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Spring 2020 Book Guide

Bookfilter’s Spring 2020 Theater Book Roundup

Your favorite source for theater news and features chooses the best theater books ready to take their bow.

We miss live theater as much as you do! But during these difficult times, how beautiful it is to see artists sharing their talent by posting YouTube videos, live-streaming performances to raise money for first responders and various charities, friends sharing the cast albums they’re re-listening to for comfort, kids holding their own performances in the living room and so much more. This used to be how we filled the hours until our next chance to sit in a darkened theater, waiting for the curtain to rise. Now it’s the only way we can nourish our love for this art form. So while we eagerly await hearing an orchestra tune-up before the show begins, here are some of the new books that can feed your need for dramatics. Rest assured: the show will go on.


ActressActress by Anne Enright
By Anne Enright
$26.95; W.W. Norton & Company

One of the breakout novels of the year, this work of literary fiction by Anne Enright combines #MeToo with “me too!” — the desperate plea of a daughter to escape the shadow of her famous mom while both struggle with the sexual encroachments and worse they’ve seen. That mother is Katherine O’Dell, a legendary Irish talent who bus-and-trucked her way from the circuit to the West End to Broadway and then Hollywood. Her daughter is always tagging along. But when Katherine creates headlines by shooting a TV producer in the foot, that daughter becomes her champion. From the footlights to the spotlight of tabloid TV, “Actress” chronicles coming-of-age and coming undone with the usual sharp humor of one of our most acclaimed novelists.


Memoirs

Apropos Of Nothing 
By Woody Allen 
$30; Arcade

Dancing Man 
By Bob Avian with Tom Santopietro 
$28; Univ. Press of Mississippi

Save Yourself 
By Cameron Esposito 
$27; Grand Central Publishing

Here are three memoirs to dive into. Woody Allen’s Borscht Belt humor powers much of his new book, Apropos of Nothings, which spends a third of the time reminiscing about his early career (including two hugely successful and — according to him — hugely awful Broadway hits), a third of the time blandly recounting the movie’s he’s made and a third of the time dealing with Mia Farrow and the ugly dissolution of their relationship and his blissfully happy marriage to Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi (now the longest relationship of Allen’s life). It’s defensive, angry, pointed, dismissive and almost by accident fascinatingly revealing. Plus, it paints a Broadway Danny Rose-style portrait of an era in which a high school kid could write gags for newspaper columnists, jump to the Catskills and then accidentally find himself a stand-up comic. 

If you aren’t ready to hear Allen’s side of his life story, you’ll find less controversy in two other memoirs. The eminently likable Bob Avian’s story powers his book Dancing Man. A hoofer turned choreographer, Avian worked side by side with Michael Bennett on legendary shows like A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls before (reluctantly) heading out on his own with Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard and more. (His story was our February Pick Of The Month.) And Cameron Esposito knows her stand-up. Esposito, the author of Save Yourself, is a pioneering artist with a hit podcast, a TV show on Starz and a new special called Rape Jokes. Fearless doesn’t begin to cover it. And you won’t have to explain yourself when someone asks, what are you reading?


Picture Books for Kids

Baby Clown 
By Kara LeReau; illustrations by Matthew Cordell 
$16.99; Candlewick

The Music Of Life 
By Elizabeth Rusch; illustrations by Marjorie Priceman 
$18.99; Atheneum Books For Younger Readers

Hattie In The Spotlight
By Poppy Green; illustrations by Jennifer A. Bell 
$16.99; Little Simon

Picture books are a great way to bond with your children, nieces and nephews or the kids of friends. And they’re also a sneaky way to get kids interested in the things you love. Maybe it’s outer space or cooking or the zoo. And if you’re like us, it’s live entertainment. These three new picture books cover it all. Baby Clown is an amusing look at the newest edition to a traveling circus: a baby clown that cries and cries and cries…until, maybe, when it’s facing an audience for the first time? The Music of Life reveals the true story behind the invention of the piano. And Hattie In The Spotlight is the latest in the Sophie Mouse series. This time Hattie Frog takes center stage — literally. Hattie eagerly auditions for the big play, gets a part…and then freaks out just a little.


Shakespeare In A Divided America Shakespeare
By James Shapiro
$27; Penguin Press

The works of William Shakespeare are foundational to the United States, as much a shared part of this country as the Bible and the Constitution. Travelers from around the world often remarked how even the humblest home often sported a Bible and at least some of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Historian James Shapiro looks at how those plays were read and what they meant to us over the centuries. Not surprisingly, that’s changed quite a bit, with Shapiro revealing how everyone from the left, the right and the center has found something in Shakespeare that speaks to them and — they believe — speaks for them as well. Whether it’s immigrants, gender, sexuality, war or a thousand other topics, Shakespeare has tackled it and you’ll be amazed how differently people saw Hamlet and The Taming Of The Shrew and Othello depending on where and when they lived in the not so United States.


