SSoP Podcast Episode 53 — Theater: Act One, Scene I, Lights Up

SSoP Podcast Episode 53 — Theater: Act One, Scene I, Lights Up

Monday, 29 May, 2023

This is a transcription of Theater: Act One, Scene I, Lights Up.

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about the theater. If you’re listening to this on launch day, the Tony Awards are coming up. They’ll be on Sunday June 11th. Ariana DeBose will host. The Tonys are always a good time. I think it’s because everybody in that show knows how to work a stage. And I think the gratitude is honest.

David: In Two Truths and a Lie, I’m going to tell you about a one-of-a-kind theater prop that was seventy years in the making. Then we’ll talk about five books — I’ve got a book that might help you write your own musical. But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to speed with the Theater 101.

Melissa: For our 101 today, I’m going to talk a little bit about the history of theater so we know how we got from the Greek chorus to Hamilton, and then we’re going to embark on an imaginary international theater festival.

Melissa: The need for humans to tell stories — and probably, add gestures and funny voices to them — goes way, way back. To the beginning of humans. For the first formal theater experience, we’d need to head to Greece, around the 6th century BCE in Athens. To teach essential life lessons, performers put on tragedy plays at religious festivals — which does not sound like as much fun as, say, The Sound of Music. But! an important idea given to us by those early Greeks was that there should be a dedicated space for public storytelling. There was a stage and a clear distinction between the audience and the performers.

Melissa: If you google the history of theater, all the narratives start with Greece and then plow through the Western theater tradition: the morality plays of the Middle Ages, Shakespeare, Baroque theater and opera, the gaslit Victorian era in England, and then musical spectaculars in the United States in the 20th century.

Melissa: And that’s all accurate. And all pretty fabulous. Each of those periods gave us innovations. The Medieval morality plays were performed in vernacular languages instead of Latin. Baroque and Victorian theater made huge leaps in technology with special effects like trap doors and elaborately painted sets. The actors dressed in costumes that differentiate their characters. There were musical interludes and lighting to create mood. And then full-on musicals! Who doesn’t love a musical? Singing, dancing, humor, and drama all mashed together.

Melissa: But along the way, other countries like Japan, China, Indonesia, and India were developing on-stage storytelling, too. I love this quote from a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. She said, ‘Many of the cultures of the world have developed their own forms [of theater], and it would be a mistake to think that they haven’t influenced… mainstream Broadway theater. Because there would be no Lion King if director Julie Taymor had not [gone] to Jakarta and learn about shadow puppets.’

Melissa: At a typical theater festival, acting troupes from all over converge in one place to perform. Since our imaginations can take us anywhere we want to go, I’m going to take us on a TRAVELING theater festival tour, around the globe and through time. Starting in England with a fellow you might not have heard of, a humble playwright named Willy Shakespeare.

Melissa: He was born in 1564 in Stratford-on-Avon. By the time he was in his 30s, he was putting on his plays at the Globe Theatre in London. Obscure works you might have heard about like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Macbeth. In total, he wrote 38 plays. There are comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, history plays like Henry IV and Richard III, and the tragedies I already mentioned.

Melissa: If we were going to see, say, The Tempest in 1611 at the Globe, we’d go in the spring or summer because it was an open-air theater. The outside was wood and thatch walls, but inside, the stage was open to the sky. The posh people sat in the galleries that lined the circular theater, but as commoners, we’d be in the pit on the floor. And forget being polite. The audience was raucous, with people eating, drinking, and socializing throughout the show. But that didn’t mean they weren’t paying attention. It was an immersive, moving, communal experience that connected the audience and the actors.

Melissa: Now we’re going to leap forward in time to the early 20th century and sail across the Atlantic to New York. We’ll jump in a taxi at Pier 90 and head to Broadway. We could have time-traveled to 1943 to see Oklahoma or to 1975 to attend opening night of A Chorus Line.

Melissa: But I’m taking us to September 22, 1964, and the premiere of Fiddler on the Roof at the Imperial Theater. The entrance to the theater on 45th Street is fairly unassuming: it’s three stories of sand-colored stone with an art deco sign that says IMPERIAL in capital letters. The poster for the show doesn’t even include pictures, just the name Zero Mostel above the title. But inside? Inside is magic. Because once we’re in our seats, the house lights go down, and Tevye, the hero of our story — played by the legendary Zero Mostel — walks onto the stage and says, ‘A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck… and how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition.’

