Top Ten Desert Island Musical Theatre Books

A while back, we opened the online New Line Bookstore (through the magic of Amazon), a one-stop shop for books about musical theatre. Our store has several departments, including books about the history and development of the art form; books about the creation of individual musicals; biographies and autobiographies of great musical theatre artists; musical scripts and scores; materials for and about auditioning for musicals; books that have been adapted into musicals; and DVDs of stage productions of musicals. It's important to me that I convince as many people as I can to take musical theatre seriously as an art form, and this is one path toward that goal, one among many.

And thinking about all this, it occurred to me that since I've written blogs listing ten really cool stage musicals and ten really cool film musicals, I ought to do a blog listing ten really cool books about musical theatre. So, with the full knowledge that High Fidelity's Rob Gordon would have me list only my Top Five, here are my Top Ten...

Directors and the New Musical Drama: British and American Musical Theatre in the 1980s and 90s (the book is way more interesting than the title) by Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen is one of the coolest books I've read in a while. It chronicles really clearly the many changes in our art form during this period, including the mega-musical, the art musical, the new rock musical, etc. In one section of the book of particular interest to the New Liners, she writes, “After the pioneering efforts of theatres such as the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York, the idea of the serious nonprofit musical spread to theatres across America during the 1990s. While these shows met with varying levels of economic and critical success, the very existence of this alternative home for the art form began to redefine the musical, offering an alternative to both the traditional Broadway musical and the new West End shows. As the economics of the commercial theatre became increasingly forbidding, the nonprofit theatre became vital incubators for musical drama and nurtured a new generation of musical theatre writers.” And New Line was part of that! New Line was founded in 1991 and through we didn't realize at the time that we were part of a movement, this book describes our original motivations and agenda surprisingly well.

I've described Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959 to 2009 by Peter Filichia as candy for musical theatre geeks. It's truly one of my favorite musical theatre books I've ever read. Filichia (who is a friend, full disclosure) goes through every season during that time frame and picks the biggest hit musical and the biggest flop musical and writes a few pages about each one. And they're often not the shows you'd expect. Just grab a season at random, like 1973-74, when Filichia's pick for biggest hit was the truly godawful (but very commercial) Stephen Schwartz musical The Magic Show and the biggest flop was Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don't You Forget It). You've never heard of it? Exactly. And sometimes, his choices are exactly what you'd expect. For the 1989-1990 season, the biggest hit was Grand Hotel, one of the greatest of the concept musicals, and the biggest flop was Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge. 'Nuff said. Not only does Peter have a wealth of hilarious, semi-scandalous musical theatre stories in his head, which he shares generously, but he also knows more about the inside scoop than anyone else not actually inside the creation of these musicals. Peter is a columnist, Broadway reviewer, and author of many books, the latest of which is the also very cool Broadway MVPs: 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, which I'm about halfway through and enjoying thoroughly...

Everything Was Possible by Ted Chapin is the ultimate insider's look at the creation of Stephen Sondheim, James Goldman, and Hal Prince's Follies, one of the genuine masterpieces of the art form (seeing the recent Broadway revival was truly one of the great thrills of my life). Chapin was a production assistant on the original production and he kept a really detailed diary, which he adapted into this book. It's without question the best book I've ever read about the creation of a show -- and what a show! The most expensive Broadway show ever up to that point, the most artistically ambitious, the most logistically complex, the most harrowingly emotional, created by the inarguable geniuses Sondheim, Prince, and Michael Bennett (Goldman's script is amazing, but he doesn't rank with the others), and we get a ringside seat to literally everything. One of the fun side benefits for me was reading about the massive troubles and missteps and rewrites and restaging that took place all through the out-of-town tryout and the previews on Broadway, all of which made me feel so much less insecure as a director myself... Even the geniuses don't get it right the first time... or the second time...

Unfinished Show Business: Broadway Musicals as Works-in-Process by Bruce Kirle is one of those rare books on musical theatre that really fully understands and appreciates the art form and that has new, fresh, interesting ideas to put forward. It's about, more than anything, how our art form responds to and reflects the culture around it, and why a single show may have various versions to serve different times and agendas in the history of the art form. Anyone who loves musical theatre should check this one out. It's a smart, insightful book that is a real joy to read.

The Whorehouse Papers by Larry L. King may be one of the funniest books I've ever read. King wrote the original Playboy article that was the source material and he also wrote the stage script for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. As King tells the story, Peter Masterson came to him with the idea for turning King's Playboy article into a stage musical and King said, “Look, my ignorance of the subject is absolutely awesome. I’ve only seen three musicals in my life and didn’t care for any of them. I saw a number of dramas, but I quit musicals after three. Not my cup of whiskey.” He went on, “As a writer it irritates me when the story comes to a screeching halt so a bunch of bank clerks in candy-striped suits and carrying matching umbrellas can break into a silly tap dance while singing about the sidewalks of New York.” (Hmmm, now that you mention it, I hate that too.) But after hearing Carol Hall's opening number, "20 Fans," King said, “My God, that’s beautiful! This fucking thing may work!” His dark and funny tale of the insanity of bringing this true story to the musical stage under Masterson and novice director Tommy Tune is laugh-out-loud hilarious, as well as being a wonderful master class in the process of creating a truly original piece of musical theatre. (And by the way, another creation story book that's almost as funny is Meredith Willson's But He Doesn't Know the Territory, about the creation of The Music Man.)

