I’m going to go out on a limb and say that anyone who enjoys any art form to a certain extent loves the behind-the-scenes footage just as much. Nowhere is this more true than in theatre, where the added stakes of live performance and a higher-than-usual dosage of ego fuel generations of backstage lore. Collected here are 13 of the best books on the history of the American theatre, to satisfy your itch for stories about the hassle, panic, booze, and inspiration that must occur before the curtain goes up.
NOTE: A special thanks to Lawrence Harbison, living theatrical encyclopedia, for his recommendations on deep cuts.
How much of the personal history described by Moss Hart in Act One is true? Experts disagree, but ultimately; who cares? Hart’s evocation of the childhood that led him to fame and success with his writing partner George S. Kaufman (we forget how huge he was back in his day) is so charming and compelling that it inspired every subsequent backstage narrative ever told, not to mention its own movie and play. People are obsessed with this book, and regardless of historical accuracy, it’s still the place to start.
This oral history of the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival makes a bold declaration with its title, but still delivers. Joe Papp was the populist godfather of modern New York theatre, and this book weaves the recollections of 160 key figures including Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols and Kevin Kline in order to tell his story. From fighting for accessible Shakespeare to producing A Chorus Line, Papp Lorne Michaels-ed his way to the top, and developed a fierce following because of it. Turan’s two-decade undertaking in making this book is similarly stunning. This is Live From New York for theatre geeks.
Lithgow’s memoir is a light and breezy read, but even if it gets a bit windy, it makes up for it in charm and class. He’s an incredibly generous narrator, guiding us through his early years as a stage actor and recounting the formative backstage experiences that formed his outlook on the craft. The book really finds its heart, however, in Lithgow’s memories of and tributes to his father, Arthur Lithgow, a vital but unsung pioneer in the regional theatre movement. When the scope of the two men’s lives and careers are fully explored, it packs a punch.
Taking its title from the single bulb that illuminates a theater after-hours, this memoir from longtime New York Times critic Frank Rich (the “Butcher of Broadway”) serves as his take on Act One. Tracing his journey through the suburbs of Washington D.C. as a theatre-obsessed kid in the 50s and 60s, Ghost Light focuses on his formative theatrical experiences and early mentors, illuminating his critical process and how it formed. Lots of people loved Frank Rich’s criticism and lot’s of people thought he was the devil; this memoir is good for both.
Ever wanted to see the history of Broadway through the story of warring, mafia-esque clans? Michael Reidel figured out how to do just that. This book focuses on the past sixty years of Broadway history, telling the story of it’s corruption, redemption, and eventual transformation into the corporate enterprise that either saved or doomed New York, depending on who you are. The Game of Thrones houses at play are the Schuberts, their successors, Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, and their rivals, the Nederlanders. The devil is in the details, and there’s a lot of history to cover, but Reidel pulls it off.
“I remember being a kid/Sitting in the bathroom/Pouring over Sondheim and Co.” sings Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon) in a tribute to the master co-written with his wife Kristin. The book he refers to is actually a little hard to come by these days, having fallen out of favor following the wide availibility of Sondheim’s own “Hat Box” books, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made A Hat. That’s a shame, because Zadan’s oral history, though naturally incomplete, is a thorough and entertaining perspective on Sondheim’s career with a strong focus on his relationships with his collaborators.
In the mid 19th century, Edwin Booth was the American actor. Known for his takes on Shakespeare, he was Clooney, Damon, and Hanks rolled into one. We barely remember this these days, largely since his legacy has been eclipsed by that of his less-respected younger brother John (Wilkes). Eleanor Ruggles’ 1953 book is still the definitive biography (it was even adapted into a movie by none other than Moss Hart), covering Booth’s career compellingly. Early American theatre is largely glossed over, but Ruggles provides an insightful window into the period.
For decades, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were a regular power couple, starring in drawing-room comedies as an unbeatable husband and wife team. Brown’s book focuses on the interplay between their personal and professional lives, particularly their utterly insane commitment and perfectionism despite their pedestrian taste in material later in life. Still they had a unique style that has largely been lost to time (they made very few onscreen appearances). Brown somehow resurrects their stage personas, while also providing context on the many theatrical eras the Lunts lived and worked through.
Houseman, a man who led many lives, has many memoirs to go along with them. But this one, his own take on Act One, he provides particularly entertaining insight into the pre-film career of his creative partner Orson Welles. If you’ve been going around thinking that Welles was kind of an odd duck, read this book. He was a bona fide crazy person. At least Houseman got a great story out of the years of abuse he suffered at Welles’ hands, and his narrative flair is particularly exciting to read.
by Sam Wasson
A warning: this book is massive and obsessively detailed. But choreographer-director Bob Fosse’s life deserves it, and Wasson spares us nothing. As a character, Fosse is as captivating as any of his productions. His relationship with Gwen Verdon (fraught) and his general insecurities leading to major creative breakthroughs that changed musicals forever. It’s almost too much to believe. If you saw this story in a movie, say, you’d say it was an Oscar-baity genius narrative. But nope, it all happened, and the book moves with the kind of furious energy you’d expect from the man himself.
Earlier this year we released a list of memorable Broadway flops. Practically all of those and many, many more can be found in Ken Mandelbaum’s history of Broadway’s greatest failures from 1950 to 1990. It’s a hilarious overview of hundreds of failures, but his real stroke of genius here is that he presents the musicals by theme rather than year. Plus, the gossip surrounding a hit show is nowhere near as entertaining as the dirt people spilled on these terrible, terrible musicals.
William Goldman was a genius screenwriter and merely an okay playwright, but he had a deep and abiding love of the theatre and real faith in its potential. He poured all of this into his now-classic The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway. And candid it is. Goldman spent eighteen months conducting research, seeing every on and off Broadway show during the 1967-68 season, including many out-of-town tryouts. The book notably includes Hair and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but it’s impossible to overstate just how exhaustive Goldman is here. He captures the entirety of the season, including details that reportedly made more than a few people hate Goldman’s guts.
This one focuses on David Merrick, the most outrageous producer in the history of Broadway. Titanic and legendary for his four decade string of hits and imports (though there were flops to spare, too), Merrick was also, unquestionably, the biggest asshole in the history of New York theatre. At any given moment he was either cruel to his peers and the artists working for him or cartoonishly awful to his many wives. But Kissel paints as sympathetic a portrait as he can, and the result is several parts Citizen Kane, as he recounts the rise of the non-profit theaters that made Merrick’s level of success unsustainable.