Melissa: Fiddler on the Roof ran for more than 3000 performance at the Imperial and won nine Tony awards. It’s been revived on Broadway five times, and almost every one was nominated for multiple Tonys.

Melissa: For our next stop on our tour, we head south to Brazil for a completely different kind of theater. It’s called the Theater of the Oppressed. This is an interactive form of theater started in Latin America in the late 1960s by Augusto Boal. He was a devoted theater dude and political activist who wanted to break down the barrier between the actors and the audience. He wanted to make spectators into specACTORS. And he did this by inviting the audience to stop performances and suggest different actions for the characters on stage.

Melissa: Acting companies that put on Theater of the Oppressed now often invite audience members onto the stage. The first part of the show is a story told as a traditional play and usually depicts someone being oppressed. So there might be a woman getting hit on by her boss or a kid facing discrimination for being gay. In the second half of the show, audience members go up on stage and interact with the actors, changing the story. It’s like social and political activism via improv. Augusto Boal called it a ‘rehearsal for reality.’ It’s a way to activate deeper emotional reactions in the audience and develop empathy.

Melissa: For our last stop, we’re heading west across the Pacific to see ancient puppet theater. We could have gone to Russia, India, or Prague for elaborate marionette shows. But instead, we’re going to Indonesia to see a performance of Wayang Puppet Theater. Wayang is also called shadow puppetry. It dates from around the 800s. The puppets are made from buffalo hide that’s intricately carved into characters and then attached to rods so puppeteers can make them move and dance. The puppets perform behind a translucent screen that’s backlit so the audience sees just their shadows. There’s music and dialogue and sometimes the color of the light changes. When it’s done well, it’s shockingly hypnotic and emotional — the details cut into the puppets — and the skill of the puppeteers — bring the personalities to life. It helps that the stories are epic tales of adventure with heroes, gods, and demons. I watched a Tedx presentation of the myth of Ramayana with more than 50 puppeteers, dancers, and musicians. It is amazing! I’ll put a link in show notes.

Melissa: And with this performance of Wayang (why-ANG) we come full circle. From the storytelling of Greece, through the life lessons of Shakespeare, the exuberance of musicals, and the power of theater to help us understand our human condition in a different way.

David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I will do my best.

David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. I think we all know the musical Cats. It’s based on a perfectly good book of poems by T.S. Eliot. Andrew Lloyd Webber got his hands on that, and it became one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. Millions of people have seen that show. There is a theater group in Japan that’s been performing ‘Cats’ continuously since 1983. Despite having no plot and only one tune I can remember — all of that. I know some people love that show hard. Unfortunately, I am not among them.

David: In 2019, Cats became a weak movie with a fantastic cast. Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Idris Alba, and Ian McKellen all participated in an event that the Guardian described as ‘a career low for all involved.’The visual effects were so bad that they were updated and released — while the movie was still in theaters. It was said to have lost over one hundred million dollars.

David: Here’s the statement: The movie version of Cats was so bad that it drove Andrew Lloyd Webber to get an emotional support dog.

Melissa: Oh, no.

David: There is a superstition surrounding Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s considered unlucky to say Macbeth in a theater. It should be referred to as “the Scottish play.” Here’s the statement: The curse of Macbeth is based on historical fact.

Melissa: Hmmm.

David: I’m sure you know about Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and the scene where he’s speaking to a skull. In 2008, the Royal Shakespeare Theater company unknowingly performed Hamlet with a human skull.

Melissa: Whoa.

David: One at a time. The movie version of Cats was so bad that it drove Andrew Lloyd Webber to get an emotional support dog. That is true. In an interview with ‘Variety’ in 2021, Andrew Lloyd Webber was asked about the movie. He said: ‘Cats was off-the-scale all wrong. There wasn’t really any understanding of why the music ticked at all. I saw it and thought, Oh, God, no. It was the first time in my 70-odd years on this planet that I went out and bought a dog. So the one good thing to come out of it is my little Havanese puppy.’ He also told another story in that interview. At some point, he wanted to travel from his home in London to New York and take his dog. So he wrote to the airline. He wrote, ‘I’m emotionally damaged, and I must have this therapy dog.’ The airline replied, Can you prove that you need him? Webber wrote back, and said, ‘Have you seen what Hollywood did to my musical Cats?’ He got a note back from the airline: ‘No doctor’s report required. Have a nice flight.’

