Shakespeare-in-the-park season is almost over, and the regular theater season is about to pick back up again. Here are a few books to keep you occupied, whether you're waiting for that callback or for the curtain to rise.
While one might enjoy Song of Spider-Man (read my blog about it here) for its train-wreck hilarity, it's nice to see something in theater go right. So right, that it becomes one of the Great American Musicals. Such is the case in Tradition! Barbara Isenberg's account of the development, Broadway success, movie, and all around phenomenon of Fiddler on the Roof. Much-lauded reader Adam Grupper skillfully captures the nuances and humor of the piece, and his impressions of the people involved are spot on (my favorite was Harvey Fierstein). While there were big names attached from the beginning, nothing in theater or the musical's development was guaranteed. And yet, there was so much love, smarts, and discipline poured into Fiddler that it not only wowed Broadway audiences, but it is constantly playing somewhere in the world, be it community, school, or regional productions. Many performers now on Broadway and in Hollywood credit a production of Fiddler for either inspiring them or furthering their aspirations. For a feel-good tale of art and commerce, Tradition! will make you stand up and cheer.
Barbara Isenberg wrote another book about the genesis of a show, a less happy one: Making It Big. This book, in the form of journal entries, chronicles the development and opening of the musical Big, based on the movie starring Tom Hanks. Part of the problem that the collaborators had was trying to externalize the psychology of a boy, which had not been part of the movie. Difficulties continued into tryouts in Detroit, and the Broadway debut was delayed by a week for technical reasons. By then, fully a third of the score had been rewritten. Plagued by poor decisions and some really bad luck despite the dedication and artistic brilliance of those involved, Big had lackluster reviews and sales while two grittier downtown musicals, Rent and Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, opened around the same time and ate its lunch. A bit more sober than Song of Spiderman, Making It Big demonstrates what happens when things just don't work out in one of the biggest spotlights in the entertainment industry.
Jack Viertel has been around the block a few times, so when he offers to let you in on The Secret Life of the American Musical, take him up on it. Senior vice president of a company owning five Broadway theaters, Viertel has had a hand in several of the most recent hits, including The Book of Mormon and Hamilton. He talks a bit about the history of the American musical (we invented it and perfected it), but the real basis of the book is how a musical is made. From the overture to the finale, Viertel explains what works and why using examples from nearly a century's worth of musical theater. He also spends some time on the flaws of musicals, both individually and as an art form. However, this really is a paean to the art, and Viertel obviously wouldn't be happy doing anything else. Definitely worth picking up if you love musical theater or just want to understand someone who does.