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: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band's Visit.
Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance
By Wendy Lesser
Yale University Press, 2018 [Jewish Lives]
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
“Difficult as he was to work with, and he could be really mean—awful man—I would work with him again any time. The end product was worth it.”
So said Stephen Sondheim about one Jerome Robbins: dancer, choreographer, director, frequent tyrant, and musical auteur extraordinaire. This year, as the world justifiably celebrated Leonard Bernstein’s birth centenary, Robbins—just a few months Lenny’s junior—achieved the same milestone.
First, a sidebar for my fellow biography geeks. While many fine books have been written about Robbins’ undeniable impact on American theater and dance, this latest life exploration by Wendy Lesser is part of an outstanding series that comes to us via Yale University Press.
“Jewish Lives” offers compact yet fully researched stories of pivotal figures in politics, sports, the performing and visual arts, science and the law—from Sarah Bernhardt to Moshe Dayan to Lillian Hellman to Harvey Milk—with special emphasis on the subjects’ Jewish roots and personal practices. It is an exemplary series, and this fine work on Robbins is a worthy contribution to the collection.
Robbins was born Jerome Rabinowitz in October 1918 and as Lesser emphasizes throughout this book, his first identity was that of a dancer, and this mindset would infuse his entire life After several years with the American Ballet Theatre, his first “hit” would be the ballet Fancy Free in 1944. Later that year, Robbins conceived and choreographed On the Town, bringing him into collaboration with Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, as a result of which his Broadway career was launched. As theater history knows all too well, his future accomplishments as director and/or choreographer would include The Pajama Game; the groundbreaking West Side Story, including its film version; Bells Are Ringing; Gypsy; Peter Pan; and Fiddler On The Roof, among others.
Robbins also became embroiled in the political turmoil of his time, as per his testimony for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. He resisted “naming names” for several years, then eventually capitulated when he feared exposure of his sexual orientation. Many in the theatrical community never forgave him. He died in 1998 at age 80.
Lesser tackles the full range of Robbins’s achievements; however, per her subtitle, her emphasis is clearly on the dance in his life—specifically, ballet, to which he never stopped contributing. As she notes at one point: “It is as the director and choreographer of West Side Story that Jerome Robbins is still famous; it is the one thing about him that everyone now remembers. In fact, even Leonard Bernstein, to his distress, came to be known during his lifetime mainly as the composer of West Side Story. It was the kind of overwhelming public success that no one involved could escape from.”
But Robbins continued his association with and creativity for the Joffrey and New York City Ballets, and Lesser recognizes this via her analyses of what she considers his seminal dance creations—Goldberg Variations; Dances at a Gathering; The Cage; Afternoon of a Faun; In Memory Of…; and, to start it all off, Fancy Free. While not denying Robbins’s impact on Broadway and film choreography, she invites readers into the complete range of Robbins’s inspiration and productivity. Hopefully, performances of these works will be available on YouTube for generations to come.
Says Lesser: “Granted, Robbins did some great work on Broadway; no one who has seen Peter Pan or West Side Story can ever doubt that. But a lot of his musical-comedy work contains elements of coarseness, or sentimentality, or kitsch— qualities that are practically endemic to the genre—whereas the ballets are filled with a precise, deep-seated intelligence of a sort rarely credited to him.”
And on a more personal level: Lesser asserts that Robbins was in fact, bisexual, as he pursued significant romantic pairings with both men and women during his lifetime. That said, his closest, presumably non-sexual bond, was perhaps with legendary ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq (aka Mrs. George Balanchine No. 5), whose own remarkable career halted tragically when she contracted polio in 1956. Robbins’s and LeClercq’s friendship-verging-on-love ebbed and flowed both before and after her illness, and Lesser portrays it as arguably the defining relationship of Robbins’s life.
Wendy Lesser has given aficionados of biographies in general and the “Jewish Lives” series in particular a well-crafted and informative look at a multi-faceted, demanding and often loathed creator extraordinaire whose ripple effect on so many facets of the theatrical arts has never left us. So Happy 100th to you, too, Jerry.
