Theater is alive and happening all over the country. High school productions, community theater, touring shows, Broadway — it’s all there for enjoying. And once you’re attending the theater again or putting on theater again, the desire to talk about it and think about it and read about it comes back stronger than ever. So here are 29 great new books by and about and set in the theater world, and all are worth checking out.
The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II
Compiled and edited by Mark Eden Horowitz
$39.95, Oxford University Press
By Viola Davis
Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century
By Stephen Galloway
$30, Grand Central Publishing
Three books by and about theater legends.
Oscar Hammerstein II wasn’t writing his memoir when he wrote his letters. But the countless missives about creative issues, business decisions, letters of appreciation to other artists, and the mundane and fascinating details that made up his correspondence give us a real window into the life of one of Broadway’s most influential writers.
Viola Davis is a two-time Tony winner, the only African American to win the Triple Crown of acting (the Oscar, the Tony, and the Emmy), and — as we soon discover in Finding Me — a terrific writer. She delivers a beautiful and unsparing memoir about her tough childhood and a refusal to accept anything less than success on her own terms.
And the tumultuous romance between two of the greatest actors of all time comes to life in Truly, Madly, the story of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Hammerstein’s life ended too soon from stomach cancer. But the last song he ever wrote was “Edelweiss,” as perfect a capstone to his career as one could ask for. Leigh and Olivier’s romance began when she saw him acting on stage in 1934 and she immediately told a friend he was the man she was going to marry. The fact that they were both already married to other people? A mere detail. It’s the perfect beginning to one of the maddest romances showbiz ever witnessed.
Theatre of Marvels
By Lianne Dillsworth
By Taylor Brown
$27.99, St. Martin’s Press
The Great Passion
By James Runcie
$28, Bloomsbury Publishing
Three novels bring to life a long-vanished showbiz past, when entertainment came in many forms.
In Theatre of Marvels, we are plunged into Victorian England. A young actress of mixed race named Zillah swallows her pride to play a gross caricature of her people and is billed as “The Great Amazonia, a Savage Queen From Darkest Africa!” It’s the price she pays to rise out of the slums and perhaps into high society. But when her impresario’s latest “acquisition” goes missing, Zillah risks it all to find the truth.
Then we fly to the U.S. and the Great Depression in Wingwalkers. People far from Broadway head to open fields to watch the daredevil antics of aviators and the bravely foolish who walk out on the wings to entertain the crowds. A husband-and-wife team cross paths with William Faulkner, of all people, in a story based in part on a little-known incident in the writer’s life.
Finally, we head way back to the 1700s, when 13-year-old Stefan is sent off to far-away Leipzig, Germany, after his mother dies. The distraught boy catches the eye — or, rather, the ear — of the school’s cantor Johann Sebastian Bach, thanks to a beautiful voice. In James Runcie’s acclaimed novel, we watch the twin struggles of people dealing with grief and the creation of a moving masterpiece that transcends it.
In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy
By Shawn Levy
$30, Doubleday Books
How to Tell a Story
By The Moth
Directed by James Burrows
By James Burrows With Eddy Friedfeld
$28.99, Ballantine Books
You can take classes, study under mentors, serve an apprenticeship … or just go ahead and start doing what you’re passionate about.
Shawn Levy tells the story of trailblazing female comics with his book In on the Joke. From Moms Mabley to Elaine May and Joan Rivers and beyond, fans of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Hacks will learn how far women have come in stand-up … and how depressingly familiar the barriers still remain.
Perhaps every performer starts this way: At dinner, in their grade-school lunchroom, or riding in a car somewhere, they tell a story. A funny story, a sad story, who knows, but simply a story. That’s a performance right there, and it isn’t long before the people who love to tell them are writing them down or setting them to music or getting up on stage and performing other people’s stories. The famed venue The Moth celebrates professional storytellers and the bold folk who aren’t, but get up on stage anyway to expose themselves. In How to Tell a Story, the folks from The Moth share tips and advice on how to do it well.