Photography Books

Hamilton: Portraits Of A Revolution 
By Josh Lehrer
$35; Universe

Misty Copeland 
By Gregg Delman 
$39.95; Rizzoli Universe

Two collectible books of photography from the world of theater and dance. Photographer Josh Lehrer offers more than 100 intimate portraits of the cast and creative talent behind the landmark musical Hamilton. This is just the second official book connected to the show and it combines Lehrer’s startling imagery with anecdotes from the cast, ephemera not seen before and introductory remarks by director Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. Misty Copeland is one of the most famous dancers in the world and this is only her first authorized collection of photography. It captures several years of Copeland at rehearsal, in performance and in life via the work of photographer Gregg Delman. Both projects are classy, distinguished and well worth the wait.


Picture Books for Adults

You Will Be Found 
By Benj Pasek and Justin Paul 
$15.99; Little Brown Books For Younger Readers

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest 
By Georghia Ellinas; illustrations by Jane Ray 
$17.99; Candlewick Press

Nonsense! The Curious Story Of Edward Gorey 
By Lori Mortensen; illustrations by Chloe Bristol 
$17.99; Versify

Here’s a secret: not all picture books are for kids. Sure, kids can enjoy these titles. You Will Be Found brings to life the stirring anthem from the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. The Tempest takes a Shakespeare’s Globe production as inspiration for this retelling of the Bard’s final bow. And the amusingly macabre work of Edward Gorey thrills any kid who stumbles across it, so who wouldn’t want to learn more about the man behind it? But truth be told, you can gift You Will Be Found to any friend feeling down, The Tempest is illustrated so strikingly that any fan of the play will savor it and Gorey’s life (including a Tony for designing the 1977 revival of Dracula) is odd enough to appeal to any eccentric in our lives. Don’t be surprised to find these on the bookshelves and coffee tables of adults, hipsters and theater buffs everywhere.


The Science of StorytellingScience of Storytelling
By Will Storr
$25; Harry N. Abrams

The “science” of storytelling? If that sounds like author Will Storr will dissect your favorite movies and plays and TV shows, never fear. Storr illuminates the art of spinning a yarn by drawing examples from Harry Potter to Breaking Bad to King Lear. Anyone looking to write a novel or play or TV pilot should dive in. But anyone who merely loves a great Russian novel or Indian folktale and the like will also enjoy this book. He doesn’t spoil the fun so much as help you appreciate why and how the best stories hold our attention. 


Almost, Maine Almost Maine
By John Cariani 
$18.99; Feiwel & Friends

Since it debuted in 2004, the loosely linked series of vignettes known as Almost, Maine has become one of the most popular plays in high schools and community theaters around the country. (It’s easy to mount, features lots of roles, the individual sections can be rehearsed separately, it’s sweet, etc.) Now actor and playwright John Cariani has fleshed out the story with this novelization. If everyone who has ever performed in the show or seen the show buys a copy of this book, it’s sure to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. And if it captures the whimsical charm the show can conjure at its best, plenty of others will fall for it as well.


Music Books

Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning 
By Philip Kennicott 
$26.95; W.W. Norton & Company

Bach’s Musical Universe 
By Christoph Wolff 
$40; W.W. Norton & Company

The giants of classical music challenge and comfort us throughout our lives. When the mother of Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Philip Kennicott was dying, he couldn’t stop listening to the music of Bach. And when she died he set himself a challenge: mastering Bach’s Goldberg Variations. In his most personal book yet, Kennicott illuminates both Bach and eternal questions such as whether one can ever truly know a piece of music any more than one can know another human being or even oneself. And as an aside, he tosses off insights into studying music, his childhood and the history of performing on the piano in the 20th century. 

Even more rigorous and suited perhaps only for amateur and professional musicians is Christoph Wolff’s new book. A follow-up to his acclaimed biography of Bach, this one zeroes in on the music and only the music. Wolff ranges widely across the decades and various genres. The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos and so many more are reexamined by a writer who knows Bach like few others.


Play Books

The Essential T.S. Eliot 
By T.S. Eliot 
$25.99; Ecco

Six Plays
By Luigi Pirandello 
$14; Calder Publications

Sondheim: Lyrics 
By Stephen Sondheim; edited by Peter Gethers and Russell Perreault 
$14.95; Everyman’s Library

Three collections cover poems, plays and lyrics in all their varied glory. T.S. Eliot boldly challenged convention, so we doubt the doggerel that powered Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats will make the cut in a collection of his essential work. But you will find his dramatic work Murder In The Cathedral, alongside his ground-breaking classic The Waste Land. Fiona Shaw of Killing Eve turned the latter into a 40 minute tour de force of theater which those who saw will never forget. If you’re in search of some good plays, you can’t go wrong with the playful, absurdist and convention-shattering work of Luigi Pirandello, including his masterpiece Six Characters in Search Of An Author. Finally, the Everyman’s Library delivers a pocket collection of some of the best lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. Even if you have his collected lyrics or all the cast albums, seeing some of his best work out of context can give them new power and force. And who doesn’t want to dip into a little Sondheim every once in a while? It’s nice to know that even in these dark times, you can turn to Sondheim and discover that something’s coming, something good. 


Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, where he covers movies, music, TV, and, of course, theater and books. He has written for Huffington Post, New York Post, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, and many other publications in which Michael profiles talent, covers the theater business, and reviews shows in New York City and London. When he’s not attending the theater, he’s reading about it.