Melissa: [laughter]

David: Second statement: The Curse of Macbeth is based on historical fact. That is true. There are a few theories about the origin of this curse. The first is that Shakespeare used real spells and incantations in the play; that evil language is somehow coded into the show itself. Sir Patrick Stewart has spoken about his theory of the curse, which is that it’s a dark play — as in, the lights are frequently down — and it’s easy to walk into stuff when it’s dark.

David: But a more likely origin takes us back a few hundred years. Historically, every town in England used to have at least one theater. If a play wasn’t drawing, it would be replaced with a crowd favorite. Macbeth has historically been a popular show. It was frequently brought on to replace shows that weren’t doing well. So it’s possible that the curse began when someone heard a local, mediocre playwright say, ‘Don’t you dare say the name of that play in here.’ when his own show was threatened.

David: But the dark magic of the show is more fun to talk about. Also, magical or not, most of us have seen some fuel for the fire of Macbeth’s curse. At the 94th Academy Awards, Chris Rock walked onto the stage of the Dolby Theater and said, ‘Denzel! Macbeth. Loved it.’ — referring to Denzel Washington’s performance in the movie The Tragedy of Macbeth. Less than two minutes later, Rock was slapped by Will Smith.

Melissa: Whoa.

David: And finally — in 2008, the Royal Shakespeare Theater company unknowingly performed Hamlet with a human skull. That is a lie. The company knew they full-well were performing with a human skull. And they knew whose skull it was.

David: This story starts back in 1935. Robert Krauthammer was a Jewish kid born in Warsaw. His mother was a pianist, and she taught him how to play from the age of 4. When World War 2 broke out, his family was moved into the Warsaw Ghetto. A couple of years into that, Robert’s grandmother smuggled him out with forged identity papers. On his papers, she put the name of her favorite composer. So Robert Krauthammer became Andre Tchaikowsky. He and his grandmother would spend the next three years on the run around Warsaw. And Tchaikowsky never saw his mother again.

David: Tchaikowsky would go on to be one of the world’s great pianists. He recorded Chopin, Haydn, and Mozart and performed around the world. He was brilliant and, as you might imagine with that history, temperamental. When the Guardian wrote about him in 2016, they described Tchaikowsky as ‘Eccentric, brilliant, wilful, unstable, depressive, erratic, witty, morose.’ Beyond piano, he had at least two other passions. One was composition. And the other was Shakespeare. He set seven of Shakespeare’s sonnets to voice and piano. And he completed an opera, The Merchant of Venice, based on Shakespeare’s play. He did a little acting on the side. And he did all of that in 47 years. He died in 1982 from colon cancer.

David: When he died, he left his body to science and his head to the Royal Shakespeare Company. He wanted his skull used as a prop. For many, many years, nobody would touch it. When Mark Rylance did Hamlet in 1989, he rehearsed with Tchaikowsky’s skull. But people were scared that the head would take all the attention. And also: maybe ew? It wasn’t until 2009 that Andre Tchaikowsky’s skull made its debut. David Tennant was playing Hamlet, and that company decided to use it. They didn’t tell anyone. Eventually, word got out. And then that Hamlet company came forward and said, ‘Yeah, okay, we’ve decided to stop using it.’ Don’t worry about it. But they lied. David Tennant continued to use Tchaikowsky’s skull throughout the run. Here’s what Tennant sounds like, talking to a man who’s been dead twenty years. [audioclip of David Tennant]

David: It is available if you’d like to see David Tennant’s Hamlet. The BBC recorded it, complete with Tchaikowsky’s skull. It got rave reviews. And includes Sir. Patrick Stewart in a strong, scary performance as Claudius. It’s on Amazon Prime.

David: Are you ready to talk about books?

