One-Minute Book Reviews

April 8, 2013

A Theater Critic Celebrates the Best Broadway Musicals of All Time

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:14 pm
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“No gags, no girls, no chance of success.” – A producer after seeing Oklahoma!

The Sound of Musicals. By Ruth Leon. Oberon Masters Series/Oberon, 128 pp., $20.95.

By Janice Harayda

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it must have been when the phrase “Broadway musical” meant Oklahoma! and not “jukebox tunes strung on a plot with clothespins.”

In this collection of brief and graceful essays, the longtime theater critic Ruth Leon celebrates 10 20th-century shows that left an enduring mark on their art form: three that “almost everybody agrees” are the best musicals of all time – Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and West Side Story – and seven others: Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Oklahoma!, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George. Her essays resemble after-theater conversations at Sardi’s with a charming host who exudes an infectious admiration for her subject. They brim with anecdotes about show-business people like the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir inspired Gypsy and who “rode around in a maroon and gray Rolls Royce with her initials in gold on the door.”

Leon focuses on original productions and avoids delving into the interpretations of musicals mooted in revivals and movie versions. She doesn’t quite convey why critics regard Sondheim so highly when many people find it hard to sing any of his songs except “Send in the Clowns.” And while she says she has selected titans that “changed the way we think about musical theater,” she ignores the seismic effects rock musicals like Hair, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, the ancestors of all those jukebox productions like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.

But Leon excels at describing the themes of her chosen shows, or what they are “about” on a deeper level than that of plot. “Guys and Dolls is an inverted morality tale, growing out of Damon Runyon’s close-up knowledge of the streets of New York, and a fable with a point – that good and evil certainly exist, but not necessarily in the places we have learned to look,” she writes. Oklahoma! “appears to be about whether Curly or Jud is going to take Laurey to the picnic,” but that’s just the story line of the show: “What it’s really about is what it means to be American, what the poet Carl Sandburg called ‘the smell of new-mown hay on barn-dance floors.’” Leon’s willingness to grapple with such themes is an increasingly rare  virtue as theater reviews become ever-more plot driven. This book may be an appreciation great musicals, but it is also a model of good theater criticism – an art form as endangered as the Broadway musical.

Best line: The producer Mike Todd reportedly said, when he saw Oklahoma! before it opened in New York: “No gags, no girls, no chance.” The musical ran for more than five years on Broadway, won a special Pulitzer Prize, and became for its day “the gold standard, the show by which all others would be judged.”

Worst line: “Across 400 years Shakespeare continues an ongoing dialogue with those who perform his plays and can tell them, if they will listen, exactly what he wants from them.” True, but that “continues” makes the “ongoing” redundant.

Published: 2010 (Oberon Books hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Leon is a columnist for Playbill who has written theater criticism for the European edition of the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 28, 2010

Donald Margulies’s Play ‘Collected Stories’ – A Poet in His Youth, Again

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:37 pm
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A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright explores the relationship between a writing teacher and a student who forges her own career

Collected Stories: Revised Edition. By Donald Margulies. Dramatists Play Service, 68 pp., $8.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

Who owns the story of an adult’s life? Donald Margulies explores the moral and psychological implications of the question in Collected Stories, which had a brief run on Broadway earlier this year. Margulies doesn’t parse legal issues in this play about a 55-year-old New York writing teacher, Ruth Steiner, and her evolving relationship with a young student, Lisa Morrison, who forges her own career.

Collected Stories instead follows the intersecting emotional arcs of a mentor and her protégée as the story builds toward an act the older woman sees as a betrayal. Lisa urges her teacher to talk about an affair she had years earlier with the poet Delmore Schwartz, then uses what she learns for her own purposes. Ruth sees her student’s appropriation as a form of theft and psychic annihilation. She tells Lisa: “You wanted to obliterate me.” Lisa insists she didn’t: “I wanted to honor you.”

