Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – Nothing Like a Dame

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Nothing Like A DameEddie Shapiro is best known for bringing out the gaiety at the Happiest Place on Earth as the co-author of Queens in the Kingdom: The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks and the producer of Gay Days at Disneyland. His latest book, Nothing Like A Dame, focuses on a different kind of royalty: twenty-one of Broadway’s leading ladies, every one of them a Tony Award winner, encompassing over sixty years of Broadway history, from Carol Channing, whose debut was in Let’s Face It in 1941, to those opening in shows this season like Idina Menzel and Sutton Foster. (Twenty interviews appear in the book proper. A bonus chapter about Tonya Pinkins is available as a download from the book’s website.)

Subtitled “Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater,” Shapiro’s book delivers exactly what the title promises: interviews with (mostly) above-the-title stars, presented as straightforward Q&As. While there are only a couple of notable omissions (Bernadette Peters being the most obvious), the book makes no attempt to be encyclopedic. In fact, in his introduction, Shapiro acknowledges that many of these women have written their own memoirs (or, in the case of Elaine Stritch and Chita Rivera, performed in autobiographical Broadway shows) and, rather than attempt to retell the same stories, he hoped to complement and expand upon what they’ve already offered about themselves. Given that approach, this book might not be the most accessible to casual theatergoers. If shows like Call Me Madam and Kiss of the Spider Woman or names like Graciela Daniele and Gwen Verdon send you running to Google, you may find the reading experience challenging.

Shapiro occasionally relies on simplistic, formulaic questions, and you may get tired of “What was it like working on show x?” and “How do you feel about all the press events surrounding the Tony Awards?” While this produces the occasional dud (Elaine Stritch’s chapter reads like she’s actively avoiding answering questions), in the best interviews, these become springboards for surprisingly frank discussions of the joys and challenges of being a working actress. That may be the biggest revelation of the book as a whole: even actresses like Chita Rivera, who can’t help but acknowledge the indelible mark she’s made on the history of Broadway, see themselves first and foremost as working actors. And the most depressing part of that revelation is how much each woman still has to hustle to keep working, not only for the love of the theater, but to pay the bills. Legendary status doesn’t come with a pension plan.

Most interviews in the book were conducted between 2008 and 2011, and the best chapters benefit from multiple interviews conducted over the years. (Each chapter begins with a note about when the interviews took place.) This leads to a couple of awkward mentions of marriages that no longer exist and career questions that have since been answered, but these are minor quibbles. The book need not be read in order—feel free to flip right to Patti LuPone if that’s what you’re most excited about—but there is a certain logical flow to the book, which groups the women roughly by age, starting with the most established and concluding with the most up-and-coming. Donna Murphy’s stories of working with Sondheim are more striking following Patti LuPone’s description of her relationship with him; the picture that develops of Steel Pier in the words of Karen Ziemba, Debra Monk and Kristin Chenoweth is especially potent when it unfolds across the chapters as Shapiro has designed it.

Certain themes recur throughout the book, with a surprisingly diverse set of observations. Carol Channing, Victoria Clark and Tonya Pinkins all speak candidly of the obstacles a career on the stage presented to motherhood. Judy Kaye and Lillias White share frustrations at their failures to parlay Tony Awards into bigger careers. And it seems like an entire generation of stars pursued a career on Broadway after being inspired by the original Broadway production of Pippin.

Nearly every woman speaks of spending her earliest shows standing in the wings watching the stars she worked with, and the theme of mentorship from other performers as well as directors and choreographers looms large enough that people like Stephen Sondheim and Bob Fosse become the recurring characters linking each interview to the next. It’s clear that all of these women have a sense of being part of something larger than themselves, although there’s a distinct split between those, like Betty Buckley, who experience the phenomenon as a sisterhood of stars who support each other, and those, like Tonya Pinkins, who see stardom as an exclusive club they fought their way into, granting them access to roles previously unavailable to them.

But don’t worry, the book isn’t just about artistic struggle; there’s plenty of dish, too. You’ll find out Ethel Merman’s four-letter nickname for Carol Channing; which of her co-stars Patti LuPone calls a “travesty of a leading lady;” and what Betty Buckley thinks of her reputation for being difficult.

Ultimately, the book falls somewhere between a reference book and my fantasy version of People magazine from a parallel universe where Broadway musicals are the dominant art form. Better than fluff but not quite essential, this book offers diehard fans new facets to admire about favorites, and newer fans may be inspired to learn more about the myriad shows and personalities mentioned within the book’s pages.

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