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One thing you may not know about the life of a theater critic is that it involves a lot of reading. I don’t just mean perusing scripts, though I certainly do a great deal of that. I also mean reading nonfiction books—whole books! from beginning to end!—about what goes on offstage.
That’s a part of my job, yes, but it’s also a thing I enjoy. People who love theater, I’ve found, also tend to love reading about it. In part, that’s because theater disappears quickly, and we rely on descriptions and lore about past artists and shows to keep them alive. It can be instructive to get a peek behind the curtain, not to mention fun; finding out what happens offstage gives us a greater appreciation for what we do get to see.
But even the most voracious fans can’t read everything. Countless nonfiction books about theater are published every year; the volume of volumes is intimidating. And I’d like to help with that. Here are a dozen books about theater that have come out in the past three years and that I think are eminently worth your time. As the holiday season approaches, consider buying these for your vacation or staycation or winter-night curl-up-with-a-good-book sessions—or, of course, as gifts for stagestruck friends.
The three at the top, in alphabetical order, are the must-reads for me: page-turners that anyone who likes theater, and even people who don’t, will find highly entertaining and illuminating. But I’m also happy to recommend the other nine, which are also listed in alphabetical order. (And I hasten to add that there are surely many worthy books that didn’t make this list; I haven’t, after all, read everything either.)
Here’s my list. Get cracking!
Definitely read these:
I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir by Harvey Fierstein (2022)
You can hear Harvey Fierstein’s unique voice—gravelly yet nurturing, and as archetypically New York as the rumble of the subway trains—on every page of his deeply enjoyable autobiography. The pathbreaking actor-playwright brings humor, warmth and savvy to this account of his unlikely rise from experimental theater to mainstream acclaim through such shows as Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles and Hairspray. Among the liveliest side characters are maternal figures (his real-life mother, his onstage mom Estelle Getty, La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart), which seems fitting for the gay den mother of Broadway.
Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris (2021)
In the course of his long and brilliant career, Mike Nichols was a leading figure in the fields of comedy, theater and film (including The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?): not bad for a guy who fled Nazi Germany for America at the age of 6, completely bald and speaking no English. Arts journalist Mark Harris does full justice to his subject in this superb biography, which is hilarious, poignant, well-judged and sometimes shocking, and sustained by a profound understanding of the inner dynamics that make plays and movies happen.
Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green (2022)
On the cover of her posthumous autobiography, writer-composer Mary Rodgers flashes her pretty, pearly-white teeth in a jubilant grin. And she bites as well as smiles, often at once, in every chapter of this outrageously funny and candid account of her wild life. Written in a ventriloquistic collaboration with New York Times critic Jesse Green, the book serves delicious inner-circle gossip about theater titans like Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and her father, Richard Rodgers, but her juiciest character is herself.
But also read these:
August Wilson: A Life by Patti Hartigan (2023)
In the ten rich plays of his Century Cycle, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, August Wilson distinguished himself as the premier poetic dramatist of African-American life. Patti Hartigan’s weighty biography, the first comprehensive one devoted to this pillar of Black theater, is drawn in large part from interviews with Wilson himself (who died in 2005) and members of his circle; meticulously researched, it covers his rise from impoverished high-school dropout in Pittsburgh, where most of his plays are set, to revered author of such modern classics as Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity by Ryan Donovan (2023)
In this thought-provoking treatise, theater professor and former dancer Ryan Donovan applies a probing eye to the ways in which Broadway musicals since 1970 have represented bodies deemed to be less than ideal, especially because of their size, disability or perceived sexuality. Through politically charged evaluations of shows including A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, La Cage Aux Folles, Hairspray and the revivals of Big River and Spring Awakening, he invites us to consider how conventional Broadway aesthetics reflect larger biases, often to the detriment of nonconforming performers.
Chita: A Memoir by Chita Rivera with Patrick Pacheco (2023)
Chita Rivera came to New York City in the early 1950s, and the rest is razzle-dazzle history: starring roles in the original West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie and Chicago; ten Tony nominations, with two wins; a 2002 Kennedy Center Honor (the first for an artist of Latino descent). Now 90 years old, she has finally committed a lifetime of memories to the page, with help from veteran journalist Patrick Pacheco. Rivera opens up about her personal life, and even dishes a little dirt here and there, but—ever the consummate professional and team player—she’s highly generous to the collaborators who helped her reach the top.
Jack in the Box or How to Goddam Direct by Jack O’Brien (2022)
Jack O’Brien’s career as a theater director is as remarkable for its range as for its excellence: His Broadway résumé includes Hairspray and Shucked alongside Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy The Coast of Utopia. He’s a wonderful storyteller, and his second memoir is stuffed with telling stories about his decades in the business, including incisive and hilarious portraits of many collaborators: Stoppard, Jerry Lewis, Mike Nichols, Neil Simon, Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Goodman, Kevin Kline. Studded among the anecdotes is smart advice about the elusive art form that he knows as well as anyone.
Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy by Charles Busch (2023)
The kind of camp that drag legend Charles Busch has practiced for more than 40 years is rooted in admiration for the black-and-white Hollywood goddesses of yore; he cut his teeth on cinematic tough cookies with melty centers, and he has their style in his bones. He’s also a marvelous raconteur, and his delightful memoir sweeps us up in a journey from his youthful tutelage under the wing of his beloved Aunt Lil—the Auntie Mame to his Patrick Dennis—through his rise to Off Broadway fame and beyond.
Magic to Do: Pippin’s Fantastic, Fraught Journey to Broadway and Beyond by Elysa Gardner (2022)
The 1972 musical Pippin was a massive hit, but its creation was hardly a simple joy: Tensions ran high between the show’s director-choreographer, Bob Fosse, then at the peak of his success, and its brash young composer, Stephen Schwartz, who was fresh out of college and riding the heat of his first show, Godspell. Longtime USA Today critic Elysa Gardner digs deep into the show’s troubled genesis in a vivid case study that incorporates keen analysis from the now older and wiser Schwartz, as well as memories and insights from the original production’s colorful surviving players.
The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler (2022)
In his biography-style history, Isaac Butler astutely traces the rise and fall of Method acting: a naturalistic revolution in performance style that began in Russia, rose to prominence via stars like Marlon Brandon and Marilyn Monroe, and reached its mass-culture apotheosis in the films of the 1970s, which tacitly believed that “American acting could help excavate America’s soul.” It’s a judicious and perceptive exploration of an approach so intense that, in its most ardent practitioners, it sometimes looked almost like madness.
Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George by James Lapine (2021)
Art isn’t easy, as an oft-quoted line from Sunday in the Park with George reminds us. In this fascinating and revealing oral history, director-playwright James Lapine interviews dozens of people who were involved in the creation of his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1983 musical about the pointillist painter Georges Seurat (and his struggling great-grandson)—including Lapine’s principal collaborator, the late master Stephen Sondheim—to connect the dots of inspiration, talent, conflict and chance that combined to form a masterwork.
When Broadway Was Black: The Triumphant Story of the All-Black Musical That Changed the World by Caseen Gaines (2021)
The wordy title of the 2016 musical Shuffle Along or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed made it sound a bit like a history book. Caseen Gaines’s well-researched and very readable study, originally published under the less celebratory name Footnotes, actually is one: It takes us on an eye-opening tour of a 1921 show by four Black men—Noble Sissel, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles—that became Broadway’s first all-Black hit musical (and introduced the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry”). In the process, it offers compelling details about a chapter of Broadway’s past that is too often whitewashed.