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:
By Andrew Lloyd Webber
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is now 70 years old, and in celebration of that milestone, he has offered us a lengthy but engrossing look at his career—to a point. Those hungry for dish (and that includes myself) on the 1994 Patti LuPone/Glenn Close/Sunset Boulevard debacle will need to wait for what will apparently be his “Volume 2.” His current presumed “Volume 1” covers his life from birth through Phantom of the Opera. The lack of Andrew/Patti fisticuffs may be a bit disappointing, but there’s still plenty for diehard ALW fans and general readers to digest.
The man described by the New York Times as “the most commercially successful composer in history” was born to musical parents in Kensington, London in 1948. He showed keen early interest in, and aptitude for, music in general and composing in particular, though he also embraced architecture, which would become an additional lifelong passion. At age 17, he met the 20-year-old budding lyricist Tim Rice, and the team slowly began collaborating, with their most successful early work, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, appearing in 1970. The Lloyd Webber musical theater juggernaut was on its way.
ALW takes readers through the creation of the subsequent shows with which legions are familiar: Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, Starlight Express, Song and Dance (originally known as Tell Me On A Sunday) and, of course, the immortal Phantom. Along the way, we are treated to the casting, production and financial challenges that faced each of these undertakings, and become familiar with the names Cameron McIntosh, Trevor Nunn, Elaine Paige, the late Gillian Lynne, and other “Britishers” on his path. In fact, much of his narrative is indeed, though understandably, very British-oriented vis-à-vis name-dropping of people and places perhaps unfamiliar to those on this side of the pond, but not to an extent that would derail reader attention.
ALW also shares his personal life during these years. In 1971, at age 23, he married a younger woman named “Sarah H,” for our purposes, and they remained a seemingly devoted couple for over 12 years as they weathered the composer’s early career development and her serious struggle with diabetes while raising two children. Then along came “Sarah B,” aka, Sarah Brightman. ALW confesses with chagrin that he committed adultery even before falling in love with Sarah B; the dissolution of his union with Sarah H. was painful, but they reportedly remain friendly to this day. (His eventual marriage to Brightman also ended in divorce, but as of 2018, ALW has been happily wed for almost 30 years to wife No. 3—named Madeleine this time—while fathering three more children.)
What struck me most vividly about this memoir was ALW’s enormous sense of humor—the man is immensely witty. Who knew? Guess I didn’t.
Here’s a sampling:
“…I got into some near misses with local youths who did not take kindly to an effeminate boy in a small school suit clutching poncy architectural guidebooks. As a result of this I discovered I wasn’t totally unathletic. I could run.”
“[With] ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’… I was desperately thinking of ways to make the arrangement interesting. The conundrum was becoming as intractable as giving King Kong a bikini wax.”
“The period between the end of rehearsals and the first dress rehearsal [of a production] is called ‘technicals.’ I advise any new writer to take a holiday during technical. They redefine watching paint dry.”
As a non-Andrew Lloyd Webber aficionada or groupie, I’m hard-pressed to judge this book based solely on the quality or accuracy of its content, but author ALW never loses reader attention and offers much behind-the-scenes reminiscence and reflection on what has undeniably been a starry and storied career. It’s enjoyable.
As he says in conclusion: “As I approach my 70th birthday, I look back and think again how lucky I have been. You are very lucky if you know what you want to do in life. I am doubly lucky that I not only have made a living out of my passion but a hugely rewarding one…In our increasingly dangerous and fractured world, the arts have never been as vital as they are today.”
So true—just don’t forget about that “Volume 2,” Sir Andrew!
Failing Up: How To Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning
By Leslie Odom, Jr.
Feiwel and Friends, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
No one admires the talent and accomplishments of Lin-Manuel Miranda more than I, but I was nevertheless delighted when Leslie Odom, Jr., a 2016 Hamilton co-nominee with Miranda for the Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award, won the prize for his portrayal of Aaron Burr. While I have yet to see the show itself, Odom’s superb vocal performance on the show’s Grammy-Award-winning cast album told me all I needed to know about this man as both singer and actor.
But there’s obviously much more to learn, as Odom has also become a writer since his Hamilton triumph. His reader-friendly combination memoir/motivational guidebook is being marketed to both adults and younger readers; while I don’t think children would glean all that much from it, young adults may. Odom directs his content to both those already on a career/life trajectory, and to those still formulating their own paths to follow. And he interjects just enough autobiography into his narrative to likely satisfy those simply wanting to know more about his own artistic beginnings and challenges.