Finally, director James Burrows learned how to be a director simply by being a director. From the mid-1970s on, he just started doing it and learned as he went. It helped that Burrows quickly did episodes for some of the best shows of all time. When you’re working with the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and given sterling scripts, you’re way ahead of the game. His credits are legendary, from terrific work on shows that didn’t quite click (The Associates, Best of the West) to the hits — Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Will & Grace — as is his gift for helming pilots that helped many other shows find their voice right away. Directed by James Burrows isn’t quite a how-to, but anyone who is thinking of a career in TV will find nuggets here. And since classic TV sitcoms of the sort he worked on are essentially mini-plays (Frasier in particular was often a perfect farce), lovers of theater should dive in as well.
By Janet Key
$16.99, Little, Brown Books for Younger Readers
In the Key of Us
By Mariama J. Lockington
$16.99, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Here for the Drama
By Kate Bromley
$15.99; Graydon House
Whether it’s at summer camp or on a first-time trip to London, the theatre is a perfect place to make friends and fall in love.
Twelfth combines the lure of summer camp for theater lovers with a mystery surrounding a long-lost diamond ring that might just help the struggling venue stay open for years to come. Our heroine figures out that the clues they find are linked to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Soon she and her new friends are off on the hunt — assuming camp counselors and whomever is trying to get to the ring first don’t stop them.
In the Key of Us shows two young girls headed off to music camp. Usually, music or theater camp is a chance for kids with a shared passion to find themselves surrounded by others just like them. But in this case, Andi and Zora are the only Black girls in a sea of mostly white faces. Plus, Andi can’t seem to play the trumpet with the same passion she had before her mom died. And Zora is saddled with the flute when what she really wants to do is dance. Happily, they find each other and a little harmony in this sweet romance.
Dealing with a missing diamond or some bland music-making seem like small potatoes to Winnie, the assistant to a very high-maintenance playwright named Juliette Brassard. Winnie follows the famed feminist writer to London for a production of one of the genius’s greatest works. But when the director and writer clash terribly, it’s Winnie who must keep the peace, all while trying to convince Juliette to at least look at her own stab at playwriting. And must Juliette’s nephew Liam be quite so delightfully foppish and charming and all that?
My Moment: 106 Women on Fighting for Themselves
Compiled by Kristin Chenoweth, et al.
$27.99, Gallery Books
George Michael: A Life
By James Gavin
$32.50, Abrams Press
Every Good Boy Does Fine
By Jeremy Denk
$28.99, Random House
Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth and others reached out to women from all walks of life to share their stories about fighting for themselves. The result is My Moment, an inspiring collection of essays from Billie Jean King, Brandi Carlile, Gloria Steinem, and theater folk including Chenoweth, Beanie Feldstein, and Cynthia Erivo, to name just a few.
Is George Michael’s life one to inspire or a cautionary tale? It’s both, of course. Fame isn’t all it seems from the outside, and few knew that better than Michael, who struggled with being a closeted pop superstar, creative battles with his record label, addiction, and the nagging feeling that he didn’t deserve any of it. James Gavin tells his story. And whether they focus on the rise of Wham! or the fall of Michael, you just know someday those classic songs will be heard on Broadway.
Malcolm Gladwell was wrong: 10,000 hours of practice is just the start. Think of Sonny Rollins practicing the saxophone on the Williamsburg Bridge day after day. Or read classical pianist and MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Jeremy Denk. His memoir dives into classical pieces he loves and why they work. But, most of all, Denk brings to life the routine, daily hard work that goes into mastering an instrument and staying on top of it all your life. In Every Good Boy Does Fine, he talks about teachers, baffling advice, rehearsals with others, and practice practice practice. Denk shows how deeply rewarding it can be, so anyone in the arts should take comfort and spine-stiffening resolve from this acclaimed work.
By Alex Timbers; illustrations by Alisa Coburn
$18.99, Feiwel & Friends
As Glenn as Can Be
By Sarah Ellis; illustrations by Nancy Vo
$19.99, Groundwood Books
It’s never too soon to share your love of the arts with kids!
