Thursday, March 17, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: At This Theatre (2010 Edition)

Theatre Book Review: At This Theatre: 110 Years of Broadway Shows, Stories and Stars. By Robert Viagas and Louis Botto.  Forward by Cheyenne Jackson. Published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. Copyright 2010. Hardcover. 436 pages.

Grade: B+

At This Theatre, now in its 3rd edition, is really a must have book for any theatre buff, but even more so for someone new to the thrill of the Great White Way.  The book chronicles (as its subtitle - 110 Years of Broadway Shows, Stories and Stars -suggests) the history of each of the 40 currently operating theatres that fall under the canvas of "Broadway."  It is so current, in fact, that it lists the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, though the pictures in that chapter are exclusively The Henry Miller's Theatre, but the Foxwoods is still known in the book as The Hilton Theatre.  But that is a small quibble, when you consider there is even a paragraph devoted to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Filled with hundreds of Playbill covers, sepia tone, black and white, and color photos, the book pretty much does what it sets out to do: tell us what has happened at each theatre.  Each chapter tells of the builder, architect and impresario who bought the space.  It also offers conjecture on the quality of the space, both in terms of the stage and back stage areas, as well as the house and lobby.  Then there is the decade by decade listing of the shows, stars and the overall reception of each show that played each theater.  It is concise, well-written and has just enough "juicy tidbits" to keep it a real page turner. (And it starts with a charming and oh so relateable forward by Cheyenne Jackson.)

Whether you call it the Hilton or the Foxwoods,
Broadway's newest theatre is...

It is amazing to see the vintage photos of acclaimed original productions like Mister Roberts, The Sound of Music and The Ziegfeld Follies.  And it is particularly nice to see decent exterior photos unfettered by scaffolding and giant cloth billboards.  Still, one wishes that some of the photos were larger of the older shows.  Don't get me wrong, there are some beautiful portraits that are full page in full color - the Hairspray picture is fantastic.  But does Idina Menzel as Elphaba have to take a half a page and "One Short Day" take another half in the Gershwin chapter, when Sweeney Todd is relegated to a small square?  Similarly, no matter what you think of it, Cats sure gets the short shrift as well, considering how long it took over the Winter Garden Theatre.  There is a small Playbill cover and a tiny (maybe 1.5 inch square) picture of the Rum Tum Tugger.  Both Sweeney and Cats changed theatre as we know it.  But there is a full page picture of Will Ferrell in his George Bush show?  Really? (The Winter Garden chapter doesn't spend much time on classics that played there like Follies, Mame or the original West Side Story, either.)

But more often than not, the book is superb, with great tributes to A Chorus Line, Hello, Dolly! and even a few paragraphs about Avenue Q!  And what I especially love is the inclusion of pictures and information on so many flops - Glory Days, Lestat, Steel Pier, Impressionism, etc.  And it is very nice that just because a show is current there isn't a shortage of material on those shows either - next to normal, Billy Elliot, Hair, God of Carnage, etc.  (There are two printing errors regarding God of Carnage as well.  On the cover, the Playbill says "Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont."  And on the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre page, the Playbill says "John Golden Theatre."  It played the Jacobs.

...right across 42nd Street from Broadway's
oldest theatre, the New Amsterdam.

And though this isn't even remotely a complaint, the book does make you notice what is missing.  Brilliant, landmark plays and musicals that go unmentioned.  Why?  Because so many theatres are gone.  A shame.

Even so, what a great book to have around as a reference.  I can see using it before you see a show at a theatre you've never been inside before.  Soon, I'll be returning to the Palace, the Neil Simon and the Al Hirschfeld.  I will definitely review those chapters before I go.  It'll be nice to notice more than the merch stand, the usher and the inevitable lady with huge hair that will sit in front of me.  Of course, the Playbill will have an abbreviated version for each theatre I go to, but it will be nicer to have had the "full tour" ahead of time.

While it isn't perfect, it sure is an interesting and very colorful history of Broadway right at your fingertips.  I would definitely recommend this for your collection.

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