Who is right? The play leans toward Ruth but has little new to say about the age-old dance of transference and countertransference between a mentor and protégée. As in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends, Margulies paints his characters’ needs with a broad brush. But he’s a skilled craftsman: He seems to have removed every needless word with the literary equivalent of turpentine, and his play is well-paced and structured. And the question “Who owns the story of your life?” has gained provocative and slippery dimensions in the age of Facebook and text messages. High school and college students might have hours of lively arguments about this play even as their elders prefer to dust-off their Vintage paperback editions of Poets in Their Youth.

Best line: Ruth: “Are you going to survive this tutorial, or are you going to require oxygen?”

Worst line: Ruth on Delmore Schwartz: “He was only 44 but there was something ancient about him. He seemed to possess so much wisdom …”

You may also want to read: Jonathan Yardley’s review of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Vintage, 1983), Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her husband, John Berryman, and his circle, including Delmore Schwartz.

Read a review of the 2010 Broadway production of Collected Stories in the Wall Street Journal.

You can order Collected Stories online though Dramatists Play Service.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 19, 2010

What Was Shakespeare’s Point of View on Life? Quote of the Day / Christian Gauss

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:22 am
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Most books about William Shakespeare focus on one aspect of his life or work and skirt the big question that underlies both: What was Shakespeare’s point of view on life? An answer came from the literary critic  and Princeton University professor Christian Gauss as quoted by his former student Edmund Wilson:

Wilson writes that Gauss began one of his lectures by saying:

“There are several fundamental philosophies that one can bring to one’s life in the world — or rather, there are several ways of taking life. One of these ways of taking the world is not to have any philosophy at all – that is the way that most people take it. Another is to regard the world as unreal and God as the only reality; Buddhism is an example of this. Another way may be summed up in the words Sic transit gloria mundi – that is the point of view you find in Shakespeare.”

From “Christian Gauss as a Teacher of Literature” in The Portable Edmund Wilson (Viking Penguin, 1983), edited, with an introduction and notes, by Lewis M. Dabney.

May 25, 2009

‘Death Takes a Holiday’ – A Play Asks, ‘What If for Three Days Nobody Died?

Filed under: Classics,Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
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Broadway came before Brad.

In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love

Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).

But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.

“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.

Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.

Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:

“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”

Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.

Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”

Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.

Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).

Furthermore: Death Takes a Holiday is available from the Samuel French online store. The Broadway play inspired a 1934 movie with the same title and the remake Meet Joe Black, which I haven’t seen.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 20, 2009

You Think the Perks in Your Job Are Bad? When Actors Got Free Cigarettes – Quote of the Day From Nancy Balbirer’s ‘Take Your Shirt Off and Cry’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:30 pm
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You think the lukewarm coffee at your office is bad? Consider a perk that Nancy Balbirer received as a young actor, as described in her new Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences (Bloomsbury, 256 pp., $16, paperback), a review of which will appear soon:

“Shortly after I turned twenty-eight, I was cast in an off-Broadway production of the Molière play The Ridiculous Précieuses, at the Kauffman Theatre. The production was bankrolled by our leading lady, who happened to be an heiress of one of our country’s great, philanthropic robber baron families. She had Philip Morris as a backer, so in addition to our Equity minimum salaries, the cast were offered as many packs of cigarettes as we could smoke a day. Undeterred by the homicidal innuendo, we all graciously accepted the producers’ largesse.”

November 26, 2008

Has Film Replaced the Novel as the Best Medium for Exploring How We Live’? (Quote of the Day / Allan Massie)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:56 pm
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Critics have been predicting the death of the novel for so long that some people take for granted that the future, if not the present, belongs to movies. Is this a fair assumption?

Allan Massie, the Scottish journalist and novelist, recently considered the question in the Spectator, the British weekly. One often-heard explanation, Massie noted, is just as the theater yielded to the novel, the novel has yielded to the film: “Our culture has become visual rather than literary.” He responded:

“Some truth to this. Even though film still draws on novels and short stories, it has become a less literary medium in the last quarter-century. Cinema offers more immediate sensations and it generally requires less of its audience, which is essentially passive, than the serious novel does of the reader.”

