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The Great White Wayback Machine
by Laura Frankos

Book-lovers in Musicals

As a confirmed book-lover, I always appreciate seeing fellow bibliophiles in musicals. Here's a compilation of musical theatre's all-time readers, couples who bond over literature, characters who work to improve their literacy, and even some who are against books.

All-Time Readers

Honoré de Balzac
Any discussion of this sort must start with Marian Paroo, the librarian of River City, Iowa, from The Music Man. Marian is very well-read, familiar with Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac, Shakespeare, Noah Webster and, as her mother would say, "all them other hifalutin' Greeks." And no wonder: as the town's ladies tell Harold Hill, old miser Madison left the library to River City, but "left all the books to her." Marian takes her job of "improving River City's cultural level" seriously, but all the same, she dreams of a "White Knight" who will settle contentedly in Iowa, and contemplate "what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great" with her. I don't know if Professor Hill knows much Shakespeare, but at least he's read Hawthorne ("I hope, I pray, for Hester to win just one more 'A'").

Fiona in Shrek: The Musical, our next bibliophile, is a princess shut up in a tower guarded by a dragon. We see her progress from childhood to adulthood, reading storybooks to her dolls, her only companions. She expects that one day she will have a happy ending like the princesses in the fairy tales ("I believe the storybooks I read by candlelight."). She is disconcerted when Shrek the ogre, not a prince, rescues her, but, as they travel together, their mutual attraction grows. Fiona comes to realize that she "waited all my life, lived it by the book. Now I know that's not my story ... When I'm with you, I am happy. This is my story." And Shrek notes that "you've never read a book like this, but fairy tales should really be updated."

Belle in Beauty and the Beast is also a voracious reader, fond of fairy tales with handsome princes in disguise. Belle and her father live in a small French town in which neither fits in. The villagers regard the pretty girl as "strange ... dazed and distracted ... peculiar ... odd ... nothing like the rest of us." They note she always has "her nose stuck in a book," and Belle does indeed read to escape "this poor provincial town." She's borrowed one book so often from the local bookseller, he gives it to her. (If she's always borrowing books, how does the fellow stay in business?) She longs for "adventure in the great wide somewhere," the kind of excitement and romance found in her stories, but when she ends up a prisoner of the Beast, the future looks grim. It's no surprise that a major step in their relationship comes when the Beast gives Belle his enormous library. When she exclaims over one of her favorites, King Arthur, he confesses he cannot read. He listens happily while she reads, and the Enchanted Objects in the castle conclude "there may be something there that wasn't there before." In contrast, Belle's other suitor, the handsome but nasty Gaston, wonders how she can read a book that "hasn't got any pictures in it," and thinks women shouldn't read, since it will give them ideas. Still, Gaston must have soaked up a little literature when not out hunting. He quotes Shakespeare while stirring up the mob to storm the Beast's castle: "Screw your courage to the sticking place!"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Like Fiona and Belle, Fosca in Passion reads to escape her lonely existence ("I read to live, to get away from life!"). But Fosca understands that she is vicariously enjoying other people's lives, and tries not to want what she can never have. She doesn't expect a happy ending. Fosca is so desperate for reading material, she even reads her cousin's military manuals, prompting the generous and erudite Giorgio to share his books with her, including his favorite, Rousseau's novel Julie. Fosca comments that the title character—a woman full of sexual passion, caught in a love triangle—is "a mystery." Giorgio is another reader; his fellow soldiers mock him for it behind his back, but Fosca appreciates his differences from the usual military man ("They hear drums, you hear music, as do I."). His character, combined with his handsome looks, draw her increasingly toward him. For his part, Giorgio clearly admires Fosca's intellect and her femininity, which, while she is unattractive and full of self-pity, stands out in the barracks. But it will take more than a shared love of Rousseau to divert Giorgio from his lover, Clara.

Perhaps the largest library in musical history belongs to Count von Krolock in Dance of the Vampires, whose collection is described as "a bibliophilic paradise." In the number, "Books, Books," he cites dozens of authors including Heraclitus, Cicero, Spinoza, Locke, Jefferson and Augustine. So many books, in fact, that it would take eternity to read them all ... which isn't a problem if you're undead.

