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From stage to page: books about Broadway to warm the winter nights

Posted by Jim Lopata  December 31, 2013 12:13 PM

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A couple of books about the entertainment industry promise to warm the hearts and minds of both gay and straight readers during the Winter doldrums.

by Loren King

Anything Goes bookcover.jpgAnything Goes: A History of the American Musical Theater
[Illustrated. 346 pages. Oxford University Press]
By Ethan Mordden

I’ve long been a fan of Ethan Mordden’s entertaining and insightful books on Hollywood and Broadway. His latest, Anything Goes: A History of the American Musical Theater traces the American musical rom the 1920s to the ‘70s.

There are terrific passages about the giants of the 1920s and 30s —Gilbert and Sullivan, Victor Herbert — followed by the decades that have come to be known as the Golden Era, with insights into the now-legendary musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Comden and Green.

With a readable scholarship, Morden explains why shows like Oklahoma! and South Pacific are timeless. He’s just as fascinating, like the teacher you wish you’d had, when he’s writing about the modern “pop operas” and shows he doesn’t particularly like, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (though he has such respect for what works in theater that his critiques are never dishy or dismissive.)

Sondheim, not surprisingly, gets a lot of ink, as do Broadway stars and the changing role of the star. The author devotes (deservedly so) a chapter to Ethel Merman who singlehandedly turned stardom inside out with her tour-de-force in Gypsy.

There is a lot of ground to cover in this book, but Mordden’s survey is both comprehensive and celebratory. An exhaustive discography closes the book, offering invaluable and listening and viewing opportunities to younger audiences who missed the era when the Great White Way was the epicenter of art and culture.

This is a must for devotees of musical theater.

Jack Be Nimble bookcover.jpgJack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director
[Illustrated. 352 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
By Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien may best be known for his Tony-winning direction of the musical Hairspray and Tom Stoppard’s Russian-set Coast of Utopia trilogy.

This memoir serves as a glorious window into a long and distinguished theater career, which began unassumingly in the late 1950s when O’Brien was a lyricist and actor studying at the University of Michigan.

It was there that a young touring company, called APA (Association of Producing Artists), took up residence. APA’s founder, artistic director and leading actor Ellis Raab, with his then-wife, Rosemary Harris, took the regional theater scene by storm and Raab became mentor and father figure to O’Brien and others, while shaking up Broadway with Ibsen and Ionesco; building the careers of actors such as Donald Moffat and Frances Sternhagen; reviving the career of Helen Hayes; and hiring Eva Le Gallienne to direct Uta Hagen in The Cherry Orchard.

O’Brien’s easy to digest memoir is open about his homosexuality but doesn’t deliver much dirt (for that, go back to the great Arthur Laurents’ memoir Original Story By).

Still, O’Brien’s lively work and conversational style captures the excitement of the theater scene at a specific place and time.

His respect for Rabb, with whom he had an eventual and unfortunate falling out, is clear throughout; in many ways, this book is a testament to him. [x]

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About the author: Boston Spirit Magazine’s daily blog brings you all of the information you need on New England’s LGBT community. In addition to highlighting local and national LGBT news, we will also highlight local leaders from the worlds of business, politics, fashion and entertainment and keep you up-to-date on all the latest events and parties, hot spots for travel, shopping, dining, and more!

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