A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera
By Vivien Schweitzer
Basic Books, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
I have several friends whose devotion to opera is all-consuming—even to Richard Wagner’s mega-marathon works. (Maybe especially to those!) My own allegiance to the art stems mostly from my interest in individual singers, rather than in the works themselves, though I do have a few favorite arias here and there.
My knowledge of opera has come to me through media osmosis and directed reading, so I probably have a decent level of awareness, but I’m always open to learning more. Therefore, I’m happy to recommend Vivien Schweitzer’s excellent guide, which should be a worthwhile read for both interested laypeople and the supremely opera-passionate folks among us, the ones who indeed love it madly.
She covers her topic chronologically, with concise yet fact-filled chapters jump-starting from Monteverdi and moving on to thematic discussions of bel canto; Wagner, Verdi, and the role of conductors; realism and verismo per Puccini, plus a look at Slavic opera; “dissonance” as per Alban Berg, with a side order of Benjamin Britten, and two concluding chapters on 21st century compositions and productions—in my opinion, the best sections of all.
In “Orpheus in the Twenty-First Century,” Schweitzer summarizes and critiques numerous contemporary works, offering a spot-on introduction to same for anyone yet to take the plunge past Tosca or La bohème. And in her concluding pages, she mixes humor with frankness in describing (and sometime decrying) the alleged excesses of modern-day “reinterpretations” of time-honored operatic warhorses. These two chapters offer a first-rate grounding vis-à-vis the state of opera creation and production, circa 2018.
Schweitzer’s narrative style is straightforward, yet she displays periodic tongue placed in cheek. For example, from her discussion of Richard Wagner: “Tchaikovsky compared leaving the theater after Gotterdammerung to being released from prison. Wagner described his style…as ‘endless melody,’ but to some it just felt, well, endless. Rossini famously quipped that Wagner had beautiful moments but bad quarters of an hour. He wasn’t wrong.”
This “introduction” is a fine way to begin exploring a unique and passion-inspiring musical genre. The author’s closing thoughts deserve to be quoted in full:
“Some observers have wondered whether opera, with its artifice, is a good fit for the 21st century. But perhaps the unrealism of opera renders it the ultimate art form for this century—an era of Photoshopped images in which people idealize their personal lives for public consumption on social media. Our era, with its digital disguises, is an unnatural one on many levels. Yet despite its artificial elements, opera, with its un-airbrushed emotions, is also the antidote to artificiality: you’re never unsure about what a character really feels. Opera—and the power of the human voice—provides the authentic and heart-wrenching catharsis so very much needed in our time.”
The Band's Visit
By Itamar Moses (script) and David Yazbek (lyrics and music)
Theatre Communications Group, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
No crashing chandeliers, no creatures on stilts, and not a jukebox in sight. But nonetheless The Band’s Visit was THE musical winner at the 2018 Tony Awards, proving that gentle, thoughtful material can still find a welcoming open door on Broadway. The libretto is now in book form, supplementing the earlier cast album (also available on CD at the Dallas Public Library, here).
The work musicalizes the 2007 film of the same name, which starred Sasson Gabai and the late Ronit Elkabetz. On this side of the pond, Tony Shalhoub portrayed Tawfiq, the leader of an Egyptian band that finds itself stranded in a tiny Israeli desert town, with Katrina Lenk as restauranteur/innkeeper Dina; both performers won Tony Awards for their portrayals, alongside Ari’el Stachel as Best Featured Musical Actor for his turn as Haled, a somewhat rebellious band member and would-be ladies man. During the one night that the musicians must take shelter among the citizenry, relationships are tested, possible new love flourishes, and past hurts are revisited and reconciled.
While the script adheres closely to the film’s screenplay, the song lyrics are a fine bonus. Arguably, Lenk’s solo “Omar Sharif” has received the most “airplay” this year; the song’s references to legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1898-1975) may have restored that performer to public attention, as well. (Footage of Kulthum is available on YouTube.)
It’s reassuring to know that the Broadway musical can still embrace seemingly simple stories with heart, and offer ample opportunities for moving encounters with memorable melodies and lyrics. Spend some time “visiting” with this “band,” as well.
» 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.
- August 2018: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September 2018: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.
- October 2018: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse
- November 2018: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.