2023 Holiday Book Guide 1200x450

2023 Holiday Book Guide for Theater Lovers

Is it the holidays already? You’re frazzled and frantic, looking for gifts, planning family gatherings, and wondering how many new shows you can book in advance because you need to see everything! (“Do we have plans for April 2024? Cancel them. We need to go to Broadway!”) Don’t worry: We’ve got the perfect theater-related books you need for last-minute gifts or to treat yourself. You deserve it!

My Name Is Barbra
By Barbra Streisand
$47, Viking

It’s almost 1,000 pages long. The audiobook is narrated by Streisand herself, clocking in at more than 48 hours. It’s too much, by which we mean not nearly enough. Barbra Streisand is an icon of film and TV and music, but we’ll always think of her as a theater legend first and foremost, even if that period of her career was all too brief. What we love about the book is its focus on the work. Streisand took charge from the start, butting heads with director Arthur Laurents when she was a newcomer in the Broadway musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Streisand insisted she perform her big musical number in a swivel chair. And got her way. As this memoir makes clear, she never stopped fighting for what mattered: the work.

The Christmas Appeal
By Janice Hallett
$21.99, Atria Books

How to Survive a Killer Musical: Agony and Ecstasy on the Road to Broadway
By Douglas J. Cohen
$29.95, Applause Books

¡Viva Pinocho! A Mexican Pinocchio
By Manuel Antonio Morán
Narrated by a full cast in Spanish and English
$7.99 audio download, Random House Audio

A British murder mystery and a holiday setting and a community theater company seething with resentment and backbiting and an author dubbed “the modern Agatha Christie” by the Sunday Times of London, no less? Well, to be honest, you had us at community theater. But this sequel to Janice Hallett’s very clever debut, The Appeal, will be snapped up by fans of that first theatrical whodunit and make new fans of anyone who takes a flier on it.

Creating a musical is always a murderous, bloody affair. But author Douglas J. Cohen was surely asking for trouble when he decided a novel about a serial killer on the loose in NYC was crying to be set to song. Still, how could he resist a clever if obscure novel by William Goldman, the scribe behind The Princess Bride (novel and film) as well as two of the best screenplays of all time: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men? He couldn’t, he didn’t, and thus began the decade-plus-long adventure that took Cohen seemingly everywhere while meeting with every possible disaster along the way. And we do mean disaster: stabbings, betrayals, monstrous egos (even by the standards of musical theater), and much more. Happily, Cohen got his show and this memoir.

Teatro SEA is the acclaimed theater company devoted to creating Latino theater for young audiences. Now nine of the shows written by its founder, Manuel Antonio Morán, have become audiobooks brought to life by a full cast of talented actors. The nine shows range across Latin America and its diverse cultures, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and more. They retell classic stories and create new ones, such as the Mexican Pinocchio, a tango-driven Cinderella, and celebrations of the lives and impact of people, including Puerto Rican baseball star and humanitarian Roberto Clemente and artist Frida Kahlo. All stories are told in both English and Spanish, making these perfect for families exploring Latin heritage, kids learning a second language, and those looking for great theater to share with their families.

Shakespeare in Bloomsbury
By Marjorie Garber
$35, Yale University Press

The Woman Back From Moscow
By Ha Jin
$21.99, Other Press

Here’s to the Ladies: Conversations With More of the Great Women of Musical Theater
By Eddie Shapiro
$39.95, Oxford University Press

The Bloomsbury Group is endlessly fascinating. Those London intellectuals, led first and foremost by Virginia Woolf — but encompassing her husband, Leonard, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and Vanessa and Clive Bell, among others — had a profound influence on the arts. In this intriguing work, Marjorie Garber demonstrates how Shakespeare proved endlessly fascinating to them. They went to the theater, of course, but most of all they read his plays and poems, discussed them endlessly, used Shakespeare as a touchstone, and refracted his ideas and imagery and wordplay throughout their own private and public lives. Garber has a gift for taking a different tack on major topics, as evinced in her previous works, such as Shakespeare After All, Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses, and Dog Love.

Already being compared to Wolf Hall, this is a remarkable work of historical fiction by the National Book Award–winning author Ha Jin. The Woman Back From Moscow is set in China and sweeps from the 1930s to the 1960s. Best of all, it’s focused on the world of theater in China and the true story of pioneering female stage director Sun Weishi. You get sojourns to Moscow as this bold young woman learns about a deeper psychological approach to drama that would change acting forever. You see her staging works by Chekhov and Gogol and even Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And for offstage drama, you see the roiling changes in China from Mao to the Cultural Revolution that would pit Sun Weishi against actress and archrival Jiang Qing, who triumphs in her own way by becoming Mao’s fourth and final wife. Juicy, fascinating, and a window into a theatrical world most of us know little or nothing about.

