In Pages from the Arts we review books on the subjects of 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, who has retired from the Dallas Public Library and is now based in Urbana, Ill.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts, we look at a biography of the great singer Odetta, a dishy chronicle of the making of the film Valley of the Dolls, and Andy Propst's thoughts on the 100 most important people in musical theater.
Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest
By Ian Zack
Beacon Press, 2020
One of the joys of being a biography nerd arrives when I’m able to learn more about a famous figure who’s heretofore existed only as a shadowy name in my consciousness. One of those names for me had been Odetta, the legendary folk singer of the 1950s and beyond, but author Ian Zack has now enlightened all of us about this singular woman.
Odetta Holmes was born in 1930 Birmingham, Ala., but was mainly raised in Los Angeles. Her unique singing voice was noticed when she was still a child, and her operatic training began at age 13, though even at that age, she doubted the Metropolitan Opera would ever have space in its ranks for a large, dark-skinned woman. In the late 1940s, Odetta joined a professional theatre company, and eventually fell in with some “young balladeers” in San Francisco. After 1950, she focused exclusively on performing folk music.
Her journey to prominence began with sporadic club and college campus dates, her repertoire embracing mainly spirituals and traditional folk songs, many emanating from the slave tradition. By the mid-1950s, she began recording albums as her reputation spread. Along the way, Odetta served notice that she would be an atypical African-American performer: she ceased straightening her hair, becoming the first well-known Black woman to sport an Afro. This was revolutionary in Black entertainment circles at the time, and proved she was a figure to be reckoned with.
In 1959, Odetta appeared with Harry Belafonte on a nationally televised music special, Tonight With Belafonte, a groundbreaking broadcast which lifted her to further prominence.
As the American civil rights struggle began taking shape, so too did Odetta’s influence within the rising folk music revival. Author Zack does a fine job in outlining the parallel development of both movements in U.S. society at the time, while also illustrating Odetta’s participation in, and influence upon, both. This book thus offers much as an American social history primer of sorts, as well as a biography.
For the most part, Odetta was not a “marcher,” or an active hands-on participant in the Civil Rights Movement’s nuts- and- bolts functioning, choosing instead to be “one of the privates in a very big army,” though she did perform at the 1963 March on Washington and was a favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr.. But her impressive presence, undeniable talent, and consistent choice of material conveyed her own fight for freedom and equality. Other fledgling folk singers soon fell under her spell, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
Odetta recorded numerous albums throughout her career, though her periodic forays into musical genres other than pure folk offered mixed results. Two of her signature songs were “Water Boy” and her own pieced-together “Freedom Trilogy.” She also displayed acting talent on several popular television shows of the era, including Have Gun, Will Travel, and in films such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
In later decades, Odetta and the world witnessed the slow descent of folk music’s popularity in deference to the rock revolution. Times were subsequently not always easy for her, though she still attempted to remain musically viable as she grew older. Yet her album output did not slacken, and her later shift to the blues idiom brought her a new level of prominence. Fortunately, YouTube features many Odetta performances.
In her last years, Odetta received several honors for her life’s work including a National Medal of the Arts and Humanities from President Bill Clinton. She died at age 77 in 2008, a month after Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency.
Zack offers a well-written, balanced view of Odetta, the musical trailblazer and American historical icon. As he states: “All [African-Americans] owe a debt to Odetta, whose courageous example wended its way through the culture, from the world of entertainment to the campus commons, the activist enclave, and the uptown hair salon.”
I thank Ian Zack for enlightening this particular biography nerd and making one of those far-away names in her consciousness finally spring to life.
Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!: Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, the Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time
By Stephen Rebello
Penguin Books, 2020
When a book’s back cover promises the volume will offer readers “intrigue, rivalries, bitchery, betrayals and feuds,” what’s not to love? And when all those promises surround one of the most popular Bad Movies ever made, don’t even try resisting temptation. I sure didn’t, and I’m now happy to tell the tale.
Valley of the Dolls, made in 1967 and based on the mega-blockbuster novel by Jacqueline Susann, has become in the 50+ intervening years one of the Movies We Love to Hate, and a fixture on many Worst Movies of All Time lists. Maybe justifiably so, but as Stephen Rebello relates in his fascinating book, the ill-fated epic has indeed survived the naysayers and even achieved its own bit of immortality, having been selected for the Criterion Collection, i.e., films proclaimed among cinema’s best (or at least, ones not to be forgotten) of all time. This thoroughly researched work will appeal to both naysayers and devoted fans alike.
The original novel was a publishing juggernaut in every way, bolstered by author Susann’s promotional zeal. Most fiction critics found the book dreadfully written and overly explicit for its day, but readers devoured it. A film version was inevitable, although those involved knew the finished product would need to be as eye-catching and sensational as its source material. And so it would become, albeit in unanticipated ways and not to everyone’s satisfaction. As Rebello comments in his introduction: “…Valley turned out to be clumsy, tone-deaf, unhip, quaint, unintentionally hilarious, and strangely unsexy. Aside from a meant-to-be-shocking naughty word dropped here and there, the movie played like a mash-up of dozens of old movies I’d already seen on the Late Late Show…” He then tells us how it all happened.
Rebello takes readers step by step through the process of Valley creation, starting with the novel’s first appearance and moving through its adaptation’s various troubled stages. In doing so, he offers a commendably thorough view of how movie blockbusters came to exist back in the volatile 1960s: his observations are both enlightening and entertaining.
No aspect of cobbling together a film version of previously published material is ignored here. Rebello devotes chapters to Valley’s screenwriting, costuming, cinematography and set design, musical scoring, casting, advance promotion, and much more, highlighting all conflicts and controversies. (Watch for a few familiar names in the mix, e.g., Andre Previn and a very young John Williams.) The director — or “perpetrator,” as one crew person put it — Mark Robson, was thoroughly disliked by many, including at least one of the leading ladies; his clashes with Patty Duke in the role of Neely O’Hara would become legend.
