Perfect gifts about theater


December 18, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

This year has produced an especially varied and impressive array of theater books. So, with only a few shopping days left, the theater critic is putting on her Santa's helper hat and suggesting several last-minute gift ideas for the theater lovers on your list.

Everything was Possible: The Birth of the Musical "Follies," by Ted Chapin (Alfred A. Knopf, 331 pages, $30). Chapin is president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, but when he was a junior in college in 1971, he spent a semester as a gofer on the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical, Follies.

As part of his college independent study project, Chapin kept a journal, which he has now expanded into a detailed account of the genesis of one of Broadway's most legendary musicals (albeit one that was a financial failure).

Follies, about a reunion of Ziegfeld Follies-style showgirls, boasted a cast that included Yvonne De Carlo, Dorothy Collins and Alexis Smith and was co-directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett. Although he includes some celebrity lore, Chapin writes about the show's stars in the same thoughtful, observant manner in which he provides all of his backstage insights.

The emphasis is on information, and the result is jam-packed - a thorough and thoroughly engaging behind-the-scenes chronicle of how a leviathan show progresses from rehearsals through out-of-town tryout to opening night. No Sondheim fan should be without it.

Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, as told to Greg Lawrence (Faber and Faber, 231 pages, $23). Kander and Ebb not only make up "Broadway's longest running music-and-lyrics team," as Lawrence puts it, but they are surely one of the most affable songwriting teams in the history of the Great White Way.

This volume captures that affability in a format that is essentially a running conversation. Lawrence starts out by getting the songwriters to discuss their initial interest in music and progresses quickly to their first collaboration, their shared Broadway history (from Flora, the Red Menace through Steel Pier) and on to the Academy Award-winning movie of Chicago.

The book captures the prose version of the Kander-and-Ebb style that director Harold Prince sums up in the foreword as "incredibly optimistic and youthful." What's missing from this description is the hint of darkness that characterizes their best shows (Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman). And, indeed, not all of the revelations in Colored Lights are rose-colored, but the book's overall tone is breezy and entertaining.

Design for Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, by Margot Peters (Knopf, 394 pages, $30). Margot Peters, author of biographies of such theatrical luminaries as the Barrymores and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, has turned her attention to the royal couple of the American stage in this account of their public and private lives.

As Peters points out in the prologue, she has boldly ignored playwright Noel Coward's advice that the Lunts "could not be captured in print." Further flaunting her defiance, she has borrowed the title of the book from a play Noel Coward wrote for the Lunts and performed with them.

Illustrated with black-and-white production photographs, portraits and candids, Peters' latest biography will appeal both to older readers who wish to renew their acquaintance with a pair of theatrical legends and to younger ones who will have the joy of discovering them for the first time.

Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, by Mark Eden Horowitz (The Scarecrow Press, 401 pages, $39.95). Horowitz, a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress, compiled this volume from three days of interviews conducted with the composer/lyricist in 1997.

The text includes a detailed exegesis of what Sondheim proudly refers to as his "craft," as well as a complete discography. More of a reference book than a page-turner, this one is for the truly diehard Sondheim fan.

A musical at Everyman

Everyman Theatre will close its 2003-2004 season with the first musical in its 13-year-history, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (music by Brel; English lyrics and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman).

"We wanted to do something new and exciting and fresh for Everyman. We wanted to look outside the box," said artistic director Vincent Lancisi, who added that the theater would be tranformed into a cabaret for the production.

A revue of songs by the late Belgian singer/songwriter, the show is "all music, but each song is sort of like a one-act play," Lancisi said. The production will feature four actors and five musicians and will be directed by Donald Hicken, with musical direction by James Fitzpatrick.

Jacques Brel will run from May 21-June 20. For more information call 410-752-2208.

Quick acting

For almost a decade, the New York theater scene has included an event called "The 24-Hour Plays," in which playwrights, directors and actors create short plays in a day's time. Now Mobtown Players is taking up the gauntlet locally.

On Saturday, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Mobtown will present five one-act plays, whose genesis begins at 7 p.m. tomorrow. Jointly titled The Night Before Christmas, the plays, though holiday-themed, are intended to be a reaction to typical seasonal fare and will be aimed at mature audiences.

The five writers are Allan Dale, Greg Hall, PS Lorio, Ryan Whinnem and Kate Zimmerman. A pool of 24 actors will participate in the event, which Mobtown hopes will turn into an annual tradition. Mobtown performs at Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road. Tickets are $12. For more information call 410-467-3057.

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