Eddie Shapiro specializes in deep dives of some of the most talented actors on Broadway via the books Nothing Like a Dame and A Wonderful Guy. Now he’s circling back to talk with more women who grace the stage in Here’s to the Ladies. Shapiro pulls out personal epiphanies, the practical challenges of acting in a role night after night, and insights into the theater every fan will savor. Who’s front and center this time? Barbara Cook, Kelli O’Hara, Heather Headley, Faith Prince, Stephanie J. Block, and Tonya Pinkins, among others — and what more do you need to know than that?

Teach the Torches to Burn: A Romeo & Juliet Remix
By Caleb Roehrig
$20.99, Feiwel & Friends

Sing a Black Girl’s Song: The Unpublished Work of Ntozake Shange
Edited by Imani Perri
$30, Legacy Lit

An Impossible Thing to Say
By Arya Shahi
$19.99, Allida

Every high school thespian knows Mercutio offers a terrific, scene-stealing role in Romeo & Juliet. (“A plague o’ both your houses!” is a hell of an exit line.) But in this young-adult “remix” of that classic play, we discover Mercutio also has the kindest, sweetest, handsomest best friend named Valentine. And Romeo realizes he’d much rather have Valentine as his valentine and keep Juliet as just good friends. It’s a clever spin on the oft-told tale, in a story that stands on its own but with plenty to please those familiar with the original.

It would be enough to create for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf…, the landmark piece of theater that broke down barriers, gave voice to so many, and rewrote the rules of what drama could be. But the work of artist Ntozake Shange is far more substantial than that singular play, a choreopoem turned play and later film. Shange wrote a string of novels and poems, as well as adapting Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, among much else. Sing a Black Girl’s Song collects more poems, essays, and plays that haven’t seen the light of day until now, adding to her considerable legacy.

In this young-adult novel, our hero Omid finds the words in his high school Shakespeare production of aren’t enough. Neither is the Farsi his parents speak at home. But rap — rap becomes the perfect, flowing voice Omid needs to bridge his many worlds, establish his identity in his home of Tucson, Arizona, and reveal to that perfect girl what’s in his heart. Author Arya Shahi knows something about the theater. He’s a member of Pigpen Theatre Co., the troupe behind marvelous shows like The Old Man and the Old Moon, which combine puppetry with their terrific original songs to create magic. PigPen also wrote the music and lyrics for the new Broadway musical Water for Elephants, opening in March. And this is Shahi’s debut novel! PigPen and Shahi are just getting started.

Bing and Billie and Frank and Ella and Judy and Barbra
By Dan Callahan
$30, Chicago Review Press

Edith Holler
By Edward Carey
$28, Riverhead Books

Beyond Ridiculous: Making Gay Theatre With Charles Busch in 1980s New York
By Kenneth Elliott
$35, University Of Iowa Press

The Great American Songbook is the repository of songs created on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley roughly from the 1920s through the 1950s. Gershwin. Porter. Berlin. Rodgers & Hart. Rodgers & Hammerstein. You get the idea. And singers brought that songbook to life, elevated it, shined a light on it, and, in many ways, defined it. If Ella Fitzgerald sang your song (once she got going on Verve), if it wasn’t already part of the Great American Songbook, chances were it soon would be. Critic Dan Callahan previously trained his thoughtful eye on movies and film acting through a series of well received works. Now he’s illuminating some of the key singers who worked their magic on those songs. Bing Crosby. Billie Holiday. Frank Sinatra. Ella Fitzgerald. Judy Garland. Barbra Streisand. The Great American Songbook Singers, really. In a combination of biography and appreciation, Callahan brings their stories to life and shows how the innovations of one were built on by the next in line to keep the flame alive. The Great American Songbook will always endure, and Callahan helps capture why.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a theatre? It’s being trapped in a theatre that can frustrate, whether you’re a damaged man with a mask in Paris who loves a singer or a young woman in Victorian England whose father forbids her to ever leave the confines of the Holler Theatre. Edith is happy, mostly, and writes a play about a local legend … only to see her father become entangled in a real-life plot of danger and intrigue that threatens her home, her family, and her play. Wait, her play? You don’t mess with someone’s play. Author Edward Carey is a unique talent who combines wickedly eye-catching illustrations with a gift for the macabre that make him a fitting heir of sorts to the legacy of Edward Gorey in novelistic form.

Well, the subtitle says it all, doesn’t it? This memoir from director Kenneth Elliott, a cofounder of Theatre-in-Limbo, is a delightful look at the people who birthed the legendary hit Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and his friendship and collaboration with the inimitable Charles Busch. Fun? Of course. But it’s also a penetrating look at the downtown theater scene of NYC during the Reagan years, a survivor’s journal of the plague years when AIDS devastated so many, and a practical guide to creating art on the fly when the very idea is ridiculous, absurd, and can’t be done — until it is.

Michael Giltz is the cohost of the weekly entertainment podcast Showbiz Sandbox. He covers all areas of entertainment as a journalist, critic, feature writer, and analyst. Giltz has written for  numerous outlets, including the New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and The Advocate. When Michael’s not attending the theater, he’s reading about it.