Odom was born in Queens and raised in Philadelphia, where he was greatly influenced and mentored by elementary school teachers. His singing talent manifested itself early, with the groundbreaking Rent a major musical inspiration; as a teenager in 1998, he was actually able to appear briefly as Paul in that very Broadway production. He eventually received a degree from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.
Odom’s passion for theatre and performing would take him beyond the East Coast, specifically to Los Angeles, where “tokenism” became an underlying reality of his attempts to find work. As he puts it: “Tokens are window dressing mostly. They’re props. You can make a living as a token, but you’ll long for more.” He has taken artistic and personal risks for his career (such as moving to LA in the first place), and exhorts readers not to fear doing so in their own lives.
And then along came Hamilton, and Odom’s life would forever change, as would the American musical theater landscape. As he recalls: “Hamilton seemed to have a healing and disarming emotional power from the outset. During more than a year and a half of readings and rehearsals, I witnessed the reactions of hardened, jaded professionals from various facets of the entertainment business as they reconnected with childlike wonder and sometimes tears—as I had the first time I saw it. Love was my way into Lin’s work and to Aaron Burr.”
Today, 37-year-old Odom is a husband, father, and successful recording artist with several solo CDs to his name. While this book may not offer any profoundly original self-help notions, it still reveals a thoughtful man with talent to spare and a strong belief in personal boundary expansion and inner fearlessness.
He concludes: “Actors are our avatars. They are our stand-ins. When a performer stands onstage and bares her soul, she bares her soul for all of us. When a man stands on a stage and lets his heart break, he lets it break for all of us….We translate the pain and discord, the joy and sadness, and majesty—all of it—through our art.”
A Doll's House, Part 2
By Lucas Hnath
Theatre Communications Group, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
When Nora Helmer slammed her front door in 1879 Norway to embark on a new life of self-discovery and presumed freedom, leaving behind husband and children, the reverberations of that act echoed throughout all of modern drama to come. Since its debut, Henrik Ibsen’s seminal work A Doll’s House has arguably never left audience consciousness. And the question has lingered: whatever happened to Nora?
In 2017, playwright Lucas Hnath offered a possible answer in his “sequel,” logically titled A Doll’s House, Part 2. It made its Broadway debut that year with the starry cast of Laurie Metcalf as Nora, Chris Cooper as husband Torvald, Jayne Houdyshell as housekeeper Anne Marie and Condola Rashad as daughter Emmy. All four performers would be Tony-nominated for their efforts, with Metcalf winning for Best Actress in a Play. I was fortunate enough to be in one of the many audiences eager for an answer to that “whatever…?” question. Luckily, Hnath’s script is now available, with much meaty content therein which definitely escaped me somewhat the first time around.
Since her sudden departure, Nora has become a famed author of what we would call “feminist” books, urging her women readers to shun marriage altogether and to seek out lives of freer and better fulfillment. However, a problem has arisen: it seems that Torvald never did finalize their divorce at his end, so the couple is still legally married—bad news for Nora on several fronts.
Hence her unexpected reappearance 15 years later: she needs Torvald to make things right by truly setting her free. But in the meantime, Nora must confront Anne Marie, who more or less raised her children in their mother’s absence; her only daughter Emmy, who barely knows Nora and cares for her even less; and of course, the man of the hour, husband Torvald himself. Along the way, we’re treated to some interesting and not-altogether-unconvincing arguments from Nora regarding marriage and singleness—substantial and thought-provoking.
In fact, this entire script was a more enjoyable read than I had anticipated, and whets my appetite for seeing the show again, as it also offers stellar acting opportunities for all involved. Fort Worth’s Stage West will offer the regional premiere of A Doll’s House, Part 2 October 25-November 25. Worth a look and especially, a listen.
Editor’s note: Stage West’s production overlaps with WaterTower Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, adapted by Joanie Schultz. On Nov. 3, the theaters have a cross-promotional event in which you can see the WaterTower matinee at 2 p.m. and the Stage West evening show at 8 p.m. Look for details coming on TheaterJones, as well as a podcast about Ibsen.
» Pages from the Arts now appears on the third 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.
- August 2018: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.