Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical 'Follies'
by Ted Chapin
Even the most devoted Stephen Sondheim fans are unlikely to describe his watershed 1971 musical Follies as flawless, but it's a show with many great elements, and its stature in the history of musical theatre seems to grow each year. At age 20, Ted Chapin served as a production assistant--or, as he perhaps more accurately terms it, gofer--during the creation of the original Broadway production, earning $75 a week. He also happened to be a fly on the wall. For a college assignment, he kept an exhaustive journal of his observations but waited more than 30 years to publish these recollections. His book provides a glimpse at an amazing collaboration by some of the most distinguished musical theatre craftsmen of all time: Sondheim, co-directors Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, and librettist James Goldman. There's edifying data in Chapin's slavish tome, but his dry and monotonous tone sometimes makes for a tedious read.
Follies ran for a year on Broadway, losing its entire investment, and the critics were split as to its virtues. Subsequent productions in London and New York were likewise commercially unsuccessful. The show's seriocomic story about a group of ex-performers reuniting in a majestic vaudeville house prior to its demolition brought back some aging and insecure stars, such as Dorothy Collins and Yvonne DeCarlo. According to Chapin this generated a series of problems. Most observers agreed that Goldman's book shines in spots but fails to dovetail the downbeat story with Sondheim's magnificent pastiche of vintage musical styles. Chapin isn't interested in exploring why this show elicited such polar-opposite reactions or how it came so close to being a masterpiece. In approaching his text as a chronological diary rather than an analysis, he forgoes the insight that some readers are likely to expect.
Nonetheless, musical theatre lovers and Sondheim aficionados in particular will find much of the content fascinating. Chapin provides an informative chronicle of the growth of a musical from its earliest drafts through different combinations of producers and directors, casting, rehearsals, out-of-town tryouts, Broadway previews, the eventual opening, and the troubled original cast recording. He departs from his scholarly tone occasionally to include juicy details, such as the hints that DeCarlo had more than a matronly interest in him. Chapin's detailed summary of every facial expression and yawn of New York Times critic Clive Barnes will amuse theatre critics who know that this opening-night scenario is no myth. Barnes didn't like the show, which certainly played a part in its commercial failure. More of this levity and less dry reporting would have made this book far more enjoyable.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, $30.
Voices From The Federal Theatre
Edited by Bonnie Nelson Schwartz and the Educational Film Center
"Naturally, if you get a few actors, a few theatre people, together and give them a roof over their heads and enough to eat, they're liable to create miracles, which is exactly what happened."
--John Houseman, producer, Negro Theatre Unit, Project 891, New York
Given the current brutal cutbacks in arts funding, actors today may have a hard time envisioning a vast movement launched by the federal government to put theatre artists to work. Even tougher to imagine is that this project would emerge during the Great Depression and offer jobs to 20,000?30,000 unemployed actors, directors, playwrights, designers, and stagehands in 31 states. Indeed, if there is one sad point this brilliant book pushes home, it's a sense of just how far we have strayed from the forward-thinking days of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Yet despite this note of mournful nostalgia, Voices From the Federal Theatre is nevertheless one of the most inspiring books on American theatre around. It is a collection of first-hand writings from the major actors, producers, and writers of the Federal Theatre Project--each essay filled with passionate testimonials that give us a thrilling glimpse at the kind of power and daring that a national theatre movement could potentially wield. Beautifully chosen black-and-white production stills and portraits of the movement's major players help bring the text to life.
From 1935 to 1939, the Federal Theatre Project, led by Vassar professor Hallie Flanagan Davis, played an enormous role in shaping American theatre. As we read lively selections from such playwrights such as Arthur Miller, actors such as Studs Terkel and Rosetta LeNoire, producers such as John Houseman and Woody King Jr., we realize just how revolutionary this undertaking was. In a time of economic hardship, the project constantly challenged notions of not only who should participate in theatre--this was a time when placing African Americans in the great classical roles was still a shocking artistic choice to make?but also of who should be coming to see the theatre.
