Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide by Ethan Mordden

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

On SondheimIn Passion, Fosca sings, “If you have no expectations, you can never have a disappointment.” These are wise words to bring with you to Ethan Mordden’s latest book, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide. Judging by its title, you might expect the book to provide a complete listing of Sondheim’s output with the author’s assessments of same, but it is oddly inadequate as both opinion and guide. The book immediately shirks its guide obligations by referring readers on the very first page to SondheimGuide.com (without a mention of Michael H. Hutchins, the man responsible for putting it together). It falls short in the opinion arena as well, offering far fewer than the title implies and hardly any that might register as controversial. And yet, taken on its own terms it offers pleasures for both the Sondheim expert and newbie alike.

Mordden knows his subject well, but he occasionally lets that get the better of him. Acknowledging in his preface that he generally did not consult other books on his subject in the writing of this one, he lets the occasional misstatement slip through. Mordden’s prose style is characterized by an awkward combination of SAT words (“manumission,” “equiponderant”) and slang (relating an artistic disagreement as a “hard-on contest,” or describing the opening scene of My Fair Lady as “an Instagram of the show’s analysis of class”). A quick poll of acquaintances who have read other Mordden uncovers that this is a common quirk of his writing about musicals, and the percentage of those who hate it is fairly close to those who adore it.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman and Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way by Stewart F. Lane

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

The Great White WayIf you dive into Warren Hoffman’s The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical expecting it to be a catalog of minorities on stage, you might want to take a second look at the title. Hoffman’s book does indeed cover shows like Show Boat and Flower Drum Song, which focus on the experience of minorities in this country, and it takes a look at all-black productions of traditionally white shows like Hello, Dolly! and Guys and Dolls. But Hoffman is quick to point out that an understanding of race and the Broadway musical can’t possibly be complete without an attempt to understand Whiteness on stage as well. Hoffman asks readers to consider not only what shows like West Side Story (which place white characters in opposition to characters of other races) might have to say about being white, but also to focus on shows like The Music Man and 42nd Street, which white audiences have typically seen as “not about race.” The Great White Way provides an enlightening experience with the potential to open the reader to radical reconsideration of classic and contemporary shows alike. Continue reading

Heeb Reviews That Gay Erotic Hanukkah Fiction You Were Probably Looking For

Originally published on Heeb.

Look, I’m a defender of the Chanukkah Bush, the Mench on the Bench, or any other stupid crap that makes our sorry little holidays feel a little more festive. (I mean, I actually think the Mench on the Bench / Elf on the Shelf is the creepiest surveillance state for kids bullshit ever, but you know what I mean.) But you know what exactly zero Jewish people put on their wish lists? Chanukkah-themed gay erotic fiction. And yet, it turns out that Loose Id, a California-based publisher of sexy eBooks, has been churning out exactly that for a number of years, boasting a collection of ten titles that are currently on sale for 18% off (get it?) now through Christmas.

To be perfectly fair to Loose Id, despite being a gay Jewish dude, I am not the target audience for these books, which were all written by women and seem to be intended for a female audience. So when I tell you that I read all or part of books by five different writers and didn’t so much as pop a boner (do people still say that in 2014?) once, take that in stride. For comparison, I have been known to feel my pants tighten at a well-shot car insurance commercial.

“But how do you know these stories aren’t intended for gay dudes?” I hear you ask. Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – The Untold Stories of Broadway

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

Untold StoriesHistory, as we all learned from Stephen Sondheim’s “Someone in a Tree,” is shaped as much by the storytellers as it is by the story. Herein lies both the charm and the challenge of The Untold Stories of Broadway by Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the first in a projected four volumes of “tales from the world’s most famous theaters.” Tepper, armed with little more than a tape recorder and chutzpah, interviewed over 200 Broadway professionals, including actors, writers, musicians, designers, stagehands, producers, ushers and doormen, to create this oral history of Broadway organized by theater.

For those unfamiliar with Ms. Tepper, she is the 28-year-old director of programming at 54 Below, and the Millennial most likely to be dubbed Mayor of Broadway when it’s time for that title to pass to her generation. Between assisting Michael Berresse on the Broadway production of [title of show], working for Davenport Theatricals on shows such as Godspell and Macbeth, and producing a variety of beloved concert series including If It Only Even Runs A Minute (celebrating Broadway’s flops), Once Upon a Time in New York City (featuring new songs by Broadway composers reflecting on their relationship with the city), and the Joe Iconis & Family shows, it seems like Jennifer is everywhere and knows everybody.  Continue reading

The Sondheim Review: It’s Their Time – Author Weaves ‘Merrily’ Into A Young Adult Novel

Originally published in The Sondheim Review, Spring 2014

The Reece Malcolm ListStephen Sondheim’s influence occasionally pops up in the most surprising of places. Having already made an impression on punk music (e.g. the album Punk Side Story), Ben Affleck (who performs “God, That’s Good” in the film Jersey Girl), and My Little Pony (which features numbers that resemble Sondheim’s work), a Sondheim-infused young adult novel is hardly surprising, but in the form of The Reece Malcolm List by Amy Spaulding, it’s unquestionably delightful.

Readers of The Sondheim Review are likely to recognize the book’s heroine and narrator: a teen more familiar with the ins and outs of high school show choir than athletics, with an iPod full of original cast albums and more Playbills than friends. Devan Mitchell has always been a bit of an outsider, with only one close friend and a strained relationship with her dad and step-mother. Having stumbled onto her mother’s identity when reading the dedication of author Reece Malcolm‘s first New York Times bestseller – clearly aimed at her – Devan begins the titular list to uncover whatever she can about her famous (and famously “un-Googleable”) mother. When Devan’s father dies in a car accident and she’s shipped off to Burbank, CA to live with the mother she’s never met, the quest to know more about the mysterious Reece Malcolm intensifies. Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – Nothing Like a Dame

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com

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. Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Review – Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway Hit

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway HitThere’s an entire genre of books detailing the “making of” Broadway musicals from idea to opening night, and it’s not hard to understand why. Few musicals spring forth fully formed from the minds of their creators, no matter how perfect the final product. The collaborative nature of theater, and musical theater in particular, ensures that the birthing process involves disparate artists hoping to merge their individual visions into one production, and their individual personalities into a team. When the unified vision, or the team, fails to coalesce, you may end up with a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark situation, where the creative differences and the backstabbing combined to make a narrative more interesting than the show itself. But as Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway Hit demonstrates, even a relatively smooth creative process can make for a good read. Taking the form of an oral history, including diverse voices from the property’s history brought together by editor (and Newsies dramaturg) Ken Cerniglia, this new addition to the genre makes an entertaining and informative read, whether you’re a “Fansie” or not.

If the word “Fansie”—that’s what Newsies fandom has dubbed itself—causes you to make involuntary gagging noises, don’t worry. Although this book might look at first glance like an elaborate souvenir program pandering to teenage girls, the “Fansie” content is limited to a few interstitial pages of fan-submitted photos and quotes about how the film or the show affected their lives. Well, that’s only half true, for one of the biggest revelations of the book is how many members of the team that brought Newsies to Broadway, from management to designers to (especially) the dancers, were inspired by the original film to pursue careers in the arts. Continue reading