In the picture book Broadway Bird, Tony-winning director Alex Timbers (Moulin Rouge! The Musical and Peter and the Starcatcher) tells the story of Louisa the parakeet, a tiny bird who dreams of becoming a big star on Broadway. (Kristen Chenoweth can identify.) The charming, brassy illustrations by Alisa Coburn are the perfect complement.
In As Glenn as Can Be, wistful and dreamy illustrations by Nancy Vo help writer Sarah Ellis bring to life the childhood and career of the idiosyncratic pianist Glenn Gould. Maybe you’re not difficult or different, kids: Maybe you’re just a genius!
My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song
By Emily Bingham
Golden Boy: Beethoven’s Youth
By Mikael Ross; translation by Nika Knight
$29.99, Fantagraphics Books
How to bring to life America’s tangled, complex racial history or the childhood of Beethoven, one of the most written-about artists in history? Two new books show two ways to do it.
In My Old Kentucky Home, writer Emily Bingham uses the classic by Stephen Foster to illuminate the changing ideas of the United States and how it sees itself. “My Old Kentucky Home” somehow morphs from an antislavery piece inspired by Foster’s reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin into a glorification of slavery and the antebellum South as a key part of minstrel shows. Then it veers to the right as a bit of nostalgia and a key part of the annual Kentucky Derby. And then it veers to the left as an example of rewriting history. And then it veers again until you realize maybe all of American history is just as messy and fascinating as the journey of this one song.
The childhood of Beethoven comes to vivid life in Golden Boy, a graphic novel by Mikael Ross. Ross was commissioned to do a small comic for the Beethoven Society. But when he read the diaries of the baker’s son who lived just below little Ludwig’s family, Ross was inspired, and this full-length novel following Beethoven right up to his first major public appearance is the result. Any teen who loves comic books might just find themselves drawn into classical music. And any fan of classical music will discover a new appreciation for comics.
Liarmouth…A Feel-Bad Romance
By John Waters
$26, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Grease: Tell Me More, Tell Me More — Stories From the Broadway Phenomenon That Started It All
Edited by Tom Moore, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ken Waissman
$30, Chicago Review Press
Auteur of filth John Waters and Grease have a lot in common. Both began as rude upstarts, thumbing their nose at convention, reveling in their status as outsiders, and against all expectations becoming huge successes and downright huggable.
With Liarmouth, Waters proves he can still provoke. His first (!) novel is exactly what you’d expect and yet is still somehow envelope-pushing. This crime saga stars the hilarious Marsha Sprinkle, a gal who despises children (especially her own) and never met a scam she didn’t try twice. Sprinkle is a Liarmouth and simply can’t tell the truth, because what’s the point? Think Carl Hiaasen, but much, much dirtier. It’s impossible to read without casting the film or thinking where a song would fit in once it becomes a Broadway musical. But Liarmouth isn’t just a blueprint for adaptation. It’s a novel because Waters has a new world to conquer. Or is that contaminate?
Grease: Tell Me More, Tell Me More is an oral history of sorts, collecting stories from anyone and everyone connected to the original show and its many incarnations. Overseen by the original Broadway director, Tom Moore, star Adrienne Barbeau (the original Rizzo), and Ken Waissman (an original producer), this book is a grab bag of memories and anecdotes from anyone who crossed paths with it. The names involved or dropped here include Barry Bostwick, John Travolta, Marilu Henner, Peter Gallagher, directors Walter Bobbie and Jerry Zaks, and many, many more. Catnip for fans and a testament to how an enduring work can shape and influence so many careers and lives decades after it first began.
Love, Dance & Egg Rolls
By Jason Tanamor
$18, Ooligan Press
An Arrow to the Moon
By Emily X.R. Pan
$18.99, Little, Brown Books for Younger Readers
By Elise Broach
$16.99, Christy Ottaviano Books
Being really good at something can be the perfect refuge for kids … or it can be a burden if what you’re good at is totally not cool to others.
Jamie is a normal kid in high school in Love, Dance & Egg Rolls. He watches way too much TV, he has a crush on a girl, and he’s vaguely embarrassed by his folks (Jamie’s dad always tries to feed his white friends egg rolls). Oh, and he wants to be a tinikling folk dance master — the traditional (and pretty cool) dance of the Philippines. A pity some of the racist kids at school make Jamie embarrassed by it.
