It’s a feast of summer reading at the beach, in the shade of a river bank or pool, in a garden or grove nook, or in air-conditioned comfort for theater lovers. Unless you’re a surgeon on call, put those smartphones down and turn some pages.
Stanley Wells: Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh (Oxford University Press; 288 pages; B&W and halftones throughout; Index; SRP, $30, Hardcover)
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” ‘wrote the Bard. Over the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s plays have been performed across the globe, bringing to life characters such as Hamlet, Othello, Puck, and Juliet. How well do you know some of the great Shakespeare actors – even the plays they performed in?
Not to worry, pre-eminent Shakespearean critic Stanley Wells, writing with authority and flair, provides a lively and accessible history of Shakespeare and the stage in Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh, which examines in illuminating and entertaining accounts the life and careers of 40 of the greatest Shakespeare actors from Shakespeare himself and Elizabethan times to present day greats.
They include English and American performers Peggy Ashcroft, Edwin Booth, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Burbage, Judi Dench, Edith Evans, David Garrick, John Gielgud, Henry Irving, Edmund Kean, Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Janet Suzman, and the great Ellen Terry. Individual chapters tell their stories and the overlapping tales combine to offer a succinct history of Shakespearian theatrical performance.
Not to be forgotten are some of the lesser-remembered actors of the past, such as African-American Ira Aldridge, popular on the West End, Europe, and Russia, performing for heads of state and the only actor of his race honored with a bronze plaque at Stratford-upon-Avon.; or Mary Saunderson, thought to be the first Juliet, who appeared opposite Henry Harris’s Romeo in 1662 when her future husband, Thomas Betterton, played Mercutio.
How much do you know about Welsh actress Sarah Siddons, the 18th Century’s best-known tragedienne and member of the preeminent Kemble acting family [and namesake of Chicago’s Sarah Siddons Award]; Charlotte Cushman, the 19th Century American stage actress noted for her full contralto register who play male and female parts and lived in Rome’s expatriate colony of where she led a tempestuous private life; or the great Italian interpreter of the Bard’s work, Tommaso Salvini?
Wells examines what it takes to be a great Shakespeare actor and offers concise sketches of actors’ career, citing their specific talents and claims to greatness – along with reviews, biographies, and anecdotes.
Peter Filichia: The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-to-Be-Forgotten 1963-1964 Season (St. Martin’s Press; 290 pages; eight-page B&W photo album; Appendices; Bibliography; Index; SRP $30, Hardcover)
Anyone who loves theater, knows Peter Filichia, the esteemed writer, critic, journalist, and playwright, also loves theater. His vast knowledge of onstage and behind-the-scenes theater – and not just Broadway – is mindboggling. He does have a special way around quips and dish. He can do it ever so softly, but end with quite a zinger.
His books, such as Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award (2013), are inspired reading. Filichia has a unique knack: he can explain why a great show is great, and how they can be wonderful even when they are terrible.
All this past has prepared him for the very best book yet [not to mention a stunning, colorful, and memorable jacket by Paul Cox]: The Great Parade, a can’t-put-down joyous dog days of summer read. Filichia takes us on his journey through what’s considered a season – June 1, 1963 through May 31, 1964 – of pure gold. He tackles his subjects with such depth you feel you’re right there seated next to him in a prime orchestra seat.
Filichia’s the perfect, the ultimate guide. He has the ability to capture Broadway of 50 years ago as if it was yesterday. He analyzes, often with sharp wit [take the story of a famous producer’s face lifts], the hits, flops and disappointments, trends, and the stars whose names were in lights.
Going in further, he gives opinions of other critics and raises questions on the whys and wherefores of celebrity. He even tackles how the assassination of JFK and the arrival of the Beatles affected Broadway. We join him at 68 different productions: 24 plays, 15 comedies, 14 musicals, five revivals of plays, three revues, and even three plays in Yiddish, two in French, a double-bill, and a puppet show. Those numbers alone, compared to what a season is today, are equally mindboggling.
It was a season of more-often-than not a single producer [such as the much-maligned “maverick” but theater merchandising genius David Merrick], not today’s stageful that often dwarfs the casts of shows.
1963-1964 was also a season of star power: Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Ashley, Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Boyer, Carol Burnett, Richard Burton, Claudette Colbert. Noel Coward, Hume Cronyn, Colleen Dewhurst, Alfred Drake, Kirk Douglas, Albert Finney, Hermione Gingold, Alec Guinness, Fred Gwynne, Julie Harris, Florence Henderson, Hal Holbrook, Bert Lahr, Angela Lansbury, Beatrice Lillie, Mildred Natwick, Paul Newman, Janice Paige, Christopher Plummer, Robert Preston, Robert Redford, Lee Remick, Jason Robards, Jr., Craig Stevens, Joanne Woodward, and so many more.
“We have plenty of movie stars who visit Broadway,” Filichia writes,“but almost always in limited engagements. Some film luminaries think, “I’ll give up three months of Hollywood millions for a mere hundred thousand or so a week on Broadway, where I’ll win a Tony that will look nice next to my other awards.” (That worked out well for Geoffrey Rush and Denzel Washington. Not as successful was Tom Hanks, who at least received a nomination, unlike Julia Roberts, who didn’t.) But in 1963–64, Burton, Newman, and Woodward were the only ones who’d demanded limited engagements. The others signed for the long haul, ranging from a year’s commitment to a run-of-the-play contract. Even Streisand honored her two-year pact.”
It was also the season Neil Simon and Stephen Sondheim burst on to Broadway [Barefoot in the Park; Anyone Can Whistle]; with John Gielgud directing [and co-starring in] a revival of Hamlet; Carol Haney of Pajama Game fame was director of Funny Girl’s musical staging; distinguished stage and screen writer/director Garson Kanin was helming Funny Girl [after Bob Fosse walked]; and Michael Bennett, showing flashes of his genius, in the ensemble of Meredith Wilson’s Here’s Love, the musical adaption of Miracle on 34th Street — that wasn’t quite the miracle it was intended to be.
Filichia provides detailed synopses of shows and insights into the likes of showman Merrick. He writes of Gower Champion’s thought process on Dolly’s casting and his confrontations with Merrick’s “miserliness” – as well the work ethic of Jerry Herman. He tells us of producer Ray Stark, the son-in-law of Fanny Brice, Merrick, and production supervisor Jerome Robbins’ doubts about Streisand, who auditioned seven times. How Jules Styne and Bob Merrill’s “People” almost got cut. Of the financial disaster that was Arthur Laurents and Sondheim’s three-act Anyone Can Whistle, Filichia writes that its “assets and liabilities are still being debated lo these 50 years later.”
Worthy theater books from Oxford University Press that should still be on theater lovers’ reading lists: Carol J. Oja’s Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (399 pages; B&W photos, musical notes throughout; Appendix – selected discography and videography; 70 pages of Notes; selected Bibliography; Index; SRP $28, Hardcover); and these reissues in trade paperback: Elizabeth Kendall’s fascinating and revelatory Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer (288 pages; rare photos throughout; Notes; Bibliography; Index), the first book-length study of the relationship between Balanchine and Lidiia Ivanov, researched in Russian, Georgian, Finnish, French, and U.S. archives and brings together cultural and political history to shed light on a pivotal moment in Russian history; Eddie Shapiro’s Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater (382 pages; B&W photos throughout; Index); Ethan Morden’s Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre (346 pages; 16-page B&W photo album; notes on further reading; 32-page Discography; Index).
Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline.