Andrew Lloyd Weber
by John Snelson
No living musical theatre personage is as much of a household name as British songwriter and impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber. Even Stephen Sondheim, the darling of the cultural intelligentsia, isn't as widely familiar, because he has never achieved the mass-audience popularity of his shaggy-haired colleague from across the sea. Webber's smash-hit shows (Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita) evoke uncanny loyalty from fans. Perhaps none are as voracious as the Phantom of the Opera devotees, who see their favorite Webber musical time and time again. Meanwhile, Webber's oeuvre continues to be ruthlessly denigrated by many critics who consider him theatre's patron saint of mediocrity, an author who places commercialism and empty spectacle above true artistry.
Snelson's book is filled with mind-boggling statistics about the long runs, grosses, prolificacy, and general steamroller effect of Webber's post-Watergate London and Broadway extravaganzas. The author includes intriguing facts about the cyclical successes and failures of the Webber empire. These passages provide an interesting read for those intrigued by show business—and musical theatre in particular. This is mostly a scholarly book, however, with much space devoted to the technical aspects of Webber's songs, which will resonate with only a portion of the book's likely readership. Snelson's work is admirable for not being a whitewashed version of the truth or the gushing rantings of a fan—pitfalls of other current books about musical theatre artists. Snelson clearly agrees with some criticisms that are leveled against Webber's works, but he's obviously enamored with Phantom, devoting more space to it than to any other show. Perhaps this was a wise move; the book is available just as the long-delayed film version premieres. While waiting for a standard biography, rabid Webber fans will want to have this well-researched and skillfully written book.
Yale University Press, 2004, $30.
Dramatists Sourcebook, 23rd Edition
by Theatre Communications Group
Filled with useful and up-to-date information, the 23rd edition of the Dramatists Sourcebook is a well-crafted resource no playwright should be without. The book doesn't get into the "how-tos" of writing; instead it presents detailed listings of opportunities primarily for playwrights but also for theatre composers, translators, lyricists, and librettists. The information is practical and altogether encouraging. Who knew there are so many wonderful programs, prizes, and organizations for those who write for the stage?
Following the no-nonsense preface, "A Simple Working Guide for Playwrights," by Tony Kushner, the book is broken down into three parts. "Part 1: Script Opportunities" details a variety of programs through which one might get a script published or produced. It also lists script competitions, festivals, and new-work development programs. "Part 2: Career Opportunities" addresses tools for maintaining a career, such as fellowships, grants, emergency funds, and residencies. This section indexes the established playwright agencies—surprisingly few in number—state arts agencies, and membership and service organizations. "Part 3: Resources" contains a list of useful publications and online tools, but also boasts a very helpful "Submissions Calendar," which details what is due when, and a "Special Interest Index." This index is a time-saving way to find programs catering to a writer's style or cultural influences. A few examples of special-interest categories include experimental theatre, gay and lesbian theatre, African-American theatre, and musical theatre.
First published in 1981 with a total of 300 listings, the Sourcebook, updated every two years, is now three times larger. Sure, you could find this information on your own. You could Web search and call and compile this trove of facts and figures. But why would you? The Sourcebook is easy to navigate, detailed, and current. A playwright could use such a tool to jump-start the progress of a play, or a career. My only question for the publisher is: Why not put together guides for directors, stage managers, designers, technicians, and of course actors?
Theatre Communications Group, 2004, $21.95.
Elenora Duse - A Biography
by Helen Sheehy
Eleonora Duse, the Italian actress who died 80 years ago in Pittsburgh, of all places, changed the face of acting forever. But who gets remembered? Her French contemporary, Sarah Bernhardt, a technically proficient albeit artificial performer and relentless publicity machine whom Duse found to be "a marvelous mechanism." Helen Sheehy's thorough and quite engaging biography gives Duse her due.
Born into a family of itinerant actors, Duse led an impassioned life. When she performed the role of Juliet in the streets of Verona at age 14, her death scene caused gasps in the audience and transported her to what she described as "a state of grace," setting the precedent for a life lived in pursuit of truth in her acting. She eschewed the convention of stage makeup, allowing audiences to marvel at her translucent olive complexion and generating amazement as her face would visibly flush with emotion during her performances. Her life was lived so outside the mainstream that when Dumas fils wrote his shocking play Denise—which involved out-of-wedlock birth, child abandonment, and eventual redemption—the details were lifted whole from Duse's life. She then proudly performed the piece, causing one critic to declare she had "broken with the whole tradition of Italian acting … her method does not admit even the possibility of a pose." Later, when she toured Russia in Antony and Cleopatra, Anton Chekhov remarked, "I don't understand Italian, but she played so beautifully that I had the feeling that I understood every word." Her natural and communicative style influenced Stanislavsky, who wanted to emulate her "lack of all strain," and later tours to America transfixed the likes of Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, who were fascinated by the artlessness of her technique. At Duse's feet you can lay the blame, generations later, for acting teachers declaiming, "I don't want to see any acting here!" In Duse's life you can find out what they mean.
Knopf, 2003, $32.50.
Kurt Weil, A Life in Pictures and Documents
David Farneth with Elmar Juchem and Dave Stein
Only the technology of the day precluded the inclusion of little Kurt's sonogram in this exhaustive collection of all things Weill. The accomplished composer, whose politics and art were inseparable, had enough of a career in Germany to get on Hitler's bad side, driving him eventually to the U.S., where he made a name for himself on both coasts, sometimes adapting his own Broadway work into Hollywood film versions. This highly visual publication does a fine job in assembling not only the pictures and documents promised in the title, but also remembrances of family, friends, and co-workers, as well as a handy timeline to place everything in context.
Weill's image is considerably warmed by photographs of him and his attractive wife-to-be and leading lady, Lotte Lenya, when both were quite young and "Rosa Krebb" was far in her future. Weill's other famous collaboration, with Bertolt Brecht, which began in 1927 with Weill's songspeil Mahagonny, was a match made elsewhere than heaven, though, and by 1944, after discussions of a doomed collaboration on The Good Woman of Sezuan had fallen through, Weill admitted to a friend, "I have known Brecht for years. He has always been the most difficult man to work with."
There is also a secondary thrill just paying attention to the graphics, which offer a glimpse of design through much of the 20th century, and the correspondence, in which even the most vitriolic rejoinder is phrased, by means of manual typewriter on crinkled onionskin, with an elegance long gone. Whether Weill is your personal god or a name that brings to mind snarling women wearing too much eye makeup, this is an invaluable look at the man who said of himself, "When my music involves human suffering, it is, for better or worse, pure Weill."
The Overlook Press, 2001, $75