Honorable mentions for All-Time Readers include the family of philosophers in Triumph of Love, including Hesione, who turned to manuscripts for solace after shattering experiences with false lovers in her youth ("Serenity"), and Isabelle in Amour, who daily reads about "Other People's Stories" in the movie magazines to relieve her loneliness.

Characters With a Shared Love of Books

Leo Tolstoy
While Fosca and Giorgio initially connect over books, these pairs really come together over a shared love of literature. The champions here are Georg and Amalia from She Loves Me. By day, they are bickering coworkers; by night, they unknowingly write lonely-hearts letters to each other. A major part of their correspondence involves books. Georg asks if Amalia has read War and Peace, which will not be the only Tolstoy reference in this show. When Amalia plans to meet "Dear Friend" at the cafe, she brings a copy of Anna Karenina with a rose stuck inside, as a means of identifying herself. She tells her pal Ilona that those letters revealed everything she needs to know about him. She knows he's "terribly well-educated"; they discuss "Shaw, Flaubert, Chopin, Renoir" in addition to Tolstoy. Amalia can picture a future with this man, a cozy home full of books and prints and music. In the December scenes just before the finale, Georg gives Amalia a book—he's winning her heart in person as he had done before by post. Ilona also ends up with a book-loving fellow, the unseen optometrist Paul, whom she describes meeting in "A Trip to the Library." Ilona's not one for reading: she thinks The Way of All Flesh is a come-on line, but she's happy to envision Paul reading to her one day.

Heinrich Heine
Chava and Fyedka in Fiddler on the Roof also bond over books, though they are of different religions. Chava is such a bookworm, her sister marvels that she has any interest in boys at all. She comes by it honestly, for her father Tevye has a great love of learning. Despite his poverty, he has the traveling teacher Perchik give lessons to his daughters. Fyedka has noticed something about Chava that sets her apart from the other village girls: she visits the bookseller a lot. She initially rebuffs him, for she knows a Jewish girl should not be seen talking with a Russian boy. But he offers her to loan her a book, in the hopes that later they can meet to discuss it. The author is Heinrich Heine, who "happens to be Jewish." When Chava replies that that doesn't matter, Fyedka responds, "You're quite right," which neatly sums up their relationship, as well as their attitude toward literature.

Alvin Kelby and Thomas Weaver, of The Story of My Life, have a friendship and a love of books that goes back to their childhood, when a keen-eyed teacher realized they were kindred spirits with a shared love of the film, It's a Wonderful Life. Alvin's father owns the local bookshop, a place that Alvin regards as "a mystical place ... a great and powerful force capable of extraordinary feats." Mr. Kelby obviously knows his customers well, and helps them find books they would enjoy, but to Alvin, his father is "a conduit" for the "prophetic whisper" of the bookstore. "Then, like a shot, he goes right to the perfect spot and finds their book, the one distinctive book, the story that will change that person's life." Alvin decides to use his "ancestral gifts" to select Thomas' Christmas present. They creep into the bookstore one late December night, wait for the spirit of the bookstore to speak, and Alvin flashes on the image of Clarence, the angel from It's a Wonderful Life, who carries a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a book that indeed changes Thomas' life. In his book report, he marvels at how "in 1876 ... someone wrote a book that year that still gets read today by kids like me." Twain's craftsmanship impresses Thomas ("when I'm reading this, it's like Tom Sawyer's really here."), and he thinks "writing stuff like that would make a neat career." Thomas does become a best-selling writer, while Alvin stays to care for his ailing father, later inheriting the bookstore.

Honorable Mentions in this category include Matt and Luisa from The Fantasticks and Muriel and Richard from Take Me Along, who revel in literary allusions while proclaiming their affections; and Archibald and Colin Craven, the father and son from The Secret Garden, who don't talk to each other much, but humpbacked Archibald reads to his bed-ridden son. El Gallo tells us that Matt and Luisa "went to school ... read Romances ... and instead of reading textbooks, tried to memorize the moon." To Matt, a boy constantly reading verses (as his father complains), Luisa is the equal of Helena, Cassandra, Cleopatra, Beatrice and Guinevere. Luisa tells Matt about a dream in which she struggled as in "the Rape of the Sabine Women," and later quotes Shakespeare to El Gallo. Richard Miller teaches his Muriel about Omar Khayyám, Ibsen and Wilde, and they even cite Poe's "Annabelle Lee" in "I Would Die"—none of which sits well with Muriel's dad. Archibald reads fairy tales to Colin, and the dragon symbolizes the boy's infirmity. It's about as close to bonding as this pair gets before late in act two, but Colin is somehow reassured that the "round-shouldered man" has the answers "in his book of all that's good and true."