Melissa: Yes! My first recommendation is Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor. This is a historical novel set in the late 1800s in London. It tells the real-life story of the mercurial friendship between Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, and the two most famous actors of the time: Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

Melissa: Let’s imagine London around this time. The narrow streets and cobblestone alleys are dimly lit by gaslight. All those hard surfaces and thick fog play tricks on the ears, warping the near-constant sound of horse-drawn carriages and heels clacking on the streets. Beggars and prostitutes haunt the shadows — and so does Jack the Ripper.

Melissa: But it wasn’t all bad. As it is today, London was a cultural hub with art galleries, music halls, and theaters. In the late 1800s, THE theater was the Lyceum. It was managed by the actor Henry Irving. He oversaw all aspects of the productions. He did the casting and directed the shows, supervised sets and lighting, and starred in the plays. Bram Stoker was his right-hand man — and Henry’s female acting counterpart and sometime lover was Ellen Terry.

Melissa: It’s hard to come up with a modern equivalent for this acting power couple. Because they not only had star power, they were also tremendous actors. They routinely tackled Shakespeare — Ellen’s Ophelia to Henry’s Hamlet was the stuff of legends. They also did Twelfth Night, Henry VIII, King Lear, and Much Ado About Nothing. Henry was so beloved and respected, he was knighted in 1895 for his services to the stage.

Melissa: The three of them — Bram, Henry, and Ellen — were like a braid, their lives all woven together. This novel explores the real-life affection and rivalries among them that shaped their work and the life of the Lyceum Theatre.

Melissa: This author, Joseph O’Connor — his writing is the word equivalent of a plush stage curtain. It’s rich and velvety. He does a brilliant job of making you feel like you’ve been transported to Jack the Ripper’s London. And the peek backstage at a working theater is fantastic. At different times throughout the story, the actors Henry and Ellen talk about their craft. How they transform themselves into their characters. The tricks they use to change their voices and the way they carry themselves to embody another person. Ellen shows Bram her journal of people she’s sketched. If you’re at all interested in how good actors become someone else for a while, this is all good stuff.

Melissa: In real life and in this book, Bram loved and admired Henry to the point where it was detrimental to him. One of Stoker’s biographers said that Henry was ‘the most important love relationshop of his adult life.’ But Henry was tough to be around. He was narcissistic and insecure. He drank too much, and was capricious in his decision making. He had a short temper. He was a larger-than-life character who sucked up all the air in the room. He was Bram’s idol AND his boss — Bram spent a lot of time internalizing the uncertainty and fear Henry inspired in him. But those feelings had to come out, and they did in a major way — scholars have agreed for a long time that Dracula is based on Henry Irving.

Melissa: Something I found really delightful is that throughout, the book shows where Bram got many of his other ideas for his vampire novel. I won’t give them all away so you can find the easter eggs on yout own, but, for example, there’s a stagehand named Jonathan Harker.

David: He’s one of the heroes of Dracula.

Melissa: Correct! Also, the actors use garlic to fend off sore throats. There’s a photo of the actress Sarah Bernhardt sleeping in her coffin. Bram grabbed those ideas like a magpie with shiny things. I love an epistolary novel, and Dracula is one of the best. This book pays homage to that structure. It opens with a letter from Bram to Ellen Terry, explaining that what follows is his collection of papers he kept throughout their theater years. So this story unfolds though his diaries, newspaper accounts, and some sections narrated by Ellen herself. I love that nod to Bram Stoker’s original.

Melissa: This book is filled with sharp observations about how we define our self image and the ways love can lift us up and tear us down. It explores friendship and sexuality and the challenges of being a creative person. Plus, it gives you a chance to hang out in London with Oscar Wilde, famous actors, and a ghost that haunts the theater. It’s Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor.

Melissa: I should also mention a few years before he wrote this novel, the author wrote a 90-minute radio play called Vampyre Man that covers these same characters and settings. It’s available on the BBC website; I’ll put the link in show notes.

David: My first pick is Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. A few years ago, Penguin Random House asked a group of authors to retell Shakespeare for a more modern audience. They called it the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Several high-caliber authors took them up on this. For example, Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler rewrote ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ as a funny modern family drama set in Baltimore. Jo Nesbo — the wildly popular Scandi-noir author — rewrote Macbeth. He frames it as the violent story of a cop going bad. There are five other titles in the series.

