Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater by Timothy R. White

A comprehensive academic study of the industries behind theatrical Broadway.

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Historian Timothy R. White considers an unexamined intersection of urban history and theater history in Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater. Broadway as his subject is both a geographical area in New York City and a representation of theater in the United States; his focus is the crafts and trades that have supported Broadway in both its meanings over the years. He writes, “This de facto ‘factory,’ churning out shows for national consumption, has yet to be given its due in history books and is little understood as the mighty industrial district it truly was [in its heyday].”

Just as a magician never reveals his tricks, actors and producers have never been eager to divulge to audiences what goes on behind the scenes. But as White shows, for every singing, dancing actor who treads the boards, myriad supporting players are necessary. Stagecraft covers the craftspeople (carpenters, painters, seamstresses, milliners, costumers and designers) who produce the backdrops, painted scenery, furniture, drapes, props, costumes, wigs and makeup, working with a variety of raw materials, such as lumber, paint, fabric. Later in history, lighting and sound riggers and technicians joined this list (in fact, the arrival of electric lighting prompted improvements in costumes and scenery, since they could now be seen clearly). These craftspeople were then challenged by the ascension of alternate media (radio and, to a lesser extent, film and television) to find new roles.

Blue-Collar Broadway details these trades, their history and their products, and the industrialization and unionization that came with the concentration of theater in New York City’s Broadway district. White shows how stagecraft industries played crucial roles in history, from early American theater’s geographic dispersal to the Broadway heyday, and through a growth of regional theaters that decreased Broadway’s dominance. He also offers new explanations for patterns of crime and prostitution in Times Square’s recent past, using the context of theater craft.

White’s voice is academic and no-nonsense, and a reader purely interested in the most entertaining angles of his entertainment subject may find his writing a bit dry. But examinations of specific plays (Evita, Oklahoma!) brighten the mood, and White is not without a certain subdued humor. Certainly any fan of theater history, economics, the patterns of urban New York City or general urban history will find his meticulous research stimulating. Blue-Collar Broadway is appealing for its sincere and thorough attention to a key, little-known industry.


This review originally ran in the December 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 proscenia.

A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year by Tom Nissley

reader's book of daysOn this day in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was born, and in 1972, John Berryman died. Also, in 1877…

Completed on this day when its author was not yet fifteen, Fast and Loose: A Novelette certainly promises illicit fun. As one reviewer noted, “The very title suggests something desperate. Who is fast? What is loose? … We prophesy 128 pages of racy trash & are glad to think we shall be wasting our time agreeably.” The reviewer, though, was none other than the author, Edith Jones, who not only wrote the book (for the enjoyment of a friend) but attached three wittily scathing reviews – “the whole thing a fiasco,” said another – mocking her own efforts. Eight years later, Miss Jones married and became Edith Wharton, but despite this precocious beginning it wasn’t until she was thirty-eight that she published her first novel, The Touchstone.

But don’t let’s start there. I implore you, begin reading Tom Nissley’s year in the life of books with his Introduction, which explains his love of dates and how he went about creating this book. (Among other things, it seems he became a little blind to everything else in the good books he was reading, in his hunt for dates.) It improved the book for me. I also liked that he prefaced his work with two quotations, from Dr. Johnson and Thomas Bernhard respectively, which praise & denigrate the practice of including chronology at all in one’s work (“most tasteless and… unintellectual procedure,” crabs Bernhard). I had also forgotten that my copy, a gift from my mother, was signed. Thanks, Mom.

The rest of the book is one-page-to-a-day of literary births, deaths, and anecdotes, covering both the real lives of literary figures as well as the chronologies of their fictional creations. Each month is preceded by recommended reading for that month, too.

As a quick reference it is fun and pleasant though not of course comprehensive (one page to a day! so not everything that ever happened on that day). I liked the month’s recommended reading and Nissley’s introduction best, because I liked his voice. I hope he’ll write more. And I hope you’ve enjoyed the days in book history series. Happy New Year!


Rating: 6 notes.

two-wheeled thoughts & Teaser Tuesdays: Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

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click for details

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Two-wheeled thoughts is my own.

luigi

I am very excited about Luigi’s Freedom Ride, a novel that accomplishes what Life is Beautiful did in film: a story about the horrors of World War II, but that is also funny, joyful, hopeful. And bicycles! Really! Go out and get this one. Review to come, but I wanted to share two bike-related lines that amused me.

Who there could possibly doubt the determination of this young, fit, self-assured bicycle man?

Who, indeed? Yes, I regret that this has to be so man-centered; but to give a little context, the setting is a 1930’s war-bound Italian culture of machismo – and the next lines are spoken in a military training camp.

All that truly mattered was mastery of the bicycle, and the unbreakable, manly bonds that flowed from such mastery.