"I think Federal Theatre was a rescuer," writes Studs Terkel. "What would have happened to theatre itself? There would have been a shambles. During those moments when people have no dough and couldn't afford theatre prices, they could come for 25 cents and see something real and alive."
Equally important was the way in which the movement challenged what theatre should be about. Davis wanted a theatre that was "free, adult, and uncensored," just as she was promised, and she fought hard to get it. While she avoided plays that endorsed political parties, she embraced the idea of theatre as a social tool. Exposing political corruption or unjust social conditions became one of the more important roles theatre would play in this era.
This thematic brazenness would also lead to the project's demise. The movement was ultimately killed by Congress in what writer Robert Brustein calls "an atmosphere of Red-baiting and political hysteria." One could argue that the movement lived on through a revolutionary spirit that led the way for future evolution of theatre in this country, but it's hard not to end this book with a feeling of great loss. Still, these essays are essential reading for any theatre lover who enjoys thinking not only about what has been, but also about what might someday again be possible.
University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, $19.95.
The Great American Playwrights on the Screen: A Critical Guide to Film, TV, Video and DVD
by Jerry Roberts
A solid reference book, The Great American Playwrights on the Screen adeptly encompasses the film and television productions of the great playwrights in an easy-to-follow format. Merging scholarship with popular culture, author and former film critic Jerry Roberts presents biographical sketches of more than 200 playwrights, the plays that were adapted, which versions are available for home viewing, and a chronological listing of all treatments with critical excerpts by prominent film and TV critics of the day, from the silent era to the present. Released through Applause Theater and Cinema Books, the guide includes well-known works, as well as productions that many theatre and TV aficionados may not know existed. The listings describe each adapted work in two or three sentences, include length of film, indicate of color or black-and-white stock, credit personnel, and excerpt reviews from magazines dating back to the silent era. Quotes come mainly from Variety, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, Chicago Sun-Times, Time, and Newsweek.
Roberts said he hopes to establish a record of the great playwrights' taped works, compare taped versions with their staged counterparts, rediscover forgotten performances of some of America's greatest actors, and resurrect the memories of TV productions of plays.
As television expanded into American homes in the 1950s, it brought along many adapted plays on drama anthology shows such as Philco Television Playhouse, Ford Theatre Hour, Kraft Television Theatre, The DuPont Show of the Month, and The Hallmark Hall of Fame, leading to a resurgence of the careers of many significant playwrights. According to Roberts, as so few are currently plays being adapted to the small screen, contemporary playwrights are not given the same exposure, and many quality plays go unrecognized. "The book is a study in three media that looks first to the written word and the writer," writes Roberts. "The play's the thing, and whether it has been transferred to film or videotape doesn't matter--the performance on record is what matters. In this regard, video is occasionally the great leveler, illustrating the interpretations of playwrights' intents and dramatic success have nothing to do with size, money, and prestige."
With playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Marsha Norman, Eugene O'Neill, Aaron Sorkin, Neil Simon, Wendy Wasserstein, Tennessee Williams, and Horton Foote given top billing, Roberts infuses interesting historical references and pop-culture trivia with equal effectiveness. Any reader with a love for the stage and an interest in adaptations will appreciate his critical and insightful analyses.
Applause Books, 2003, $24.95.
How NOT to Audition
by Ellie Kanner and Denny Martin Flinn
Ellie Kanner and Denny Martin Flinn have put together an easy-to-read audition handbook that can be zipped through in an afternoon--or while waiting for a couple of overscheduled auditions. Although the book seems targeted to beginners--meaning those who have put in less than a few years at this--even experienced actors will find kernels of wisdom here with which to improve their auditions. Drawing from personal experiences, the duo offers advice on everything from pictures and resumes to screen tests. At times the information can seem a bit basic, but Kanner and Flinn weigh in on some of the more frequently debated issues. They address whether to put an agency logo on your headshot (don't), how to end a reading (don't say, "Scene"), and whether an auditioning actor should dress the part (sort of).