David: But the one I wanted to talk to you about is ‘Hag-seed’ by Margaret Atwood. This is a retelling of The Tempest. It centers around Felix Philips. When the book starts, Felix is the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theater Festival. The Makeshiweg Theater Festival seems like a thinly-veiled version of the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. The festival is a big deal. The local community depends on it. And Felix has let it all go to his head a bit.

David: Felix is a very theatrical man. Flamboyant, even. He likes big, over-the-top presentations. He’s known for putting on a version of Macbeth that had chainsaws on stage. He’s middle-aged or so. His world revolves around the theater and his found family there. He’s known some grief. He’s smart, and he knows his stuff. In my mind, Felix is played by a 1995 version of Ian McKellan.

David: And one day, Felix is betrayed. Tony — the business manager for the theater — a man who is referred to multiple times as a ‘devious, twisted bastard’ — Tony wanted Felix out. In my head, Tony is played by either Oliver Platt or Nathan Lane. Tony got the board to agree to dump Felix; too much of a liability. And Felix is fired. In a ‘security will walk you to your desk, then to your car’ kind of way.

David: Felix is destroyed. And he spends several years sulking, living in a cabin off a dirt road. He eventually gets himself together a little bit and gets a job. His new job is running a theater program at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. He’s helping convicts put on Shakespeare. That goes well. And then, one day, Felix is given a chance at sweet, sweet revenge. Finally, he will get his retribution against that devious, twisted bastard Tony. And it is going to be beautiful.

David: I suspect you don’t need me to tell you that Margaret Atwood is pretty clever. There are at least four versions of The Tempest in this story. There’s the original — Shakespeare’s script. There’s the one that Felix was working on before he was fired. There’s the version that he mounts to get his revenge. And then there’s Felix’s story itself, which has many, many parallels to the original.

David: And yet, you do not need to know ‘The Tempest’ to enjoy this book. I didn’t know that show when I started. To help, Atwood has written a three-page summary of the play in the back with everything you need to know. — Do not be like me. I found this write-up when I was finished with the book. Which was a touch frustrating, but Wikipedia worked fine.

David: I enjoyed the story here — but, like Shakespeare — the plot might not be the main draw. What I liked most about this book was the different characters discussing their relationship to the theater. I’m a little hesitant to tell you that there are a few chapters in the back of this book where the prisoners present what they think happens after the curtain falls on the Tempest. They go through each character. That might sound dull. And if you had told me that I would enjoy reading that, I would have called you a liar. But that’s what happened. It was really charming. There’s something about the mix of characters in the book and how they present the ends of Shakespeare’s characters. The stories they invent are not obvious. And sometimes the tellings contradict one another. ‘You said this was going to happen, but I think it will go this way.’

David: Another nice bit is that Felix allows the prisoners to re-work Shakespeare. The actors could rewrite the character’s parts in their own words to make them more contemporary, but they couldn’t change the plot. I’m going to read you a bit at the opening of the book. The chapter heading says: ‘Wednesday, March 13, 2013. The house lights dim. The audience quiets. ON THE BIG FLATSCREEN — Jagged yellow lettering on black — THE TEMPEST / By William Shakespeare / witt The Fletcher Correctional Players.’

David: ‘ONSCREEN: A hand-printed sign, held up to the camera by Announcer, wearing a short purple velvet cloak. In his other hand, a quill. SIGN: A SUDDEN TEMPEST.’

David: ‘ANNOUNCER: What you’re gonna see, is a storm at sea: Winds are howlin’, sailors yowlin’, Passengers cursin’ ’em, ’cause it gettin’ worse: Gonna hear screams, just like a ba-a-d dream, But not all here is what it seem, Just sayin’. Now we gonna start the playin’.’

David: I want to see that show so bad! For me, this was a really playful ride through The Tempest. It’s also a great reminder of what makes the theater so personal and universal at the same time. I really enjoyed it. It’s Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.

Melissa: Before I get to my next book… I also read a book that plays with the plot of The Tempest for our Greece episode! It’s called This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart. It’s Greek Gothic – there’s a sprawling, shadowy mansion, a secret cave and underground cellars, a deadly fight on a boat in an epic storm, a missing diamond ring, a possible murder, romance, trickery, and a magical dolphin. One of the characters is a very dramatic, well-respected stage actor. Could be fun to pair those two books up!

