A couple of years ago, when going to live performances became impossible, I came up with the idea of doing a month of Reading the Theatre — reading all kinds of books from and about the world of the performing arts. Although the idea has not caught on more widely in the blogosphere, I find that I still get quite a lot of enjoyment out of it all on my own. A month-long intensive works best, because I find that one thing leads to another — there are always connections to be made between various creators and works, sometimes quite surprising ones. I’m happy to share what I discovered this month with you, in the hopes that something will strike a chord. Any time is a good time for Reading the Theatre!
One of the first books I read this month was Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers (with Jesse Green). I’d been curious to get a hold of this, as it came out shortly after I read Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution for RTT last year, but I saved it up for this month. And what a terrific opener it was! Mary, the daughter of Richard Rodgers and a talented composer in her own right, had an excellent amaneusis in Jesse Green, who put together years of interviews into a hilarious, dishy, and outrageous take on the Broadway scene. Though she came of Broadway royalty, Mary was in many ways a poor little rich girl, given the undercurrent of sadness emanating from her parents’ dysfunctional marriage — yet she does not let her relationship woes or career struggles quell her acerbic spirit, and her story is ultimately inspiring. One feels as if one has gained a new, witty and “alarmingly outspoken” friend, who is not afraid to tell it like it is, or to laugh at herself. Highly recommended for all theatre fans, and my first 5-star book of the year.
After Rodgers inimitable snark, Judi Dench’s And Furthermore… was a bit of a let-down — much milder in tone, as the happily-one-time-married and very diplomatic author seemed determined not to say a bad word about anyone, with the exception of a few directors. It was still enjoyable for its backstage stories, and I learned a good deal about Dench that I didn’t know — e.g. she was slated as the original Grizabella in Cats, for example, until she tore her Achilles tendon. Nevertheless, she insists this is “not a memoir” and merely a sort of supplement to the biography that was previously written about her. It would be interesting to read more about her from another perspective.
For something entirely different, I read My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes, best known for writing the book for Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musical, “In the Heights.” Her memoir is largely about the years before she even thought of being a playwright; she studied music at Yale, yet ultimately the music of words called to her. Coming to terms with her multi-ethnic heritage, which means with multiple languages and spiritual streams, along with the tragedies that stalk her Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia, makes for a very rich, evocative, and sometimes dreamlike narrative.
Several of Mary Rodgers’s funny/sad stories concern the many ill-fated projects she got involved in, following her one Broadway hit, “Once Upon a Mattress.” One of these was a proposed musical adaptation of the famous semi-autobiographical play by Welshman Emlyn Williams, “The Corn Is Green.” The idea was to update the script and move it to the American South, with a Black man taking the place of Williams’s untutored miner boy. It could have worked, but the problem was that rather than allowing a Black writer to do the rewrite, Williams wanted to take it on himself and the results were terrible. Mary Rodgers got out of that project, but it went on to have a disastrous run that even Bette Davis (star of the 1945 film version of the play) could not redeem.
At any rate, this made me curious to read the source material, The Corn Is Green — so I did. It was definitely dated and full of one-sided, stereotypical characters, but the two starring roles still have great potential, and a recent production from the National Theatre sounded interesting; innovations included putting a figure representing the author on stage with the actors, and adding a chorus of miners. It’s not presently available online, but if it comes up on the NT site I’d be interested to watch it.
I also read The Cherry Orchard, a play that Judi Dench has starred in several times, very early in her career as the young girl, Anya, and later as her mother, Madame Ranevskaya. This was my first Chekhov, and I found it a bit baffling until I found some performances to watch (see below). It’s a difficult play to pin down; Chekhov said it was a comedy with elements of farce, and there are a number of farcical situations and speeches, but also much melancholy in the situation of a family about to lose their home. On the other hand, this is a feckless family of aristocrats who formerly owned serfs, that is, slaves — imagine a play about a family in the American South mourning the loss of their old plantation, as the son of one of their former slaves tries to get them to save it by selling off the cotton fields they don’t use any more, yet cannot bear to let go of. I wonder if that’s the ironic spirit that Chekhov had in mind, when he called this a farce.
