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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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:
Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical
By Kevin Winkler
Oxford University Press, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
When someone has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award, s/he becomes an EGOT—or is it TOGE? GEOT? ETOG? Since I’m no fan of anagrams, moving on…
Very few creative artists have deserved that singular four-letter description, but Bob Fosse was one of them. As his earlier biographies now lining bookstore and library shelves verify, Fosse was many things: film and stage performer, choreographer, director, co-author, and film editor. But this particular book’s cover photo perhaps says it all: Fosse in motion, demonstrating a move, perpetual cigarette in mouth. As Kevin Winkler reminds us in convincing fashion, Fosse’s reason for artistic being began and ended in dance.
Winkler gives us solid biographical detail while describing Fosse’s role(s) as choreographer and/or director of his familiar and seminal stage musical works: Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, Redhead, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Pippin, Chicago, Dancin’, Big Deal and more. We learn of Fosse’s long personal and professional collaboration with Gwen Verdon, his third wife and mother of his only child Nicole, plus not so arguably the greatest female dancer in musical theater history. (They would eventually separate but never divorce.)
And Fosse’s influential films are not neglected—from celluloid recreations of Sweet Charity and Cabaret (Best Director Oscar) to his non-musicals Lenny and Star 80, and of course, his thinly-disguised autobiographical 1979 cinematic tour de force All That Jazz (which, pre-DVD, yours truly paid to see four times). It’s all here, along with his groundbreaking 1972 TV special Liza With a Z, starring Liza Minnelli and bringing him an Emmy Award (thus his “E” in EGOT).
But what makes Winkler’s approach so welcome in this book is his keen ability to describe details of Fosse’s choreography—in general and in particular numbers—thus enabling readers to both readily picture said routines in mind’s eyes and simultaneously to marvel at Fosse’s inventiveness and idiosyncratic approach to stage movement. Winkler’s skill in this regard deserves high praise. (He also provides a two-page “Glossary of Dance Terms” before his narrative begins.)
As the author states in his introduction: “Fosse belonged to a rich lineage of Broadway choreographers who expanded their duties to include directing in the post-World War II era. Perhaps more than any other director-choreographer, he took the concept of ‘the Muscle,’ or complete control of his productions, to its furthest extent, eventually eliminating collaborators altogether.”
Was this all-in-one approach on Fosse’s part ultimately a healthy one? Perhaps not. Fosse was often a man obsessed by both work and other facets of his life, including his numerous girlfriends, 24/7 smoking (contributing to his later heart attacks and his death in 1987 at age 60), and battles royal with producers and others who would foolishly attempt to rein him in, among other challenges.
But, as Winkler illustrates, Fosse was often a caring mentor to his dancers, a loving father to Nicole, and a loyal compadre to both Verdon and the coterie of well-known male writers with whom he developed strong relationships over the years (perhaps most notably his best friend, the great Paddy Chayefsky, who Fosse would eulogize in 1981). The film All That Jazz, for all its dazzling excess and necessary fictionalization in parts, was not all that far off the mark.
Even as Fosse’s power and energy began to wane a bit in his later years, he continued seeking out new ideas and refreshing his previous works as illustrated by the 1978 compilation show Dancin’. His last production, 1986’s Big Deal, would win Fosse one final Tony Award for choreography.
As Winkler concludes: “Three decades after his death, Fosse’s ‘Muscle’ shows no sign of weakening. He remains both a touchstone for American theater dance, recognizable around the world, and a continuing source of inspiration for new artists.”
One doesn’t have to travel far to confirm that Winkler speaks the truth: Chicago, arguably Fosse’s best-known work, has been filling seats in Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre since 1996—“Muscle” indeed. Kevin Winkler’s fine book proves just what a “big deal” Bob Fosse truly was.
Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet
By Laura Jacobs
Basic Books, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Dance critic Jacobs purports to open up ballet horizons for both the interested layperson and the rank newcomer who knows nothing of entrechats or Rudolf Nureyev. While she didn’t fully accomplish her goal to my own satisfaction, she does highlight aspects of the art form I’ve not seen discussed to such extent elsewhere, so the book should prove useful from that standpoint.