Hunter Yee certainly isn’t embarrassed by his skills with a bow and arrow. He’s remarkably good at it, and that’s worth a lot among his friends. But it’s not enough to win over the parents of Luna Chang, the amazing girl who’s just transferred to his high school. In An Arrow to the Moon, a rewrite of Romeo & Juliet, the two star-crossed lovers discover a bow and arrow is no more use than a sword or poison was back in Verona when it comes to making the course of true love run smooth. (Yeah, yeah, that’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it still fits.)
Michael doesn’t quite fit in when it comes to the novel Duet. The boy is clearly a talented pianist, but he just won’t play. The Chopin festival is coming up and disaster looms, until Michael finds the perfect duet partner: Mirabelle, the goldfinch who loves to sing and has been narrating this sweet middle-grade novel all along.
Offstage Observations: Inside Tales of the Not-So-Legitimate Theatre
By Steven Suskin; forward by Ted Chapin
$32.95, Applause Books
Playing With Myself
By Randy Rainbow
$28.99, St. Martin’s Press
Everybody’s a critic. But of course a critic is really a critic, and here are two of the best. Steve Suskin, of course, is a critic and founding editor at New York Stage Review. But that’s on top of chronicling Broadway in numerous books about theater history, like Opening Night on Broadway and Second Act Trouble. This memoir captures everything that came before, from the first time a teenage Suskin found himself on a Broadway stage lit only by a ghostlight, to his trial-by-fire working for producer David Merrick, on to his own success producing shows including the perennial Forever Plaid. It’s a coming-of-age for a theater geek all lovers of Broadway can identify with … even if most of us never actually ended up appearing in an actual Broadway musical, however unintentionally.
Randy Rainbow doesn’t critique Broadway: He loves it unreservedly. But politics? Oh, that’s another story! As any theater fan knows, the budding performer combined his love for theater with his withering critiques of D.C. into a string of hilarious online skits that put the viral in video. After several successful albums, this triple threat adds memoirist to make the actor/singer/songwriter a book writer to boot! Watch out, Sondheim! Rainbow describes taking a purse to second grade, getting his first job on Broadway — at Hooters — and generally not fitting in until the whole world discovered his talent. Suddenly, Randy Rainbow fit in everywhere, but especially in the theater world. Stephen Sondheim was a fan, as is Patti LuPone and Carol Burnett (which … duh!) — and us too, in case you hadn’t guessed.
By Mickle Maher
$20, Agate Midway
Selected Plays by Griselda Gambaro
By Griselda Gambaro; translation by Gwen MacKeith
$34.95, Methuen Drama
William Shakespeare Complete Works, Second Edition
By William Shakespeare; edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
$85, Modern Library
It all begins on the page. So let’s end with these three collections of plays by three different authors. You’ve probably heard of at least one of them.
Mickle Maher is a legend in Chicago, and Six Plays gathers works by the mischievous Maher, who really needs a showcase in New York City. (Hello, Signature Theatre!) In one play, auditions for a production of The Three Little Pigs is constantly interrupted by the director of the Scottish play rehearsing upstairs, not to mention a mysterious fog and some real magic toiling and troubling everything they do. In another, Quasimodo and Beethoven take part in a panel discussion on why they failed to come up with the proper sound for a stage direction in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Think Ionesco and Albee, for starters.
Griselda Gambaro is one of Argentina’s great dramatists. Like Maher, she deserves a much higher profile in New York and London. This collection of seven major works, from 1967’s Siamese Twins to 2015’s The Gift — all translated by Gwen MacKeith — should help change that.
Finally, good old Bill S. is back. The handsome Modern Library’s second edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare is edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, endorsed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and belongs on the shelf of any theater lover. As Shakespeare said in his last play, Two Noble Kinsmen, “We have our end … We, and all our might / Rest at your service. / Gentlemen, good night.”
Michael Giltz is the cohost of the weekly entertainment podcast Showbiz Sandbox. He has covered all areas of entertainment as a journalist, critic, feature writer, and analyst, contributing to 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.