Theatre books for holiday gifts (long, long, long)
Posted by: showtunetrivia 07:21 pm EST 11/26/23

Looking for book suggestions for your theatre-loving friends and family? Some suggestions!

Steven Suskin, THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: 201 FAVORITES YOU OUGHT TO KNOW (AND LOVE), Backbeat Books, 2023. This one doesn’t have a specific Broadway connection; Suskin explains his reasons for not including tunes from classics like SOUTH PACIFIC), but it’s a delightful journey through 201 gems by Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Styne, Schwartz, Kern, Arlen, etc. Suskin is always insightful and entertaining, and his vast knowledge deftly puts the songs and their songwriters in context. Plus, it’s profusely illustrated with glorious sheet music covers. There aren’t many writers whose books I order as soon as I see a pub date, but Suskin is one of them. Which is why my next suggestion is…

Steven Suskin, OFFSTAGE OBSERVATIONS: INSIDE TALES OF THE NOT-SO-LEGITIMATE THEATRE, Applause Books, 2022. This is an account of Suskin as a theatre-obsessed kid; a teen running errands and working the candy counter, doing whatever he could to get his foot in that stage door; and a young production assistant in David Merrick’s office. This highly entertaining story—jammed with cameos from legendary show biz stars—only covers Suskin’s first ten years on Broadway, and I want more volumes. This book should be shelved with Moss Hart’s ACT ONE (yes, I know he made up stuff); Frank Rich’s GHOST LIGHT; and David Loud’s FACING THE MUSIC to see the power of theatre in transforming a young person’s lives.

Peter Filichia, BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES, Applause Books, 2023. Peter’s another writer that produces a “Take my money, NOW!” from me at the announcement of a new book. This one is so much evil fun that even though I got it several months ago, I’m rationing myself to one or two of his fiendish puzzlers a day. Not for the faint of heart or for novices; this will have even experts tearing their hair in frustration.

Lauren Graham, SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE, Ballantine Books, 2014. This first novel by theatre and tv veteran Graham is told in the first person present tense, which frankly drives me batty unless in short stories. But Graham’s character, an aspiring actress in 1995, is engaging, and not surprisingly, she has an excellent ear for dialogue. (My husband collaborated on a novel with Richard Dreyfuss about twenty years ago, and he made the same observation: actors understand dialogue.) It’s breezy fun, and I’m sure readers present in 1995 New York will appreciate her evocation of the surroundings better than this SoCal gal.

Michael Golding, QUICK BRIGHT THINGS, Butterfish Press, 2023. It’s 1948. They’re doing a musical of one of Shakespeare’s comedies! You get to read about the passions, the conflicts, the struggles of the creative staff and cast working on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. What? No, not THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. Golding has plopped an entire fictional ensemble into Golden Age Broadway, from the rehearsal pianist to the director and his Gal Friday, the erudite stage door man, the bickering composer and lyricist, the bitchy diva, the ingenue, the older actress, the wardrobe mistress, the whole shebang. Golding can definitely write. His 1948 New York comes vividly to life; I’ve done my own homework in this era, and was amused to see some scenes set in the same classic restaurants and bars that I used. My biggest complaint (aside from knowing that a SHREW musical was public knowledge early in 1948) is that since Golding went with an entirely fictional troupe, it lacks the sense of fully being a part of Golden Age Broadway. It was a jolt when Cole Porter finally showed up.

Susan Dormandy Eisenberg, ONE MORE SEAT AT THE ROUND TABLE, Atmosphere Press, 2023. Lack of historical figures is not an issue in this novel, centered on the turbulent days bringing CAMELOT to Broadway. Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Moss Hart, Lerner and Loewe are all here, along with the fictional leads, a young woman PA and a rising young actor, one of the knight. Those well versed in theatre lore will immediately note which real life actors have been cut and given avatars for dramatic purposes. And many here may also be very familiar with CAMELOT’s out of town struggles. Eisenberg manages to keep things interesting as her characters interact with the historical ones. As a writer/historian, few things irk me more in historical novels than characters acting like they just walked in from our era, complete with 21st century attitudes. Eisenberg’s people are refreshingly honest in terms of 1960’s political, societal, sexual, and religious views. There are worries over women, babies, and careers; knee-jerk sexism; discussion over the election and JFK’s Catholicism; etc. Definitely recommended.