As for casting, Rebello offers fascinating glimpses of what might have been, e.g., Candice Bergen as Anne Welles instead of Barbara Parkins and Barbra Streisand rather than Patty Duke. As it turned out, each of the ultimately chosen star actresses brought along her own issues and baggage, making for an often-volatile mix.
While Sharon Tate as Jennifer North was apparently loved by all (and watching her performance still saddens me in light of the horrific death awaiting her just a few years hence), such could not be said for Parkins and Duke, who barely tolerated each other and did not play well with others. Unfortunately, Duke was experiencing the early throes of the bipolar illness which would not be diagnosed for over 10 years to come; decades later, after she resumed a normal life thanks to lithium, her attitude toward Valley and its participants would mellow considerably.
Arguably, the saddest single controversy plaguing the production was the dismissal of Judy Garland from the role of Helen Lawson; the gig would have been the legend’s first screen appearance in several years and perhaps the acting comeback for which both she and her legion of fans had been hoping. But she was in bad shape: physically weak, psychologically insecure, and still given to professional unreliability. Garland was only to appear in a handful of scenes, but when her chronic lateness and frequent disappearances surfaced yet again, Robson, et al, felt she had to go. Her replacement was Susan Hayward, who brought her own challenges and quirky diva behavior to the table, all adding to the heady, unappetizing stew Valley was rapidly becoming.
Despite copious sturm und drang, the movie finally opened to the public in December 1967, and while many flocked to the theaters just to see what all the advance (mostly bad) publicity was all about, film critics had a field day decrying the final product. The more I myself rewatch Valley, the more convinced I am that the cobbled-together screenplay by Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley is our main villain: its painful superficiality practically guaranteed overacting, and things went downhill from there.
Boiling a 500+ -page potboiler down to just over two hours running time would have been a challenge under any conditions: failure on various fronts was perhaps inevitable. But as we all know, Valley of the Dolls would assume a cult shimmer of its own and ultimately become immortal in ways both good and regrettable.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I thank Stephen Rebello for creating a far meatier reading experience than one might expect in light of his text’s carnival-barker title and neon-glow cover. It’s required reading for all Valley fans, of course, but also highly recommended as a postmortem view of the birth of a blockbuster, circa the 1960s.
The 100 Most Important People in Musical Theatre
By Andy Propst
Rowman & Littlefield, 2019
Assembling lists of the “best” or “most” in any category can become an unending parlor game, though we can hope some sensible parameters are provided along the way. Author Propst declares in his preface that, after long consideration, the only “limit” he set on his content was the year 1870 as a “start date.” Beyond that, I don’t clearly sense what other criteria he used. He hopes his end result will be a “starting point for thinking about the incredible array of people who have shaped this genuinely unique American art form.”
That it is, in several ways, but, to my eyes, egregious gaps abound, especially in the “female performer” category. While Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald made the cut, we have no Julie Andrews, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster or (sorry, Texas) Betty Buckley. As for the men, no Richard Kiley, Robert Preston, Ray Bolger, Raul Julia, John Raitt, Joel Grey, Gregory Hines or Brian Stokes Mitchell. As creators, no George C. Wolfe, Bartlett Sher, Susan Stroman or Julie Taymor.
To quote Yul Brynner, another non-starter, ‘tis a puzzlement. Maybe using the phrase “most important” in the title was a misstep, overly pregnant with personal value judgment. So, while this book does offer much, readers beware: let the (parlor) games begin…
So that’s the bad news. The good news here is that Propst does include among his chosen 100 many seminal musical theatre figures from behind the backdrops including book writers, set designers, lyricists, cast album producers, orchestrators, and entrepreneurs: folks who undeniably deserve the recognition they’re now receiving. While, perhaps inevitably, the vast majority of them are white males, the likes of Dorothy Leigh, Chita Rivera, Ethel Waters, Agnes de Mille, Jeanine Tesori, Ethel Merman, and Mary Martin also surface. We can only hope for an updated edition someday, allowing Propst ample space to fill in the obvious gaps.
Entries are listed alphabetically by last name, each piece running about three pages with a “just the facts” approach, albeit all well written. In addition, Propst includes a bibliography with “general background” titles plus “biographies and memoirs”. And he offers an extensive photographic section featuring most, if not all, of his subjects.
In summary, as far as it goes, this book will provide solid thumbnail sketches for those seeking an overview, albeit limited, of musical theatre’s core movers and shakers, and a possible jump-off point for further research. Andy Propst’s effort is solid as far as it goes: let’s hope for many more inclusive volumes to come.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February: 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: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April: 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: 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: 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: 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: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September: A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
- November: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
- May: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
- July: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.
- August: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.
- October: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse
- November: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.
- December: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band's Visit.
- February: A book about the past and future of the New York City Opera; the script to Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man
- March to October: On hiatus
- November/December: A memoir by Dallas arts philanthropist Donna Wilhelm, trailblazing women of comedy, a rembrance of Woodstock, and the script of Elise Forier Edie's The Pink Unicorn.
- January/February Chicago-based theater critic Karen Topham reviews P. Carl's Becoming a Man; and Cathy Ritchie reviews new biographies of actress Elaine Stritch and blues-rocker Janis Joplin, and a detailed look at a great American story-song.
- March/April: a new memoir from actor Gary Sinise, a biography of Ray Bolger, and a guide to Sci-Fi cinema.
- May/June: New biographies of actors and writers Carrie Fisher and Patty Duke