It was sixty years ago this year that Tony met a girl named Maria, Anita liked to live in America, and Officer Krupke was encouraged to consider the psychological, economic and sociological stimuli that drove the Jets’ dubious lifestyle choices. In other words, it was in 1957 that the musical West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, a book by Arthur Laurents, and lyrics by a promising young upstart named Stephen Sondheim, debuted on Broadway.
If you’re a bona fide card-carrying theater geek, you probably already know all the words to “I Feel Pretty” and can act out (spoiler alert!) Tony’s death scene upon request. But you may not be aware of some of the other theater-geek-friendly materials you can access for free from the Toledo Lucas County Public Library.
Take, for instance, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, two exhaustively detailed books by the aforementioned Stephen Sondheim in which he discusses nearly every line in every song in every show he’s ever written. The fascinating result is meticulously analytical and, often, self-critical (he has some reservations about his lyrics for West Side Story, and he thinks you should too).
Meanwhile, Sondheim makes a cameo appearance as himself in the movie Camp, a fun and engaging movie about a performing arts camp – a thinly fictionalized version of the real-life Stagedoor Manor in the Catskills – and the adolescent theater nerds in attendance receive him with a fanatical hysteria most youths today would reserve for Taylor Swift. The movie also features a young Anna Kendrick.
These days, if young people are going to go nuts over a virtuosic librettist and composer, it’ll probably be Lin-Manuel Miranda, the multi-talented hyphenate who’s written music for Moana, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and a little musical on Broadway called Hamilton. If you’re reading this you probably already have the roughly 20,000 rapid-fire words of Hamilton’s lyrics memorized, but you may not yet have read the companion book about the show’s composition and production. The print edition has lots of cool photographs, but the audiobook features the voice of Miranda himself reading the copious footnotes along with actor Mariska Hargitay.
And Hamilton isn’t Miranda’s first trip to the Broadway stage. He also won Tonys for his previous musical In the Heights.
Of course there’s more to theater than musicals. Multiple theater professionals have declared that we’re currently in a golden age of American playwriting, and a great way to get acquainted with what’s new on American stages is to page through the annual offerings of the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. The library has collections of those plays going back a number of years.
Watching (and reading) plays is great, but sometimes watching actors and directors struggle to put on plays can be just as hilarious – and, sometimes, oddly moving. The TV series Slings and Arrows devotes each season to a bumbling troupe of Canadian theater professionals working valiantly to put on a different Shakespeare play without completely falling apart. The first season, which revolves around a troubled production of Hamlet and stars a pre-movie-star, pre-Oscar-nomination Rachel McAdams, is terrific.
Similarly Canadian, but focusing on amateur thespians instead of professionals, is Robertson Davies’s comical novel Tempest-Tost, the first novel in his Salterton Trilogy. Rarely has an endemic lack of talent been so entertaining to behold.
Of course, Canadians don’t have a monopoly on Shakespeare (the Stratford Festival in Ontario notwithstanding). You may remember Shakespeare in Love as the romantic comedy that got a lot of grief when it unexpectedly upset Saving Private Ryan in that year’s Best Picture race at the Oscars. But if you revisit the movie you’ll find it’s more than Ben-and-Gwyneth flashbacks and English major in-jokes; it’s a smart and persuasive love letter to theater as a communal force.
For an even truer story of a scribe’s rise from humble obscurity to theatrical celebrity, you can’t do better than Moss Hart’s celebrated memoir Act One; despite some archaic asides that feel politically insensitive to contemporary ears, Hart’s journey from poor Brooklynite to toast of Broadway is as engaging as it is implausible.
Meanwhile, for younger audiences (9 and up), the award-winning juvenile novel Better Nate Than Ever follows the adventures of a spirited misfit who’s determined to escape Jankburg, Pennsylvania for the bright lights of Broadway.
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