Theatrical mysteries are somehow especially enticing to me — maybe because there is inevitably so much acting and dissembling involved already, as a crime is being investigated. This month I read three mysteries with backstage elements: Ruddy Gore, Death of a Hollow Man, and Death Ex Machina. All of them, as it turned out, revolved around an onstage death or near-fatal collapse turning into a real one. (Respectively, these were Sir Ruthven’s agonies brought on by the ghosts of his ancestors in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore; Salieri’s slicing of his own throat at the end of Amadeus; and an imagined play by Sophocles, Sisyphus, in which the god of death, Thanatos, appears in the guise of a hanged man.)
Some clever ideas there, but all suffered from the implausibility that bothers me in most mysteries — the unlikelihood that an actual cut-throat razor would be used in a theatrical production, for example. Plus, it seems that nearly all the characters in a mystery always have to be unlikeable, because as readers it’s not much fun to have characters we like and sympathize with emerge as either victims or murderers.
Death Ex Machina, part of a series set in Ancient Greece with a crime-solving couple, was certainly the most fun and I might check out more from this series; I’m not sure about the others.
I resorted to YouTube this year for some vintage footage. There’s a very poor recording of an abridged TV broadcast of Once Upon a Mattress, which is nevertheless invaluable for giving us the chance to see Carol Burnett in the role that seems tailor made for her. (One of the surprising things we learn from Mary Rodgers is that it wasn’t — Nancy Walker had been tapped to play the role, but the director wanted to create a new star rather than rely on an existing one. In that he succeeded.)
Then there are some clips of Judi Dench as Anya in the 1962 production of The Cherry Orchard. In her book she describes how the director of the first picked on her and made her miserable, partly by insisting that she reproduce a trilling laugh as performed by the actress in a recent Moscow production. The laugh is there! It’s interesting to compare to the 1982 version, which can be viewed (though chopped up) in full; 20 years later one can see a kinship between this girl and the woman playing her mother. The actress playing Anya to Dench’s Ranevskaya is far more dull and solemn.
I watched some clips of In the Heights, though not the full movie (I wish I’d been able to catch the stage production, which sounds amazing). And I wanted to see the stage play of Amadeus, which judging from the novel in which it played an important role, appears to have significant differences from the film version I know.
There is a recent National Theatre production that can be rented online, but the actor playing Mozart seemed too irritating in that one. Instead, I found an audio recording of the original cast, including Paul Scofield and Simon Callow, and it was terrific to hear their masterful vocal art. The original play really is quite different from the film, with a very small cast, giving Salieri’s role even more weight. Scofield’s brilliant performance must have been quite something to see. “What use after all is man, if not to teach God his lessons?”
I enjoyed All of a Kind Family, but had not read any of the sequels, so when I saw that the final book of the series, Ella of All of a Kind Family, concerned the titular character’s venture into vaudeville, I thought I’d give it a try. It seemed to be trying to do too many things at once, though, and it had the feel of a fragmented rather than a united narrative. Also, (spoiler alert) since Ella turns out to hate vaudeville and decides on marriage instead, it was something of a letdown in regard to the theme.
But to end the month on a much more satisfactory note, I came across a marvelous novel about the making of a musician, Body and Soul by Frank Conroy. The central character is a young boy growing up poor and neglected on Third Avenue in 1950s New York City; a small nightclub piano mysteriously lodged in his room becomes his solace, and his musical talent comes to the attention of a local music-store owner, and then to wealthier and more influential patrons.
Although in some ways he leads a charmed musical life, eventually he has to come to terms with the emptiness and loss that remain at the core of his existence, the mystery of his origins, and find a way to break through these obstacles to the creative life he is born for. With a fair amount of technical language, I’m not sure how much this would appeal to anyone who doesn’t play the piano or at least some kind of instrument, but if you do, it’s a great pleasure to find the ineffable joys of music so compellingly described.
So there you have it: my month of Reading the Theatre, 2023 edition. Do any of these call to you? What shows have you read or watched lately, or want to see?