I’m not sure when gift cards became a controversial gift (are they lazy? are they thoughtless?) because frankly, I think they’re the actual best. Seriously. The only thing better than money, is money that comes with the explicit designation that it can only be used for a particular kind of frivolity. When I was younger, gift cards meant one thing: cast album binge! But as I’ve matured (and acquired a Spotify Premium account), I find myself more and more drawn to filling my bookshelves (and my Kindle library) with books about our collective favorite obsession: Broadway musicals.
Actually, there is a particular sub-genre of books about Broadway that I love most, and that’s the Making-Of Chronicle. (This should come to no surprise, given that you are currently reading a column I write about the history of Broadway musicals.) Like a good Behind the Music episode, the best of these manage to break through the necessary conventions of the form to bring to life the dramas behind the drama and the personalities that gave birth to the shows we love – or occasionally, the shows we love to hate.
Right now, the Making-Of Chronicle spotted most frequently on the subway is Glen Berger’s Song of Spider-Man. Certainly, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has all the elements of a great making-of story: huge personalities, high stakes, and a disastrous journey from idea to opening night. I haven’t seen any version of the Spider-Man musical, but I will admit that reading the book makes me want to try to catch it before it closes on January 4th. Berger, the show’s book writer, acknowledges from the start that he can’t really create any sort of distance from the events he documents, and you may find his editorializing and finger-pointing exciting or exasperating, depending on your tolerance for that sort of thing.
But if you’re like me (or aspire to be), you’re probably more interested in Chronicles of shows long gone than documents of disasters still running (however fleetingly) on Broadway. So here’s five suggestions to add to your Amazon Wish List today, so you can order them with your gift cards on Christmas morning. I can’t claim to have read every “Making-Of” book. Hell, I can’t even claim to have read every “Making-Of” book currently sitting on my bookshelves… or even on this list. But these are the five (plus one honorable mention) that spring to mind first when the subject comes up, and you won’t go wrong starting with any one of them.
The Music Man is one of those shows that we tend to remember as silly and cheesy, but then we see a production (or the glorious original movie) and remember that, no, it’s actually just about perfect. (Just avoid the abortion of a television version with Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth.) Meredith Willson, who wrote the show, was also a radio personality, bandleader, and memoirist. This story of how he came to write his biggest Broadway hit is told with the same down-home (but never sappy) charm that seeps out of every note of The Music Man itself.
Before he was the man responsible for protecting and extending Rodgers & Hammerstein’s legacy in the 21st century, Ted Chapin was a gopher on the original Broadway production of Follies. He took notes, and 30 years later turned those notes into one of the best books about the making of a musical you’ll ever read. Filled with fascinating personalities from Hal Prince to Stephen Sondheim to Michael Bennett, not to mention a stage full of stars who were past their prime but not entirely aware of that fact, Follies was a crucible in danger of overheating at any moment. Chapin captures details like who hated her costume and where rehearsals broke down on any given day, with the result being a finely textured document that transports the reader directly to the rooms where this show developed into the flawed but beloved masterpiece it’s become.
Well, that subtitle just about tells you everything you need to know, doesn’t it? This one’s out of print but widely available, and makes a great companion to Everything Was Possible, since both books deal with attempts to create musicals in the early 1970s in the height of the nostalgia craze, but each happens in a very different way. Of course, the show that was constructed by amateurs looking to make a buck (Nanette) became a huge hit, while the show put together by verifiable geniuses (Follies) lost money and has never been performed with the same script twice since. But that’s show biz.
The Whorehouse Papers: A Candid, Hilarious, and Sometimes Hysterical Out-of-School Account of the Joys, Sorrows, Confusions, and Small Murders Attendant to the Making of a Smash Broadway Musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
by Larry L. King
I guess the 70’s were all about long subtitles, and everything’s bigger in Texas. King (not the guy from CNN) wrote the original article in Playboy that spawned the creation of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and co-authored the book of the musical. Like Chapin, he took extensive notes during the process, and like Berger, he was at the center of the maelstrom that occurred in creation the show. Unlike either of them, though, King ended up with a hit that made him “two-thirds rich.” I will admit that I’ve had this book on my shelf for years but haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it’s always recommended when conversations about these kinds of books arise, and I plan on tackling it in early 2014. If you get there first, let me know what you think.
Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical
by Barbara Isenberg
I’ve talked before in this column about how many Broadway fans have that one flop that they love beyond reason. In many ways, Big is that show for me. When it was being put together, it was seen as a sure-fire hit: based on a beloved film, with a writing team that had been responsible for hits like Anything Goes, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Miss Saigon and more, directed and choreographed by the team behind the smash hit Crazy For You. It was this presumption of success that led journalist Barbara Isenberg to embed herself in the show… that went on to be the biggest Broadway flop since Carrie. (I saw the show on Broadway and to this day don’t understand that hatred it provoked among critics and certain audience members.) The growing realization of everyone involved that their pre-ordained hit is becoming a disaster makes the book engrossing (if heartbreaking). And if you aren’t already familiar with Maltby & Shire’s score, cue it up on Spotify right this second, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
I want to give a big honorable mention to The Making of a Musical: Fiddler on the Roof by Richard Altman and Mervyn Kaufman, which is out of print and hard to find, and unlikely to come back anytime soon due to the recent publication of a newer book about the making of Fiddler which is by all accounts delightful in its own right. (That one, called Wonder of Wonders, is on my “to read” list for 2014.)
If Christmas is your thing, I hope you have a Merry one. If you’re into Gregorian Calendar, then have a Happy New Year. And since it’s before my next column hits, let’s all remember to have a moment of silence the first weekend of January when all the shows that have been limping through the fall are finally put out to pasture.