Massie added that others say that narratives in print have gone out of fashion:

“In truth these explanations are less than convincing. Film hasn’t superseded the novel. As a medium for examining the way we live and the way we should live, film has for the most part proved wretchedly inadequate. Its ability to explore moral or ethical questions is slight, because such exploration must be verbal, and film deals in images. Film is the great simplifier, and that is part of its charm. …

“No need, therefore, to ring the funeral bell. The aspiring novelist needs only courage, intelligence, imagination, a keen eye, and the belief that writing novels remains the best way of telling aqnd showing how it is. “

Massie’s comment appeared in a Life & Letters column called “The Death of the Novel” in the July 28, 2008, issue of the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk, but doesn’t appear on its Web site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 22, 2008

Two Quatrains by Tadeusz Różewicz

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:51 am
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Two quatrains I like from the 17-line poem “knowledge” in Tadeusz Różewicz’s New Poems (Archipelago, 259 pp., $16, paperback), translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston:

cogito and dubito
share a house you know
mr cogito above
mr dubito below

having lived a rich life
they switched you know
dubito above
cogito below …

Różewicz is considered one of the finest poets in Poland and won the Nike Prize, his country’s highest literary honor, for Mother Departs. His plays have earned him a reputation one of the major Polish playwrights of the 20th century www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/os_rozewicz_tadeusz.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2008

A Few Comments on Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ on Broadway and in Print

It’s remarkable how a well-staged Broadway production can transcend the defects of a play. Last weekend I saw All My Sons in previews at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and the time flew by.

You hardly noticed how prosaic Arthur Miller’s writing can be because the production had so much going for it, including brisk direction by Simon McBurney and a glossy cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes.

After I got home, it seemed to me that All My Sons stands up to rereading both better and worse than some of the other plays that appeared in decade after World War II. It holds up better partly because Miller is dealing here with issues that have fresh relevance in the age of Haliburton and Enron: the evils of war profiteering and the moral duty of individuals to resist the soulless influence of American business. It holds up worse because Miller can use language as blunt instrument instead of a precision tool (as in Linda Loman’s famous defense of her husband, Willy: “ … attention must be paid”). That liability is perhaps more noticeable today than it was before videos and DVDs expanded the availability of more elegantly written plays from Hamlet to A Streetcar Named Desire.

I wondered if others shared my view, so I picked up Arthur Miller (Chelsea House, 148 pp., $35), part of the “Bloom’s BioCritiques” series edited and introduced by the distinguished critic Harold Bloom. (The volume on Miller in the “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations” series is instead shown above.) Bloom says:

“Miller is by no means a bad writer, but he is scarcely an eloquent master of the language.”

Exactly. The appeal Miller’s plays — which remains high — comes from virtues other than unparalleled phrase-turning, including their craftsmanship, moral courage and passionate exploration of the intersection of social and psychological forces in American lives.

A few comments on the Sept. 26 preview: Kate Holmes (Ann Deever) is easy on the eyes and, given that producers must be strafing her with scripts for romantic comedies, has made a statement about how she wants to be perceived by taking on this role. John Lithgow (Joe Keller) gives an energetic performance in a tough role that requires him to undergo a transformation that, as Miller wrote it, isn’t fully believable. Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller) grows into his part. None of those actors can touch Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), whose portrayal of a mother unable to accept the death of her son in World War II must be one of the best recent portrayals of mental illness in any medium.

All My Sons officially opens Oct. 16 on Broadway. You can read about that production and buy tickets at www.allmysonsonbroadway.com. You’ll find more on Arthur Miller (1915-2005) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept books from editors, publishers, authors or agents. It also does not accept free tickets to plays mentioned on the site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 22, 2008

A Few Words on ‘Hamlet’ — Were Your English Teachers Right When They Told You That the Prince of Denmark Was a Man of Inaction?

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:22 pm
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A lot of people may be returning to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy now that Oprah has selected the Hamlet-influenced The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for her book club. And I may say more about that play closer to the date of the discussion of David Wroblewski’s novel. For now, I’ll mention one of the most perceptive scholarly comments I’ve read about the play: Many of us learned in school that Hamlet is “a man of inaction,” defined by his hesitations, but you could make a strong case that the opposite is true.