Melissa: My second recommendation is A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke. If you’re of a certain age, you might know Ethan Hawke as I do — the scruffy, grungy, charming character of Troy Dyer in the 1994 movie Reality Bites. But while I wasn’t paying attention, he’s been writing well-received fiction. Six novels, to be exact, and all of them have at least 4-star reviews. I don’t know why, but now I’m all invested in my Gen X buddies literary success!

Melissa: Here’s the setup: A young, good-looking movie star named William Harding is making his Broadway debut in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. As he’s about to start rehearsals for the show, the news breaks that he’s cheated on his gorgeous, super-famous rock star wife. William is used to being adored and catered to everywhere he goes. NOW he’s getting attitude from the cab driver who picks him up from the airport, and pity from the front desk clerk at the hotel he’s calling home for a while. When he walks in the hotel, the clerk says, ‘Wow, look who it is, Hester Prynne herself.’ [DAVE] His business is all over the tabloids. It’s a mess.

Melissa: It’s worth noting that there are parallels to real life. In 2003, Ethan Hawke was also the only film star in a stage production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. And around the same time, he went through a very public breakup with Uma Thurman amid rumors that he’d been unfaithful. But this isn’t an indulgent, poor me, tell-all memoir pretending to be a novel. This is a legitimately gripping story about self-worth and the value of art. It follows our would-be hero from his first rehearsal to closing night of the show.

Melissa: Here are some things I loved about this novel — It’s packed with the everyday details of what it would be like to work on a professional production — to have everything you do during the day be built around those few hours of performance at night. With William, we get to go to the script read through and rehearsals and fight training. We see the rituals he repeats in the countdown to curtain each night. A bit I loved happens right before the premier. As one of their last private acts, they chart out and rehearse the curtain call. So much politics and ego management. If you like reading about how people do their work, you’ll love this. Ethan Hawke said, ‘The book is basically everything I’ve learned about the theater in the past 35 years of work jammed together as if it all happened in one fictional production.’

Melissa: Shakespeare is not my first go-to when I think of entertainment, but smart, enthusiastic, insightful people who love Shakespeare make me love Shakespeare. At an early rehearsal, the director is rallying the cast, explaining that they will act as a COMPANY, not a bunch of individual stars. And then he says this,

‘Shakespeare isn’t beautiful. It isn’t poetic. Shakespeare is the greatest mind of the theater, ever. Shakespeare is nature, like Niagara Falls, or the aurora borealis. The Grand Canyon. Shakespeare is life, and life — if it is to be a great life — is not meek. Life is full of blood, piss, sweat… tears, and I want to see that all onstage.’ Some people kind of half-chuckled. ‘Don’t laugh. We will do it. I want the audience to smell you. When your friend dies, I want to hear your tears smack the floor. When you fight, I want to feel adrenaline slip through my bloodstream. Violence electrifies a room. I want our fights to be so real that people think about leaving the theater and I want no one to get hurt. That is the razor’s edge that we will walk. We can do it because we are serious craftsmen and artists and our life is dedicated to something larger than ourselves.’

Melissa: I mean, I was ready to jump up and spring into service.

Melissa: As you might expect in a story about an indulgent, impulsive movie star, there’s a lot of sex and drugs and booze and questionable decisions. But it’s all in service to themes that resonated with me. Acting as a profession challenges people to be in the present — to really listen to the actors around them, to engage their senses in the moment, and to try not to control outcomes. That is true of LIFE. The show and life are best when you let go and exist in the moment. William also wrestles with the question of how and how much he values himself, which is also very relatable.

Melissa: Although his description on paper is annoying: white, young, rich, good looking, and immature, William is an endearing narrator, and he drew me into this world. When he was sad, I felt it. When he drank too much, my cheeks burned with second-hand embarrassment. When showtime was approaching, I had butterflies in my stomach. It’s very immersive and great.

Melissa: I read this on the page in one afternoon, and then I found out the audiobook is narrated by Ethan himself. If you want to hear the story directly from his mouth, it sounds pretty darn good. That’s A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke.