The book is broken down into 27 chapters, each addressing a piece of the audition puzzle. Chapter One, "A Few Words About the People Behind the Desk...," details common attributes of the people actors audition for, such as agents and producers. Casting directors get the most extensive profile, which sheds light on numerous aspects of their stressful job. Kanner, who has cast many well-known projects, including the pilots of Friends and Sex and the City, certainly knows of what she speaks. Chapter Three, "Pictures, Resumes, and Demo Reels," gives basic tips on pulling together professional tools, as well as both good and bad examples. There is even a "Special Skills" section, making clear what should be listed (a black belt in martial arts) and what shouldn't (jogging).
In Chapter Four, "Preparing for an Audition," along with the obvious advice of "be on time," Kanner and Flinn emphasize staying organized and keeping information straight. They suggest creating a checklist of important data to gather before every audition. A sample template for included, which can be helpful in a speedy rundown of information with an agent or casting person. Following the checklist insures that you won't get off the phone without a critical piece of information. More important, they suggest that you correct and add to the form after the audition, thereby creating a valuable tool for recording helpful details, such as a particular casting director's style or a friendly assistant's name. The chapter "A Few Final Words" is full of bite-size tips and explanations of things like deal memos, thank you notes, feedback, and crashing auditions.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of How NOT to Audition are pertinent anecdotes from well-known Hollywoodites. The specifics of these personal accounts punch up the text, adding an amusing layer to the breakdown of do's and don'ts. Kanner and Flinn's friendly, conversational style make it a quick and worthwhile read for any struggling auditioner.
Lone Eagle Publishing, 2003, $19.95.
How to Stop Acting
by Harold Guskin
Those who were good little acting students--reading our Stanislavsky, analyzing scripts, scribbling actions and objectives in the margins, practicing our affective memory exercises--should read Harold Guskin's book if only for permission to be naughty. Guskin, longtime actor, director, and coach, found his imagination stifled after years of making careful choices, playing objectives, and following Method tenets. So he experimented: He began "taking it off the page"--that is, preparing by doing little more than reading the script aloud, phrase by phrase, allowing the words to tumble out any which way, activating thoughts, feelings, images, memories, fantasies, and so on. He brought that same energy to stage and set, listening deeply and reacting impulsively to his co-actors, the environment, the moment. His work became more fresh and truthful. Acting, he says, is about exploring the character, not defining the character. "The moments are the actor," he writes emphatically. "The character is the text.
"[T]he actor's work," he elaborates, "is not to create a character but to be continually, personally responsive to the text, wherever his impulse takes him, from first read-through to final performance.... Analysis... should be left to literary scholars and critics. Actors are about feelings, imagination, and improvisation.... If the actor can connect in a personal and instinctive way to the words his character speaks, moment by moment, at the very outset of his work, then he will begin his exploration from within the character".
Guskin perfected his techniques through years of coaching the likes of Kevin Kline (who wrote the introduction), Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda, James Gandolfini, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and others, and he describes many of those coaching sessions, including comments from the stars on how his method unblocked their creativity.
Serve the script, Guskin tells us, but not through brainy analysis. Make only a few conscious choices to ground yourself; let the rest emerge in the moment. Don't memorize lines per se; memorization will happen naturally as you go through your prep, a procedure he describes in detail. Trust your impulses; don't judge them as being right or wrong for the character, and don't worry about consistency.
True to his basic theory, which is that actors need to get out of their heads and tap into their impulses, Guskin's book is simple, practical, and to the point. Chapters include "I Want This Part, How Can I Get It?," "Acting in Film and Television," and "Playing the Great Roles," and he offers lots of useful "Suggestions for Practice." He also debunks some of our most cherished beliefs--noting, for example, that the tendency to constantly look for subtext can lead actors to miss the most simple truths of the text.
I question a few of his assertions, such as, "I don't believe an actor needs to do anything special most of the time for his emotions to be available to him." Also, there's much discussion about changing your natural "rhythm" as the key to playing a character who is superficially different from yourself, but there's not enough information on how to do so organically. In all, though, this little book is truly inspirational.
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003, $15.
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