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 have reviews of biographies of 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman and violinist Isaac Stern, and short takes on books about actor/activist Paul Robeson, early Black composer Florence Price, and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity
By Tana Wojczuk
Avid Reader Press, 2020
The name Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) likely rings few bells circa 2020, and that’s unfortunate. In the pre-YouTube, pre-CNN, pre-wall-to-wall news coverage era, aka the 19th century, she was widely acknowledged to be America’s finest actress and was undeniably the nation’s leading “celebrity” for a time. Tana Wojczuk’s brief but sparkling biography introduces us to both a fascinating era in theatrical history, and to an iconoclastic woman who embodied it all with talent and determination. She became largely identified with a particular body of work; as Wojczuk comments: “Throughout her career, she gave Shakespeare’s characters new life, keeping Shakespeare himself alive when his work could have become a dead thing on the page.” And on a personal level, Cushman consistently lived her life as she saw fit, as exemplified by her always-female romantic partners.
Cushman was born in 1816 Boston, and Massachusetts was always one of her home bases. She was forced to assume financial responsibility for her mother and siblings at a young age, leaving school early to start some sort of career, whatever it turned out to be. Probably opera, as Cushman by all accounts was blessed with an exceptional singing voice, ranging from soprano to her more natural contralto.
At a very early age, she did perform a few leading female operatic roles, but thus permanently strained her higher notes. Fortunately, she was advised by theatre managers of her acquaintance to try acting instead, and, astonishingly, made her stage debut as Lady Macbeth at age 19. She never looked back, despite the fact that young ladies making their living via the stage at this time were considered barely one step removed from prostitutes. Regardless, Cushman carried on, buoyed by her love for Shakespeare and the “classics,” and always motivated by the need to support her family.
At 5’7”, Cushman was tall for a woman of that era, and since her appearance and speaking voice always appeared somewhat “mannish,” it was perhaps inevitable that she would eventually tackle classic male roles such as Romeo and Hamlet, and so she did. But her celebrated female portrayals would include Nancy the prostitute from Oliver Twist, Queen Katharine from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, and, of course, Lady Macbeth. (Thanks to the latter role, Abraham Lincoln was her most ardent fan.)
Arguably, Cushman may have displayed a bit of Method acting in her role preparation: she often designed her own costume, arranged her own hair and makeup, and purposely kept herself separate from other cast members until moments before she was due on stage. Her unusual preparation worked: Charlotte Cushman soon became the most celebrated and idolized actress in America, with newspapers following her every move. After some periods of time spent performing in Europe, and traveling to theatres around the fledgling United States, Cushman gave her final stage performance, in Boston, in 1875.
Along the way, Cushman’s life was punctuated by several long-term relationships with women. These alliances were conducted matter-of-factly, though the actress made no effort to highlight their existence. Some naysayers putting two and two together may have looked askance at what appeared to be lesbian liaisons on her part, but Cushman was always determined to live without compromise. The worldwide professional adulation she created for herself carried the day. In 1876, Charlotte Cushman died of breast cancer in Boston, at age 59.
Author Wojczuk has given readers both a lively, fact-filled biography of an amazing woman forging a remarkable artistic path, and a keen portrait of American theatrical life circa the 19th century, as the acting profession was forced to justify itself as a safe and meaningful artistic endeavor. This author succeeds on both counts: her efforts are highly recommended.
The Lives of Isaac Stern
By David Schoenbaum
W.W. Norton & Company, 2020
As this brief but informative book amply conveys, violinist Stern (1920-2001) was undeniably a multi-hat wearer, and no one could have called him an “accidental tourist”: he and his “fiddle” traveled extensively throughout his career. And one evening in the 1990s, his performing road even brought him to Decatur, Ill., where I had the privilege of being an audience member myself.