Kids’ Books:

Julie Andrews, Emma Walton Hamilton, THE GREAT AMERICAN MOUSE-ICAL, Julie
Andrews Collection, 2006. Beneath a Broadway theatre lies another theatre: one run by mice who stage such shows as “Hello, Mousey!” and “Mice and Dolls.” Emil, Harold, Adelaide, Pippin, Wendy, Sky, Little June, and more work to put on their next show, despite a missing diva and the impending destruction of the human structure above them!

John Robert Allman, A IS FOR AUDRA and B IS FOR BROADWAY, ONSTAGE AND BACKSTAGE FROM A-Z, Doubleday Books, 2019, 2022. These delightful picture books cover the alphabet through dazzling divas (Audra to Liza with a Z) and every aspect of theatre work.

Harriet Ziefert, LIGHTS ON BROADWAY, Blue Apple Books, 2009. Another A-Z, but with slightly more complex text than the Allman ones. Added bonus: a portion of the proceeds goes to the Actors’ Fund, and there’s a CD with Brian Stokes Mitchell singing an adapted version of an Ahrens-Flaherty song from THE GLORIOUS ONES.

Amy Littlesugar, TREE OF HOPE, Philomel, 1999. Like LIGHTS OF BROADWAY, this is a picture book, but it’s skewed towards kids with higher vocabularies. Florrie’s dad is an actor who loses his job in the Depression when the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem closes. Even the “tree of hope” by the theatre seems dead. But Florrie and Dad keep making wishes that it will reopen….and it does, with the plays of Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston, and Orson Welles’ “voodoo” MACBETH— and Florrie’s dad gets a part in that one!

various authors, the “Who Was?” series from Penguin/Scholastics books. This series of biographies and geographies was hugely popular in my school library with third through fifth graders. The covers all feature caricatures of the subject with giant, oversized heads. They look weird as hell, but it was effective marketing. My students immediately recognized them and snapped them up. I can recommend these for theatre loving kids: WHO WAS SHAKESPEARE?, WHO WAS LANGSTON HUGHES?, WHO IS LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA?, and WHERE IS BROADWAY?

Rosemary Welles, GETTING TO KNOW YOU. This is OOP, but I find used copies for everyone I know who is having a baby. Welles’ gentle, pleasant bunnies, cats, etc illustrate snippets of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. My granddaughters especially loved “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair.”

Arthur Robins, T.S. Eliot, OLD POSSUM PICTURE BOOKS (SKIMBLESHANKS, THE RAILWAY CAT; MR. MISTOFFOLEES; MACAVITY THE MYSTERY CAT; JELLICLE CATS: MUNGOJERRIE AND RUMPLETEAZER), Faber and Faber, 2016-2018. Cartoonist Robins has done a charming job of bringing Eliot’s practical cats to life. You are not obliged to sing the ALW tunes, but my granddaughters insisted on it. They also liked searching the characters on each page to find cats from the other books, especially sneaky Macavity.

And now, two shameless plugs:

Harry Turtledove, RULED BRITANNIA, NAL 2002. Full disclosure: Harry’s my husband, an award-winning science fiction writer. In this alternate history, the Spanish Armada has succeeded, and England seethes under Spanish rule. Trying to keep his head down and stage his plays is one Will Shakespeare…except the English Resistance have recruited him to write an inspiring play to stir up the masses when they launch their revolt. And the occupying Spanish, led by noted playwright Lope de Vega, have commissioned him to write a play for the dying King Philip. What’s a poor bard to do?

Laura Frankos, BROADWAY REVIVAL, Swallow’s End Press, 2021. I sent a time traveler with nearly a century and a half of theatre history in his head and a suitcase full of medicine from 2079 back to 1934 to save George Gershwin from that tumor. My protagonist hangs around and meddles further in the Golden Age of Broadway. Amazon Kindle only $3.99–I’m a cheap date!

Laura in LA
Link Broadway Revival
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