After becoming suspicious that his uncle killed his father in order to marry his mother, Hamlet vows revenge and devotes himself to achieving it. When traveling players arrive at Elsinore castle, he arranges quickly for them to put on a play that will confirm his beliefs, giving us the line: “…the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet certainly deliberates, as in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in which he ponders whether it’s better to live or die when we don’t know what death will bring. But it might be more accurate to describe the Prince of Denmark as contemplative, meditative, or ruminative, words that describe his thoughts, rather than as a man of “inaction,” which describes his behavior.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 7, 2008

You Don’t Need to Be a Cockeyed Optimist to Enjoy James Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’

Filed under: Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
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Bali-ha’i is calling to a new generation of readers and theatergoers

Tales of the South Pacific. By James Michener. Fawcett, 384 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

By the end of his career James Michener was writing books so gassy and bloated, critics joked that you didn’t review them – you weighed them on a freight scale. But it wasn’t always so.

Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific, his first work of fiction, which shows a flair for storytelling that ebbed later in his life. Inspired by Michener’s work as a naval officer in World War II, the book is perhaps best known as the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

But Tales of the South Pacific stands on its own and has a surprising lightness next to behemoths like Texas, Alaska and Centennial. It gathers 19 related tales about U. S. servicemen and –women and others trying to fend off alternating terror and tedium on beautiful coral islands as Japanese bombers fly overhead.

One plotline describes efforts by Ensign Nellie Forbush to resist her attraction to the French planter Emile de Beque (who in South Pacific courts her with “Some Enchanted Evening,” which she soon counters with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”). A second and darker narrative thread follows a Tonkinese woman known as Bloody Mary who, when not selling shrunken human heads to sailors, offers her nubile daughter to a Marine for trysts on Bali-ha’i.

Both romances involve people of different backgrounds, and some critics have called Tales of the South Pacific a plea for tolerance. It’s a fair assessment but one that may owe less to Michener than to Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” which says that people learn how to hate. And you don’t read Michener, even at his best, for theme: You read him for a sense of a time and place and, above all, for story.

Michener delivers all those in Tales of the South Pacific, a book especially memorable for its glimpses of rank-and-file members of the armed forces. You know exactly what he means when he says that “It was sort of nice to think that your outfit had a guy stupid enough to pay fifty dollars for a human head … It gave you something to talk about.” His servicemen embrace distractions, however ironic, from thoughts of the death and what faithless girlfriends might be doing back home.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, also set on a Pacific island during World War II, stands taller with critics than Michener’s more enjoyable book. But South Pacific has helped to keep Tales of the South Pacific in print. All the more reason, then, to welcome the wonderful first-ever Broadway revival of the musical now playing the Vivian Beaumont. You don’t have to be – as Nellie Forbush sings – a cockeyed optimist to expect to find pleasure in Michener at his best.

Best line: “In Albuquerque Harbison married the daughter of a wealthy family. She was a Vassar graduate and found Bill a fine combination of dashing Western manhood and modest cultural attainment. He at least knew what the Atlantic Monthly was.”

Worst line: In the last few pages Michener sounds as though he’s channeling Mammy in Gone With the Wind when he brings on a black caretaker at a cemetery, who speaks this way: “Me ’n’ Denis, we is bof’ cullud. He f’um Geo’gia. I f’um Mississippi.”

Quote: On why islands like Bali-ha’i seemed magical: “It is a miracle of the South Pacific that islands which are relatively only a few miles away are rarely seen. Hot air, rising constantly from steaming jungles, makes omnipresent clouds hover above each island. So dense are they that usually they obscure and often they completely hide the islands they attend. So it is that an island like Vanicoro, only 16 miles away, might rarely be seen, and then only after torrential rains had swept the sky clear of all but high rain clouds, equalizing temperatures over the entire vast sea. Then, for a few hours, islands far distant might be seen.”

Published: 1947 (first edition), 1984 (Fawcett reprint).

Furthermore: Michener www.cnn.com/US/9710/16/michener.obit/won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Tales of the South Pacific, which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted for South Pacific. The first-ever Broadway revival of the musical opened in April theater2.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/theater/reviews/04paci.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who wrote the novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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