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

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

It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s dlevy! Vagina by Naomi Wolf

Originally published on It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s dlevy!

 

I’ve started reading Vagina by Naomi Wolf.

Toward the end of her introduction, she offers something of an apology for her handling of the book’s subject matter entirely from a heterosexual point of view. She suggests that it was not a matter of heterosexism (although she doesn’t use that term) as much as it was an acknowledgement that lesbian and bisexual women’s experience of their vaginas (in general) and sex (in particular) merit their own handling rather than being lumped together under one rubric.

I understand what she’s saying here, but I’m not sure if the argument that by lumping them together, lesbian and bisexual women’s experiences would necessarily become the afterthought is accurate. They become the afterthought because the author privileges the heterosexual experience. Is lesbian and bisexual experience of body and sex and sexuality so different that the book would balloon beyond a reasonable scope should they be included? I’m certainly not the one to say.

But even if you accept her argument, I’m not sure that it should give her the free pass to write the rest of the book as though lesbian and bisexual women certainly don’t exist. I am fairly certain that a responsible author can cordon off a section of the topic as out of scope without pretending it doesn’t exist. The heterosexism of the language is incredibly off-putting for me, and the apology in the introduction intensifies my feelings rather than mollifying them.

Wolf’s complete erasure of transgender people (who, surely, have a lot to add to a conversation about vaginas) is further troubling, since she doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. I can absolutely understand why the myriad was vaginas and embodiment in general for transgender people—those of various genders who have vaginas as well as transgender women who don’t have vaginas—interrogate, challenge, and threaten Wolf’s hypotheses. But simply writing them out of existence without so much as a half-assed apology makes me angry, and it makes it difficult for me to read the rest of the book without their absence informing my reading.

I am not the target audience of this book by any measure. I’m only a few chapters in, and it’s already clear that this book is written for the same audience that made Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues a hit. Things that I take for granted as obvious parts of the human experience (e.g. “Women’s bodies are different from each other, so one woman’s experience of her own vagina might not match another woman’s experience of her own vagina.”) are presented as great revelations. Maybe there are a great deal of women in America who just assume that their own experience of, well, anything, can automatically be generalized to all women everywhere ever. But I thought by 2012 we had all moved past that.

There a lot of book left to devour, so stay tuned for further updates. After the first page or two I tweeted that it’s hard to read this book without live-tweeting the experience, and I wasn’t kidding. Whether I’m frustrated or intrigued, this is the kind of book that calls out for the reader to say to anyone who will listen, “would you believe this?!” And isn’t that what Tumblr’s best at anyway?

InterfaithFamily: Review of The Choosing by Andrea Myers

Originally published on InterfaithFamily.

I am one of those people who grew up bombarded by messages from the mainstream Jewish community denouncing intermarriage as the worst plague affecting the Jewish people. Often, when whoever was railing on was feeling charitable, their rant would include a parenthetical reminder that converts were considered fully Jewish, so marrying a convert to Judaism wasn’t intermarriage.

Andrea Myers’s memoir, The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days, reminds us that there’s more than one way to create an interfaith family. Although Myers’s wife is Jewish, her own conversion to Judaism created many of the same dilemmas in her relationship to her parents and extended family that many interfaith couples confront. Her parents, themselves a mixed marriage of Catholic and Lutheran, are supportive and even eager to embrace their daughter’s new faith — at times with hilarious results. You mean the Jewish new year isn’t celebrated with midnight noisemakers? It’s not appropriate for a woman to thank an Orthodox Judaica seller for a discount with a big bear hug?  Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Memoir with a Message: An American Radical

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

I read a lot of nonfiction, and more than a few memoirs. But my pleasure-reading tends towards showbiz tell-alls (next up: Tina Fey and Betty White) and pop-history (think Sarah Vowell). So when I was asked to review Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, I knew I’d be wandering out of my comfort zone.

Jewschool readers may know Rosenberg from her work as director of communications at American Jewish World Service. Those with longer memories may recall the 1990 documentary Through the Wire, which detailed a fight that Rosenberg and her fellow prisoners at the Female High Security prison in Lexington, Kentucky fought and won against the government protesting the cruel and unusual treatment they received. Rosenberg’s book connects the dots, detailing her transformation from radical activist on the FBI’s most-wanted list to non-profit Jewish professional.  Continue reading