David: My second book is The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel. I’m going to go through this review quickly, because while I was researching this book, I found two other things I wanted to tell you about. I’ll do that at the end here.

David: The author, Jack Viertel, is a producer, director, and author. Some of the shows he helped bring to Broadway are ‘Into the Woods’, ‘Angels in America’, ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ Viertel is an old pro who worked Broadway for decades. For much of that time, he did what he described as “handicapping musicals.” He would leave New York, go out into the world, see shows, and recommend which ones should come to Broadway to his business partners. He also taught a class at New York University for most of a decade. This book is a result of that class.

David: Viertel loves musicals. And he knows how they work. When I first got this book I had assumed it was going to be, how shows are produced. First, there’s an idea, then a script, then these guys work on the music. Then we bring in a choreographer. That kind of thing. This is not that. This is a book about the structure of a musical — and how musicals work as story.

David: First, there’s the opening number. Either the entire cast or one person introduces the audience to the show, and sets expectations for what’s to come. Fail to do that, and the night’s over before it started. What’s this show about? Think about ‘Tradition’ from Fiddler on the Roof, or ‘Alexander Hamilton’ from Hamilton.

David: Then, usually, there’s a number that expresses the main character’s desires. An example of that might be the line, All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air from My Fair Lady — or I hope I get it from Chorus Line. And Viertell goes, through the structure of a musical, all the way to the curtain call, explaining what typically happens. And why. He tells stories about shows that have succeeded — but he also tells stories about shows that failed, and speculates about why they did.

David: For instance, he was part of an attempt to bring the 1998 movie, The Wedding Singer with Adam Sandler to Broadway. That show fails, he says, because the main character doesn’t want anything at the beginning of that show. When the curtain goes up, he’s a wedding singer who wants to be a wedding singer. The movie can get away with that. There are other things to entertain us there. In a musical, that is too big of a burden. The audience needs to know what the main character wants, it has to be big, and the audience has to be in on the ride.

David: After he’s gone through the structure, Viertel includes a final chapter with his recommendations for the best recordings of the 47 musicals he has analyzed, and for 20 more musicals that he describes as “can’t be ignored even though they are not quoted in the book.” That strikes me as the move of a real fan. ‘Here’s 50 I love, and, oh yeah, here’s 20 more I couldn’t leave out.’

David: This book sent me to Spotify and YouTube frequently. And it made me want to go see more musicals. I was happy to take that ride. Maybe you would be too. It’s The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel.

David: Here are the two things that I mentioned that I wanted to tell you about. First, one of Jack Viertel’s greatest accomplishments was being the artistic director of the Encores series for 20 years. I did not know what the Encores series was.

David: Encores! is a theatrical series dedicated to performing rarely heard American musicals. It’s a second-chance for some great theater. The Encores people will put together a show that most people haven’t heard, and then mount it for a week or two. They’ve done musicals by Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and so on. The series has been happening for almost thirty years, so, if you’re a New Yorker, I’m not telling you anything new. Encores is credited with bringing ‘Chicago’ back to Broadway, where it’s been running since 1996. And they get some big names. They just finished a 11-day run of Steven Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ with Sara Bareilles and Neal Patrick Harris. If you’re curious about any of that, we’ll put a link in show notes. Maybe you can go see an classic musical when you’re in New York.

David: The other thing I wanted to mention — another delight of New York City — is Marie’s Crisis Cafe. They bill themselves as “the world’s only acoustic sing-a-long showtunes piano bar.” If you’re imagining a room full of people gathered around a piano, beer in hand, belting out ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ in drunken, raucous harmony, you are in the right neighborhood. I know that’s not going to appeal to everybody. But if that sounds like something you might want to do, the bar is located down in Greenwich Village. There’s no cover, a two-drink minimum, and pianists are there every single night from 6pm until at least 3am.

Melissa: Oh, fun!

Melissa: My final recommendation If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio. This is a mashup of dark academia, theater, and a closed circle of suspects mystery, and once you start reading it, it’s almost impossible to stop. Rather than tell you the setup myself, I’m going to read you the opening of chapter one. It’s a very strong start.

