In 'Broadway,' many moving memories

November 16, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,J. Wynn Rousuck is theater critic of The Sun.

"Broadway Day & Night: Backstage and Behind the Scenes" is the largest fund-raising project in the history of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the theater community's most active charity and service organization working to address the challenge of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

But even if it weren't such a noble effort, this glitzy coffee-table book would be -- to borrow a show-biz term -- a hit.

The text is a collection of more than 100 short essays by Broadway professionals writing about their most "unexpected and/or profound" theatrical experiences. These are illustrated with black-and-white backstage photos taken between March 1991 and January 1992, as well as a host of color production shots.

The editors, who bill themselves as "presenters," are a theatrical producer and two executives of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which will receive all of the royalties.

The finished "production" not only delivers the unexpected and profound, it's almost always moving. While the contributors include such big names as Carol Channing, Sir Ian McKellen, Helen Hayes, Stephen Sondheim and August Wilson, some of the most intriguing are behind the scenes, from the chief usher at the Palace Theatre to the maitre d' at a restaurant in the theater district.

For instance, Broadway conductor Robert Billig describes the hazards of occupying the orchestra pit, which can include dodging wayward props and occasionally even wayward actors. Once, he reports, in the scene when Jean Valjean smashes a chair in "Les Miserables," a chair leg whizzed past his right ear. "I began to think that I should find a hard hat to match my tuxedo," he writes.

One of the most delightful insider stories is the account of the Gypsy Robe by its historian, Gloria Rosenthal. On opening night of a Broadway musical, this muslin garment is delivered to the chorus member with the most credits. Decorated with mementos of each previous show -- sometimes as many as 15 -- robes have featured such three-dimensional items as a straw hat from "Dancin' " and a rope from "The Will Rogers Follies."

Only about a half-dozen of the contributions refer to AIDS. Of these, perhaps the most pertinent comes from playwright Terrence McNally, whose essay concludes: "I am mourning not the Broadway that was but the Broadway that AIDS has seen to it will never be. If this is nostalgia, I don't know how we're expected to handle it except to continue to do the best work we can. It's the only fitting memorial for those we love and have lost."

His words also describe this book -- the ideal choice for any theater fans on your holiday gift list.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: Broadway Day & Night.

Editors: Ken Marsolais, Rodger McFarlane and Tom Viola.

Publisher: Pocket Books.

Length, cost: 288 pages, $50.

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