It’s time for our final guest pick in The 2019 PopCult Gift Guide, so once again we remind you that you can hear Mel Larch host Curtain Call, the musical theatre program, on The AIR, every Wednesday at 3 PM at The AIR website, or on this embedded radio player…
The reminder is because it’s the final time we turn The 2019 PopCult Gift Guide over to Mrs. PopCulteer, Mel Larch. Mel’s got more great book picks about the theatre, this time for the official aficianado. This is a particularly intriguing batch for the true dyed-in-the-wool theatre buff who loves the stage.
Every week Mel brings you the best of musical theatre, from Broadway, off-Broadway, The West End, and all around the world on Curtain Call. You can tune in each Wednesday on The AIR, and listen to an evening marathon Sunday from 6 PM to Midnight, and an overnight marathon from Midnight Wednesday to 9 AM Thursday morning.
And with that explanation of my lovely wife’s theatre cred, we turn it over to Mel…
Our final Curtain Call book recommendations are aimed at the serious theatre fan on your holiday gift list.
Rise Up!: Broadway and American Society from ‘Angels in America’ to ‘Hamilton’
Written by Chris Jones
$16.39 at Amazon
I’ve been a fan of Chris Jones, the long-time chief theatre critic and Sunday culture columnist of the venerable Chicago Tribune, for several years and am delighted to include Rise Up!: Broadway and American Society from ‘Angels in America’ to ‘Hamilton,’ as one of my picks for the serious theatre fan on your gift list. It’s a story of how, over the course of more than twenty years, Broadway achieved a renaissance by addressing and mirroring the colossal changes of American society, such as AIDS, race, and politics.
As a critic for Variety during the nineties, Jones found himself “in the room where it happened,” from the moment an angel crashed (quite literally) through the ceiling of predjuice and religious intolerance at the end of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches, to the massive triumph of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
In Rise Up!, Jones offers a thoughtful, chronological, and critical analysis of shows dealing with the AIDS crisis (the aforementioned Angels in America,) gentrification (Rent), race (King Hedley, II, the works of August Wilson, and the 2014 revival of A Raisin In The Sun), and politics (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot). Rise Up! also looks at the rise of Disney Theatricals (The Lion King), various productions in the post-9/11 recovery days (Urinetown, Metamorphoses), artistic responses to the global recession of the late 2000’s (August: Osage County), and the effect of the Obama and Trump administrations on artists and the artistic community at large.
Framed by the phenomenon of Hamilton, Rise Up! is an engaging and thoroughly entertaining book which would be a great addition to the library of any theatre lover who realizes that the willingness to take risks can lead to works which are both commercially successful and-hopefully-forces of change.
Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theatre
Written by Mark Larson
$23.97 at Amazon
Serious theatre fans (like your humble author and host of Curtain Call here) know that Chicago is a bona fide theatre town. It’s home to five Tony Award winning theatre companies (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lookinglass Theatre, Victory Gardens Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company). It’s fed every sector of the entertainment industry from the small screen (Chicago P.D.) to Hollywood to Broadway to Studio 8H (Saturday Night Live) and delighted local, national, and even international audiences for decades. Now it’s the subject of Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theatre by award winning educator, Mark Larson.
Ensemble explores a variety of topics, such as the early days of the Compass Players and the now legendary Second City during the 1950’s and 60’s; the rise of ensembles like the critically acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Company and their “in your face,” rock ‘n roll style of performance during the 1970’s; the growth of storefront and neighborhood theatre companies during the 1980’s, and the global influence of Chicago as a center of improv training and performance, which continues to this day.
Spanning a 65 year time period, Larson draws from more than 300 interviews with the people who made Chicago theatre history happen. Readers will find themselves captivated by stories from actors including Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld, Veep), Michael Shannon (Bug, Boardwalk Empire), David Schwimmer (Friends, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne, Lady Bird); actor/playwright Tracy Letts (The Sinner, Ford vs Ferrari); playwright Ike Holter (Hit The Wall, Exit Strategy) and award winning director Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses), along with a host of designers, composers, and others too numerous to list here.
Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theatre is a must have for the theatre fan on your list who has an especially warm spot in their heart for the work of Chicago’s theatre and improv companies.
Strippers, Showgirls and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award
Written by Peter Filichia
St. Martin’s Press
$11.99 at Amazon
Full disclosure before revealing my final pick. Peter Filichia and I have been friends going back to the days of the now defunct Theatre Week magazine. I contributed material to his book Let’s Put On A Musical!: How to Choose The Right Show for Your Theatre. I didn’t feel comfortable putting that on the list, so instead, I’m recommending a great book of his that was first published in 2013: Strippers, Showgirls and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award.
It happens every year in early June. The American Theatre Wing hands out their Tony Awards to shows which have made it to Broadway and been fortunate enough to be nominated. There are a number of categories, but the universally acknowledged biggest prize in the bunch is the Tony that goes to the season’s Best Musical.
The envelope is opened. The winner is announced. And the inevitable screeching/Tweeting/Facebooking begins. “THAT won Best Musical?” (Insert expletives or emojis of choice.)
In Strippers, Showgirls and Sharks, Peter Filichia looks at many of the previous nominees for Best Musical which didn’t take home the much coveted Best Musical prize, including such shows as Gypsy (which lost in a tie between The Sound of Music and Fiorello!), Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (which was bested by a rock re-tuning of The Two Gentlemen of Verona), and West Side Story, where the Jets and Sharks got rolled over by the Wells Fargo Wagon that brought those Seventy-Six Trombones to the original cast of The Music Man.
Filichia, a former theatre critic and four time president of the Drama Desk, is a wealth of knowledge on the subject of musical theare and it is on full display here. If you have a die-hard lover of the Broadway musical on your list who finds themselves scratching their head on Tony Awards night or wondering to this day why the show they despise walked away with the coveted Best Musical award, this is the book for them.
In addition to the original cast recordings, books, and Lights of Broadway Show Cards previously mentioned in this year’s PopCult Gift Guide, you can also find a variety of great theatre gifts online at Playbill Magazine‘s online store, including t-shirts, snow globes, plush, and more! And if tickets to Hadestown or many of the other current Broadway hits aren’t in your budget, consider treating your theatre loving friend or family member to a local production by one of the many theatre companies in our area. They would love to see you in the audience not just at the holidays, but the whole year through.
That’s it for this year’s Curtain Call entries in The 2019 PopCult Gift Guide. Be sure to tune in to The AIR at 3 PM Wednesdays for the best of musical theatre, old and new. Happy holidays–and break a leg!