Jacobs begins by declaring “…when it comes to ballet, looking and thinking, separate faculties at first, eventually begin to work as one faculty. Looking becomes a form of thinking…We begin to place our trust in visual echoes, references, and metaphors….That’s the way this art is. And while there is often consensus on what a gesture, a step, an entire ballet may mean, interpretations can also vary widely. We all bring our own history to the ballet, each of us with his or her own interpretative framework, and these too inform a performance.”
In the first part of this compact book, she manages to balance this early verbal flight of fancy with more concrete history and issues surrounding the art, including facets arguably not often emphasized. For example: she devotes chapters to ballet’s “first position,” including what it represents both literally and as the foundation for the art as a whole; the “pointe”; the arabesque; the pirouette; the “godfather of ballet” Tchaikovsky (“If you can’t bend the knee to Tchaikovsky, I’m not sure you can love ballet.”); and the significance of men in ballet even while ballerinas are more typically an audience’s focus. And as a ballet consumer advocate, she also provides a helpful glossary of terms frequently found in a performance program. Her narrative voice is largely colloquial as she intersperses humorous commentary on the lives and careers of ballet’s famous folk along with the plotlines of some seminal works.
However, when Jacobs attempts to describe actual ballet steps and stage action, she frankly loses me. Her language becomes more technical, esoteric and abstract (an odd combination, I admit) than might be absolutely necessary, and I find myself skimming and flipping in quest of more solid ground. Ideally, this book would come with DVD attached via which we could see examples of what she tries to depict in words alone. To be sure, not everyone will find her prose off-putting at these times, but I honestly do.
That said, this book definitely offers food for thought regarding unique aspects of a gorgeous art form to which attention surely must be paid. But as per Jacobs’ subtitle, “How to Look at Ballet,” seeking out additional perspectives on the topic might be worthwhile as well.
The Book of Broadway: The Definitive Plays and Musicals
By Eric Goode
Voyageur Press, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Quick: where’s the nearest coffee table? Or a door that needs propping open? Have I got a big ol’ book for YOU…But it’s a great one.
This tome is a Broadway junkie’s dream book, but it would also be a fine refresher for those who only periodically dip their toes into the stage world.
Grode offers a lavish, yet concise and entertaining summary of more than 150 plays and musicals that have contributed to theater history, up to and including Hamilton. The shows are presented in alphabetical order by title: each receives a two-page spread with several production photos, plot summary, number of original performances and awards won (if any), a listing of opening-night cast members, and its subsequent revivals and/or adaptations over the years. From Captain Jinx of the Horse Marines to Look Back in Anger, from Very Good Eddie to Clybourne Park, from The Black Crook to Wicked, it’s all here. But there’s even more.
Grode offers spirited, often tongue-in-cheek commentary on every show: sometimes adulatory, sometimes brimming with incredulity and understatement but always worth reading. Here’s a sampling:
On Cats: “ ‘Now and Forever.’ Over the 18 years during which Cats ran on Broadway, that tagline struck some as a promise and some as a threat.”
On Hair: “If director Tom O’Horgan had had his way, the cast of Hair would have lived in the Biltmore Theater, with audiences walking past makeshift clotheslines holding the performers’ laundry. Much of the theater community at the time gladly would have seen them stay in there, and never come out.”
On Jesus Christ Superstar: “It made its world premiere to overflow crowds and standing ovations in New York. The cast of 50 basked in the applause, then found their parents after the show. Many of them still needed to be driven home.”
On She Loves Me: “It opened in the same season as Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl, shows that make no apologies for wanting your love and standing ovations.”
On West Side Story: “[Stephen Sondheim’s] lyrics and Arthur Laurents’ book created a street-smart vernacular for the Jets and Sharks that put them a million miles away from 16th-century Italy, though the authors didn’t stray quite as far as they had wanted. That final line in “Gee, Officer Krupke”? “Krup you!”? Let’s just say that was a compromise.”
Finally, regarding The Miracle Worker, a subtle but telling tribute:
“Child actors tend to work better in smaller doses…Recent shows like Billy Elliot and Matilda have skirted the problem [of how much on-stage time child performers can comfortably handle] by fielding a small platoon of young actors who can share the workload.
And then there’s Patty Duke. Duke was 12 years old when she began playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Almost two years later, she was still playing her…”
This starry compendium is ideal for browsing, but those who choose to read it cover-to-cover, as did yours truly, will relish every page. The book may require some literal heavy lifting, but there’s much gold to be had for the effort.
» 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.
- July 2018: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.