while studying in Paris with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, she was stricken with paralytic polio — a frightening worldwide scourge during the 1950s. As I know from personal acquaintances who fell victim to the disease, polio’s effects and resulting degrees of disability could range from mild to severe. In Rosenberger’s case, her above-the-waist muscles — arms, back, hands — were hit hardest, thus directly affecting her functionality at a keyboard.
Understandably, losing her ability to perform and to complete other daily tasks requiring upper-body dexterity, was devastating. She remembers: “My lifelong bonding with the instrument, a kind of organic fusion, was too ingrained…The piano was at my very core; it meant life itself to me. To admit that my playing had gone the way of my hair-brushing or tea-drinking ability would have been equivalent to admitting to myself that I had died.”
But Rosenberger was nonetheless determined to find ways around her new reality. For 10 years, she consulted experts who partnered with her in eventually devising “work-around” performing techniques — subtle ways in which she could harness the muscle function she did have in order to compensate for what was she could no longer accomplish and do that harnessing subtly, in front of an audience. By the 1970s, with support from friends and medical/musical experts, Rosenberger was able to resurrect her piano career while also pursuing other facets of music-making.
Rosenberger is now 85, and her post-polio accomplishments have included recording and university-level teaching. She chronicles it all in this memoir, which is gracefully written. However, her copious detail regarding her post-disease decades eventually became somewhat tedious: I think her narrative could have been one-third shorter and yet still have been affecting.
She shares information on just about every friend and colleague in her life, as they all visited and/or resided together and separately in city after city, until her timelines became blurry in my mind. And when I became confused, I was unable to double-check exactly who each person was, as the book has no index. More editorial restraint regarding exactly what to include, or at least an index, might have been helpful.
However, this in no way detracts from Carol Rosenberger’s stellar musical and life accomplishments in the face of frightening physical hardship, and during an era obviously not as medically advanced as we now enjoy. Her story should be experienced and her resilience applauded.
Hand to God
By Robert Askins
Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 2016
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
In the interest of full disclosure: I bring history and baggage to writing about this play.
Provoked by the buzz I was hearing about it on the streets of New York, I saw its original Broadway production in 2015, and while I admired several of the performances and experienced a few moving moments, I was mostly just stunned. Prospective audience members should be forewarned, as I was not, of this black comedy’s extremely strong language and often cringe-worthy content.
Later, I tried evaluating the play from a more contemporary perspective, in contrast to the old-world theatrical viewpoint I had brought to my seat that night, but not all that successfully. When, a few months hence, a prominent Dallas theater’s artistic director who saw the same production agreed with my impressions, I remained pretty fixed in my opinion of the work after that, as long as the script itself was unavailable.
Well, we now have that script, so do I now have a new opinion of the work? Yes and no.
We’re in a Cypress, Texas, church basement, where well-meaning widow Margery runs the teen Christian Puppet Ministry, aka the “Chriskateers”: its reluctant membership includes her son Jason whose own hand puppet Tyrone has a perverse mind and vivid vocabulary all his own (channeled via his handler, of course). There’s also Pastor Greg with lascivious designs on Margery as he simultaneously preaches that old-time gospel; teenage town bully Timmy (with his own consummated lust for Margery), and finally Jessica, on whom Jason is crushing, and with a few weird notions of her own.
Small-town religious values and hypocrisy are humorous grist for the satiric mill, with Tyrone/Jason providing spirited commentary and inappropriate thoughts/actions of his/their own, in an undeniably demanding “dual role,” both physically and especially vocally. (The role’s Broadway originator, Steven Boyer, was deservedly Tony-nominated for his efforts, as was Geneva Carr as Margery.)
But there are poignant moments as well — Margery’s husband has died only recently, and as she and Jason each deal with their individual pain and mutual estrangement, their last-act epiphany is genuinely moving. As for Tyrone’s battle for Jason’s soul: it’s a close call.
So, bottom line? Hand To God offers some genuine satire, off-the-wall action, idiosyncratic characters and a tour de force performing opportunity for a puppeteer/actor, so that’s not bad. WaterTower Theatre’s upcoming production, directed by Joanie Schultz, will run in Addison Aug. 3-26. As for the rest, forewarned is forearmed, but Hand To God definitely won’t leave you opinion-less.
» 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.
- May 2018: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June 2018: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.