Manly bonds! And with that I leave you.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

This collection of Raymond Chandler’s reflections and witticisms, edited into themed chapters, will equally satisfy his fans and readers unfamiliar with the noir master.

chandler

Though born in Chicago in 1888, Raymond Chandler was raised in England, so when he returned to the United States at age 24 he felt rather foreign. He had to study and learn what he called the “American” language, but conquered it in writing The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye and many short stories in the noir style–a style he helped perfect. He created the famous Philip Marlowe (an archetypal hard-boiled private investigator who has trouble with the ladies) and wrote screenplays for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train. When he died in 1959, he left a variety of written works behind, and many are respected as classics today. In The World of Raymond Chandler, editor Barry Day (The Noël Coward Reader) compiles Chandler’s published and epistolary writing to form a picture of the man behind Marlowe.

The voice of this book is as much Day’s as his subject’s. Rather than a memoir by Chandler or, as the subtitle might suggest, a narrative told in his words, this is a collection of quotations. Beginning with an excellent brief introduction, Day sketches the major events and publications in Chandler’s life, largely avoiding a standard biography. Selecting from letters and articles, but more often from Chandler’s fiction, Day patches these fragments together with commentary into chapters on themes or common topics of Chandler’s work: cops, dames, Los Angeles, Hollywood. We see Chandler invent the strong sense of place that helps define such writers as Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke today. Day makes the argument fairly successfully that Marlowe’s voice represents Chandler’s, particularly in their later years, as both softened (but not, Chandler insists, mellowed) until Marlowe in The Long Goodbye was “as hollow as the spaces between the stars.”

Chandler fans will be tickled by a great many pithy aphorisms that both describe and exemplify his distinctive style. “To justify… certain experiments in dramatic dialogue… I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either.” About his preference for small casts, he wrote, “If more than two people were on scene I couldn’t keep one of them alive. A crowded canvas just bewilders me.” And what Day calls the master’s “ground rules” (Chandler labeled them “Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel”) are treasures, including “The mystery must elude a reasonably intelligent reader” and (sadly) “The perfect mystery cannot be written.” At the end of this admiring collection, Day’s reader is left wondering if Chandler came closest.


This review originally ran in the December 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 disconnected quotations.

The Color of Courage: A Boy at War by Julian Kulski

Kulski’s story heart-wrenchingly follows the arc of a boy becoming a young man in World War II Poland.

kulski

The Color of Courage is the chronological diary of Julian Kulski, who was ten years old when Germany invaded his native Poland in 1939. Transitioning from the Boy Scouts to the Polish Underground Army, through the Warsaw Ghetto and the event of the Warsaw Uprising, Kulski ends up a sixteen-year-old German prisoner of war; but his story doesn’t end there. This gripping personal account brings a deeply moving and unique perspective to World War II Poland.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on November 27, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 8 bricks.

Growing Up with Ignorance: Memoirs of a Singaporean Baby Boomer by Ali Lee

Sweetly touching, yet sometimes shocking, this memoir provides a unique view of a child’s daily life in 1950s Singapore.

growing up

Lee Ali’s Growing Up with Ignorance: Memoirs of a Singaporean Baby Boomer is a simply written, powerful tale of a particular kind of childhood and upbringing. Born in Singapore in 1949, she was raised simultaneously in an immensely multicultural city and in great isolation, often staying within her family’s one room. By telling her story, she hopes to improve conditions for later generations. Her straightforward narrative is moving and sympathetic.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on November 20, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 5 buses.

Christmas Day in book history

This post is part of a series.

To celebrate Christmas, let’s take a look at today’s date in authorly history.

reader's book of daysAs usual, I consulted A Reader’s Book of Days for today’s happenings, and found births and deaths of some literary figures unfamiliar to me.

Born in 1924: Rod Serling (Stories from the Twilight Zone), Syracuase, N.Y.

Born in 1925: Carlos Castaneda (The Teachings of Don Juan), Cajamarca, Peru

Died in 1938: Karel Čapek (R.U.R. [Rossum’s Universal Robots]), 48, Prague

Died in 1956: Robert Walser (Jakob von Gunten), 78, Herisau, Switzerland

But of real interest I found one anecdote. In 1956,

Kept from going home to Alabama for Christmas by her job as an airline ticket agent, Harper Lee spent the holiday in New York with Broadway songwriter Michael Brown and his wife, Joy, close friends she had met through Truman Capote. Because Lee didn’t have much money they had agreed to exchange inexpensive gifts, but when they woke on Christmas morning the Browns presented her with an envelope containing this note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” Given the humbling gift of “paper, pen, and privacy,” Lee quit her job and set to work, and by the end of February she had written a couple of hundred pages of a manuscript that was first called Go Set a Watchman, then Atticus, and finally To Kill a Mockingbird.

That’s the stuff right there. I had heard (or rather read) this story before, of how Lee got the chance to write her novel, the only one she’d publish and one which has made such a difference in this country and the world over a number of years now. But the detail I hadn’t heard or at least hadn’t retained was that she had the bulk of her manuscript completed by February of a “year off” that started at Christmas. Now that’s impressive! For all those who were frustrated by NaNoWriMo last month, chew on this: Harper Lee’s masterpiece was written in two months. Whew.

And on that inspiring note… happy holidays, friends. Stay tuned for my annual “best of” and “year in review” posts in the next few days.

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