Book Review by David Levy
Book Review by David Levy
History, 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.
To know Jen is to be friends with Jena category in which I consider myself lucky to be includedand I suspect that whether or not you know her will affect how you enjoy her first foray into writing. For example, the nine pages devoted to [title of show] and the twenty pages given over to Merrily We Roll Along (the greatest of Jennifer's obsessions) make sense if you approach this book through the eyes of the author. And to be fair, she makes it clear in the text why she gives so many pages to these particular shows. But one can't help but wish that Company earned more than two pages or The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas more than a passing reference. Does Joe Iconis's song "52" (about the Alvin and Virginia theaters, written for one of the Once Upon a Time in New York City concerts) need to be included in the chapter about The Alvin? If Jen Tepper is writing the book, it does.
The book is somewhat oddly tied to the moment (or, more specifically, to 2013, when this volume was published), for a history book. For example, in five years, is anyone going to remember, never mind care about, the "Smash" references peppered throughout? ("Smash" being another of Tepper's obsessions.) And yet, if the shape of the book relies a bit too strongly on Jen's personal preferences for a contemporary audience, I can't shake the feeling that in twenty to thirty years, we are all going to be grateful for this window into the mind of Jennifer Tepper at the start of her career. Can you imagine if we had a book today documenting what Hal Prince was obsessing over in his twenties? While I hesitate to compare anyone to Prince, I don't doubt that Jen Tepper will be only more central to the history of Broadway in the coming years, and will some day be the subject rather than the author of such books.
But if you approach The Untold Stories of Broadway hoping for something encyclopedic, you will be disappointed. Rather, it's a compendium of the kinds of stories that get swapped when theater people talk to each other about jobs gone by. As such, some stories are specific and complete, such as Eddie Korbich's touching recounting of how Rosie O'Donnell helped him and his partner adopt their daughter. Others cover the sweep of an entire production in a few paragraphs, as with Christopher Durang's memories of A History of American Film. Some events are told and retold from multiple perspectives, like the evening the cast of the Hair revival slept over at the Hirschfeld. And some stories say more in what they omit than they ever could with more details, such as Michael Starobin's comments on orchestrating Carrie.
The real treat in this book is when individuals' stories coalesce and really give you a sense of the tellers, their reasons for being in the theater, and their triumphs and frustrations. It's hard not to have a deepened respect for Lin-Manuel Miranda after reading his thoughts about In The Heights, and you'll reach for your Nine cast recording after reading Maury Yeston's recollections of the original production. But beyond the names you'll recognize lie stories from people you may have passed hundreds of times without thinking about, such as doormen, ushers and merchandise sellers, adding texture and dimension to the people and shows we thought we already knew everything there is to know about. When you visit a theater after reading this book, you'll want to chat with the guy who sells you a Coke to hear about all that he's seen, whether he's worked there for years or for days. (Just please don't do it when I'm waiting in line behind you.)
As the first nonfiction release from Dress Circle Publishing, Untold Stories suffers from the publishers' inexperience in the field. The finished product feels like an unedited manuscript, entirely lacking in design, index, and photographs. An experienced editor might have pushed Tepper to fill in some of the obvious lacunae in the text or restrain some of the indulgences. Side bars and illustrations would have helped organize and contextualize the stories shared by both Tepper and her interviewees.
As it stands, this book may be enjoyed best over time, read in small chunks. If you're the type to read on your commute, opt for the ebook: the hard copy is an oversized format that makes for challenging subway fare. And despite my quibbles with this inaugural volume, I will be among the first in line for volume two, due out in November.
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