The Great American Book Musical: A Manifesto, A Monograph, A Manual by Denny Martin Flinn is an outstanding book, one of the best I've read about musical theatre in a long time. It's a very smart, contemporary look at musical theatre, and thankfully, it's not one of those insufferable books that thinks musical theatre died in 1964. The author died shortly after writing it, but he said about the book, "I'm trying to leave a record of the technique, to create a blueprint for an ancient art." It's a really excellent read for anyone who works in or just loves the American musical.

The Show Makers: Great Directors of the American Musical Theatre by Lawrence Thelen is an amazing collection of profiles/interviews with twelve legends of the musical theatre, Hal Prince, George C. Wolfe, Tom O'Horgan, Arthur Laurents, Jim Lapine, Jerry Zaks, Jerome Robbins, Des McAnuff, Graciela Daniele, Mike Ockrent, Richard Maltby Jr., and Martin Charnin (okay, I wouldn't really call the last three "legends" but they're very good directors). I'm somebody who's read most books about musical theatre, but I learned a lot from this one, things like how these very different directors handle the rehearsal process (Lapine's process is the most interesting to me), pre-production, rewrites, etc. It's such an interesting read if you're into how musicals are made.

The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey by Joseph Swain was the first book to analyze musical theatre scores in-depth, to look at musical themes and other devices, to explore how the music contributes to storytelling. (The only other books that do this kind of in-depth analysis are Stephen Banfield's Sondheim's Broadway Musicals and my own books.) Swain does a really strong job of explaining in really clear terms (if you know music theory that will help, but it's not necessary) how music functions in works of the musical theatre over the history of the art form, in shows including Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, Carousel, Kiss Me, Kate, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, My Fair Lady, Camelot, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Godspell, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, and Les Miserables. Pretty impressive list, isn't it? This is the book that inspired me to start doing my own analyses, which eventually led to me writing books. This is a really cool book, both for hardcore musical theatre fans, but also for people who just love seeing musicals and want to know a little more about what makes them tick...

The Broadway Musical: Collaboration in Commerce and Art by Bernard Rosenberg and Ernest Harburg is an incredibly clear look into the business of making commercial musical theatre. The book's jacket says "Three out of four Broadway-bound musicals fail to get there, and many of those that do, ultimately fail. The Broadway Musical takes an engrossing look at the industry's successes and failures in an effort to understand the phenomenon of mass collaboration that is Broadway. The authors investigate the complicated machinery of show business from its birth around the turn of the century through its survival of the cost explosions of the 1980s." It's really eye-opening and really interesting. Another book on this topic just as interesting and more recent is On Broadway: Art and Commerce on the Great White Way by Steven Adler.

Now complain all you want but I'm going to count this next one as a single pick. They're my rules and I can break 'em if I want to. Ethan Mordden wrote a series of seven books chronicling the history of American musical theatre, and five of the seven are really wonderful. His books Make Believe (about the 1920s); Sing for Your Supper (the 30s); Beautiful Mornin' (the 40s); Coming Up Roses (the 50s); and Open a New Window (the 60s) are all very cool, fun to read, full of interesting info, and often very funny. His books One More Kiss (about the 70s) and The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen (about the 80s through today) are hard to get through because he hates rock musicals. No, I mean he hates them. In fact, he hates all the changes the art form went through in the 70s and again in the 90s. He hates all the things that give me such hope for the future of our art form. So for me at least, the last two books kinda read like some musical theatre equivalent of Ebeneezer Scrooge wrote them. Yuck.

And finally, since both my other Top Ten lists included more than ten, I can't help but cheat on this one too and plug my own musical theatre books, all of which I'm very proud of, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals; Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre; Rebels with Applause; Deconstructing Harold Hill; From Assassins to West Side Story; and Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR.

I'd also like to mention a few really excellent books on theatre, that aren't specifically about musical theatre but still worth a read -- New Broadways: Theatre Across America: Approaching a New Millennium by Gerald M. Berkowitz; Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement by Stephen J. Bottoms; Broadway Theatre by Andrew Harris; and the truly amazing Connecting Flights by Robert Lepage, maybe the best book on theatre I've ever read.

Young actors often ask me what they should do to learn and improve at their art form. I tell them to read everything they can get their hands on (a stop by the New Line Bookstore would be a good start!), listen to every cast album they can find, and go see every musical anybody produces anywhere nearby. (I had the great luck to be an usher at the Muny for eight seasons.) I taught a class in musical theatre history a while back and I was astounded to find out that most of these musical theatre majors didn't know anything about the history or literature of their art form. Most of them had never seen The Music Man or Les Miserables or even Rocky Horror. But how can you do The Drowsy Chaperone or Cry-Baby if you don't understand old school musical comedy? How can you do Godspell or Grease if you don't understand Hair? 

Honestly, I think these kids just love performing and it's never occurred to them that they're making art and not just "putting on a show." I see this mindset all the time when people come to work with New Line for the first time, and it blows their minds to discover the artistry and intelligence and deep human insight that goes into making great musical theatre. Once we've opened their eyes, they're converts for life.

The crusade continues...

Long Live the Musical!