Book Reviews

The Alchemy of Theatre - The Divine Science:
Essays on Theatre and the Art of Collaboration

by Robert Viagas

Book Review by George Reddick

The Alchemy of TheatreOn October 29th, Edward Albee, Harold Prince, Terrence McNally and Kathleen Chalfant, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, all interviewees in Robert Viagas's new book The Alchemy of Theatre, appeared together with the author/editor at the 92nd Street Y for a panel discussion on the book's theme: collaboration in the theatre. The panel gave these artists a chance to interact with each other, while the book presents each person's thoughts separately. In addition to the panelists, those interviewed include Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher, Paul Gemignani, William Ivey Long, Chita Rivera, Gerald Schoenfeld, Susan Stroman, Robin Wagner, the late Wendy Wasserstein, and George C Wolfe.

By its cover, The Alchemy of Theatre could easily be mistaken for an Art History textbook. It is large and heavy and the cover painting (Giovanni Stradano's "The Alchemist's Laboratory" from 1570) does not immediately suggest anything about the theatre. In fact, the theme of collaboration in the theatre and the term "alchemy" may be perplexing at first. However, as the creation of a theatrical work may seem from the outside almost as miraculous as the transformation of rock into gold, the term is apt. What emerges through the essays is the recurring theme of interdependence and openness that makes theatre the most collaborative of arts. It is through this collaboration that the "alchemy" of theatre occurs.

The subjects are not reported in straight interview fashion, for the most part. Viagas worked with the interviewees to create a single essay for each, discussing the theme of collaboration as it has pertained to each subject's work. Some of the people interviewed are more naturally inclined to collaboration than others. Composer-lyricist teams on musicals, for instance, must learn to collaborate from the very beginning. Cy Coleman, in one of his last interviews, provides insights from the perspective of a composer of Broadway musicals who has worked with a large number of lyricists and book writers throughout the years, having to create a new collaborative process with each. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, on the other hand, have worked together exclusively throughout their careers and, thus, have a standard team process to bring to their collaboration with the rest of the production.

Playwrights may be somewhat less collaborative, by nature. Hal Prince says, for instance, "... most playwrights aren't fully comfortable with the kind of give and take that a musical requires ... They don't like collaboration because they don't want to abrogate their authority. There are exceptions, however. Brilliant ones. Alfred Uhry for one, and Terrence McNally for another." McNally himself states, "Theatre is totally collaboration," and Wendy Wasserstein, the late great playwright, asserts, "A play comes alive only through collaboration." Edward Albee, on the other hand, does not think of himself as collaborator in any sense. "The process of working with directors and with actors after I've written the text may be termed 'collaboration' by them. But they aren't creating anything. When they try to 'create,' it's destructive creation, usually," he says. "... Let us call it 'having my play done properly' rather than 'collaboration.'"

Many of the interview subjects here have been given many opportunities to express their thoughts on similar subjects over the years in various books and other settings, so some of the most valuable essays in The Alchemy of Theatre are the ones coming from some of the theatre's least-sung heroes. Stories from Stage Managers, Dance Captains and other theatre artisans such as Make-Up Designer Angelina Avallone and Sound Designer Tony Meola make up a big part of the story of theatre's collaborative success, but are much less heard from in general than the writers, directors, and stars. These unsung artists provide unique and valuable insights into the process of creation in theatre. Orchestrator William David Brohn provides a story about one of his most memorable moments of collaboration when, in an early career-conducting job, he was required to conduct a suite of dances for Margot Fonteyn but there was no time to rehearse. Just before the performance, he went backstage to introduce himself:

"Miss Fonteyn, I am William Brohn and I am conducting the variations and would like to check the tempi with you. It starts molto moderato about beat beat beat dum-de-dum dum dum dum de-de-de-de-dum and then picks up ever so slightly at the middle part but not too much then drifts back to the opening tempo ... " An elegant arm glides out and an ethereally beautiful hand rests on the liveried arm that was nervously ticking gestures accompanying the fear-struck voice I didn't recognize as mine. "My darling," intones the voice at the end of that arm, "you shall simply make beautiful music ... and I shall dance to it."

The Alchemy of Theatre is an attractive, colorful book with many interesting insights from a large canvas of theatre practitioners.

Alchemy of TheatreThe Alchemy of Theatre - The Divine Science: Essays on Theatre and the Art of Collaboration
By Robert Viagas
Hardcover. 296 pages
Applause Books
Publishing date: October 2006
List Price: $29.95
ISBN: # 1557836981