Melissa: ‘The time: September 1997, my fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. The place: Broadwater, Illinois, a small town of almost no consequence. Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us, though we saw no farther than the books in front of our faces. We were always surrounded by words and books and poetry, all the fierce passions of the world bound in leather and vellum. (I blame this in part for what happened.)’

Melissa: That portentous ‘what happened’ is in reference to a tragedy on opening night of their senior play. This book is the story of what happened before and after that fateful night. Our narrator is Oliver. He’s an acting student at Dellecher. He’s part of a group of seven friends, all actors. They’ve been together since they started at the school three years ago, and they each align with a dramatic archetype, so there’s a hero, a sidekick, a villain, a tyrant, a temptress, and an ingenue.

Melissa: These are not only the roles they usually end up assigned to in their plays. They’re the roles they fill in life, too. At one point Oliver says, ‘I seemed doomed to always play supporting roles in someone else’s story. Far too many times I had asked myself whether art was imitating life or if it was the other way around.’

Melissa: But this year, their final year, the teachers are pressing them to dig deeper into understanding themselves, and to step outside their comfort zones in the characters they play. And THAT has repercussions in their real lives. I love a found family, and this crew of seven friends is like a found family on the bad side of a mirror. A shadow family. They have very intense friendships. There’s flirting and hookups, fighting and shifting loyalties, old grudges and stupid things done out of insecurity. But also, they can’t let go of each other.

Melissa: One of the things they have in common is that they’re obsessed with Shakespeare. They’re constantly sprinkling phrases from his plays and poetry into everyday conversation. This affectation is amusing at first — it’s so pretentious — but also a little endearing. And then you realize that they use Shakespeare’s words instead of their own. The division between who they are and who they’re PLAYING is blurry. Do they even know their own thoughts and feelings? At one point, the villain becomes completely unhinged and will ONLY speak in Shakespeare lines. It’s very chilling.

Melissa: ML Rio does a brilliant job of creating an unsettled atmosphere. We know from the beginning that something is going to go terribly wrong. It’s got a real Chekhov’s gun thing about it. The physical setting is perfect. The fourth year drama students live in a campus annex called the castle. It’s isolated and spooky, with an ominous lake and forest nearby. You can hear the wind blow and the leaves rustle.

Melissa: Throughout the year, the students put on very imaginative performances of Shakespeare plays. On Halloween night, they perform Macbeth in the woods and by the lake — and none of them know who is playing who. It’s sort of like a flash mob — they know their own lines, but until they interact, they and the audience don’t know who is performing which role. At Christmas time, they put on Romeo and Juliet in the midst of a masked ball.

Melissa: I love this book for its unrelenting suspense and for the insight it offers into acting. When I see great actors, I always wonder how hard it is to turn that gift on and off. It’s a dark kind of fun to read this and see just how perplexing it can be to your own sense of self when you frequently pretend to be someone else.

Melissa: I 100% recommend that you listen to this on audio. The writing is great on the page, but the narration is performed by the American stage actor Robert Petkoff. He’s known for his work in Shakespeare productions, so he conveys the meanings of the lines from the plays very clearly.

Melissa: You don’t need to know anything about Shakespeare’s works to enjoy it, but if you read a brief synopsis of the plays that are unfamiliar, you’ll find more of the underlying connections. But this is in no way a homework book. It’s pedal-to-the-metal thriller with smart things to say about identity and obsession.That’s If We Were Villains by ML Rio.

Melissa: One coda: The last time I listened to this, I cast the whole thing in my imagination with Hollywood actors. I will be sharing that in my Friday newsletter, so you should probably subscribe. You don’t want to miss that! That’s If We Were Villains by ML Rio.

David: Those are five books we love set in the theater. Visit our show notes at for lots of videos of amazing performances.

David: Mel, where are we headed for our next episode?

Melissa: We’re heading to east Africa to get curious about Kenya.

David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Kenny Filiaert/Unsplash.

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You know what's great about the theater? The backstage drama is as compelling as what happens under the spotlight. From Greek chorus to Broadway and everything in between, we celebrate a great night at the theater.
The final year of college can be a sensitive time for anyone. But for these acting students, it's even more fraught — with Shakespearean revenge and betrayal, lust and love and broken hearts... both onstage and off.

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