Reading As the Key to Learning

A few characters in musical theatre history show marked improvement in their literacy in the course of their shows. In Bat Boy, the feral bat-like boy initially thinks books are for eating, but once the Parker family is through, he's progressed from "Here is a cat" to Plato, Cato, Poe, Machiavelli, and can discuss the theories of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, as portrayed in "Show You a Thing or Two." By the song's end, he's a cultured Anglophile, given to watching Masterpiece Theatre. He states, "But I submit that any twit, if he had eyes to see, can seize his fate, self-educate, and turn out just like me."

In Charlie and Algernon, (which in Britain ran under the title of its source material, Flowers for Algernon), Charlie is a mentally retarded man who undergoes an experimental operation to increase his intelligence. The dramatic results of the procedure are encapsuled in the number, "Reading," in which Charlie's reading comprehension vastly improves with each verse. He makes his way through Robinson Crusoe and Jekyll and Hyde, and by the end of the song, has polished off War and Peace in a single day.

The action in The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N takes place in a night school, where recent immigrants learn English and history from Mr. Parkhill, a truly dedicated teacher. He even introduces them to Shakespeare, though Hyman has some trouble with Macbeth's soliloquy ("Life is ... a story told by crazy people full of foolish sounds and phooey!") and seems to think Julius Caesar was in the same play. By the semester's end, the students are well on their way to becoming American citizens—and Mr. Parkhill realizes how much he has learned from them.

And let's give special credit to Dot in Sunday in the Park With George. As a poor artist's model in 1880s Paris, she has little (if any) education, yet she doggedly teaches herself to read and write with the help of a slender grammar book. Dot takes the book to America, and it is passed down to her daughter, Marie, whose name matches that of the girl in the grammar ("Marie had the ball of Charles."). Dot notes that "my writing got much better. I worked very hard. I made certain Marie learned right away."


Of course, not everyone is a fan of reading. The ladies of River City are deeply suspicious of the material Marian Paroo advocates ("She reads dirty books!"). Yissel Fishbein, the contracted fiancé of Rose Mitnick, the star pupil in Mr. Parkhill's citizenship class, wants her to stop attending school, although she excels at it ("My little Rose will not vant to be fooling around with school now that she is going to be a wife."). And the relatives of two gay characters, Gordon Schwinn in A New Brain and Alfie Byrne in A Man of No Importance, seem to think their troubles stem from too much reading. While Gordon awaits his brain operation, his mother, unwilling to face the possibility that he may die, cleans his apartment. She attacks his library in the song, "Throw It Out": "Stupid books. All his reading ... his brain's bleeding—I know why. 'Cause of books. They have made his brain explode." Among the authors she discards are Trollope, Mailer, Brecht and Thackeray.

Alfie's sister, who does not know he is gay, wants him to marry and move out so she can do the same. She complains to her boyfriend, Carney, "Do you know what's in his room? Books. Hundreds of books under lock and key." Carney replies, "Books. You know, they're dangerous. All that junk piled up in your flat." They conclude Alfie acts the way he does "from all that smut he reads. You know where smut eventually leads! His manly impulses all bottled up!" Alfie's favorite author is Oscar Wilde, whose poetry he quotes and whose play, Salome, Alfie's amateur theatre group hopes to stage.

And let's not forget that in Senator Joe, there is an entire number devoted to "Book Burning," since in 1953, the senator from Wisconsin produced a list of procommunist books found in State Department libraries abroad, which he believed should be removed and destroyed.

These Shows Wouldn't Exist Without Books

A final nod to The Book of Mormon and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying since the presence of those two books figures significantly in their libretti.

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