While readers wanting copious detail about Stern’s life (especially the personal stuff, including his three wives) should probably look elsewhere, including perhaps his own 1999 memoir My First 79 Years, Schoenbaum delivers a perceptive view of Stern’s peripatetic existence. As the author says in his preface: “[Stern] lived four [notable] lives, consecutively and concurrently, as immigrant kid, world-class professional, public citizen, and go-to guy in a startling variety of ways for a startling variety of causes and people.” Accordingly, Schoenbaum perceptively divides his text into several major sections: “Immigrant,” “Professional,” and “Public Citizen,” into which details of Stern’s various activities skillfully fit.
Stern was born in 1920 Poland but, as an “immigrant,” was raised in San Francisco. Stern always denied he was a musical child prodigy, but his violin ability revealed itself early and he became prominent as a masterful teenage performer. As a “professional,” his paths intersected with orchestras, chamber music groups, impresarios, recording studios, US Presidents and grateful audiences around the world. As a “public citizen,” he became deeply involved with the fledgling state of Israel; made professional inroads to China, resulting in the Oscar-winning 1981 documentary From Mao to Mozart; consistently encouraged new young musical talent, including Midori, Yo-Yo Ma and Pinchas Zukerman among many others; and perhaps most visibly, at least in New York City, became a key figure in the rescue and eventual restoration of the legendary performance venue Carnegie Hall. Stern’s energies rarely flagged up to his death in 2001 at age 81. As he himself once observed: “You can’t divorce yourself from the world.”
Schoenbaum offers readers a fact-filled journey through Isaac Stern’s multi-faceted activities, but one that is also briskly entertaining, with occasional sardonic touches. Not all his chronicles may be equally riveting, but the cumulative end result is admirable. As he summarizes at one point: “[Stern] had made his way from the social periphery to the Big Apple, from the peaks of virtuosity to the profundities of chamber music, from working musician to civic monument, and from adolescent promise to a prominent obituary in the New York Times.” Lives well lived, for us all to share.
Here’s a brief look at some additional books you shouldn’t miss:
Sing and Shout: The Mighty Voice of Paul Robeson
By Susan Goldman Rubin
Calkins Creek Publisher, 2020
Oh, what a renaissance man was he! While many substantial biographies already abound detailing the life and works of this extraordinary artist, author Rubin offers a compact, though detail-packed, profile of the athlete/scholar/lawyer/actor/linguist/ singer/political activist, filled with interesting insight and lavishly illustrated with fine photographs. Robeson and his achievements as both performer and world citizen should never be forgotten, and Rubin’s absorbing book helps guarantee that fate will never arrive.
They Made Us Happy: Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s Musicals & Movies
By Andy Propst
Oxford University Press, 2019
I once saw a magazine article for which celebrities had been asked with what famous person(s), alive or dead, s/he would most like to spend an evening. My own choice, Broadway nerdette that I am: Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The sheer volume of both stage and screen works created and/or nurtured by this amazing duo, and the celebrity paths they crossed, still inspire my awe. To name a few: Singin’ In the Rain, Auntie Mame, On The Town, Bells Are Ringing, Will Rogers Follies, Band Wagon, Subways Are For Sleeping, Hallelujah Baby, Applause, On The Twentieth Century and many others. In the pair’s first dual biography, author Propst chronologically outlines their lives and works, separately and as a team. General readers, along with those with nostalgia in their veins, will enjoy this homage.
The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price
By Rae Linda Brown
University of Illinois Press, 2020
The hills are alive with the sound of Florence Price’s music these days. My Urbana, Illinois 24/7 classical station programs her by the hour, it seems. And justifiably so: Price (1887-1953) was the first African-American woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, and her lifetime compositional output was astounding in its quantity and variety. Brown offers both an overview of Price’s life and also selected analyses of her compositions. While some sections of the text may be better suited to musical scholars and professionals, Brown performs a welcome and timely service in acquainting general readers with an amazing woman who contributed so much to both my local music station’s playlists, and to orchestral repertoire everywhere.
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
- July/August: A biography of the 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