‘Tis the season of giving, and what’s a better gift than theatre? We know our readership spans multiple states, so when it came to making this gift guide: subscriptions and theatre tickets were out of the question. So we tried to choose items that any theatre lover anywhere might enjoy.
Below, we highlight some books, cast albums and DVDs that were released this year for the theatre fan and theatre artists in your life.
FOR THE MUSICOPHILE
New musicals abounded Off-Broadway this year, and many of them made cast albums you can buy and share with your loved ones. For that family member you’ve been trying to reconnect with over the years, why not gift the cast recording of Fun Home, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s tuner based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel? You can have a good cry together while listening to Beth Malone beg Michael Cerveris to connect with her, and maybe even take them to the show when it returns to Broadway in 2015.
For the pop music lover who won’t be caught dead near a musical, check out Here Lies Love, the album of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s musical about Imelda Marcos. The disco beat is so strong that they’ll be singing and dancing to it before they even realize it’s a musical.
And for the Bushwick-dwelling hipster who would never cop to being one, try a copy of Dave Malloy’s electropop/folk/jazz Ghost Quartet. It’s the perfect gift for the loft-dweller with a love of under-the-radar, bohemian musicians who sing and play their own instruments. —Suzy Evans, managing editor
FOR THE BIOPHILE
As American Theatre’s book editor, I see a lot of promising titles cross my desk. This year, a handful of news-making biographies piqued my interest. The Great White Whale this year was the long-awaited John Lahr biography of Tennessee Williams, The Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Our critic, Garrett Eisler called it “as compelling a drama as any Williams himself wrote.” Initially begun as a sequel to the late Lyle Leverich’s Tom, which told the playwright’s story only up to his success with The Glass Menagerie, over the years Lahr’s work morphed into a “critical biography” of the playwright’s life and work. With this sizable volume, a perfect gift for Williams fans and detractors alike, Lahr, the former critic at the New Yorker has handily and—at least until James Grissom’s Folliges of God comes out next March—definitively filled a huge gap in the biographical record.
Another conversation-starting biography in an already crowded and contentious field was Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, which was seized on by critics on both the right and the left as either a deft character assassination that corroborates John Fuegi’s explosive 1994 polemic Brecht and Co., or as an important (partial) corrective to many myths about the great German playwright. Though it’s been knocked in some quarter for its ungainly prose, this is an essential addition to the Brecht-ophile’s shelf. (Another slim, non-biographical title from 2014 that would make a great stocking stuffer: Bertolt Brecht Love Poems, in translation by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn.)
Finally, Robert M. Dowling’s new Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts has been similarly noted for debunking the popular image of the 20th-century American playwright as a brooding, family-obsessed maker of well-made dramas, giving equal weight to his days as a radical stage innovator and ensemble theatre player (with the Provincetown Players). With Brooklyn Academy of Music’s upcoming import of the Goodman Theatre’s The Iceman Cometh—a play that stands roughly at the intersection of early and late O’Neill—Dowling’s book makes a fine preshow meal. —Rob Weinert-Kendt, senior editor
FOR THE CINEPHILE
Watching this 1977 production of the Wooster Group’s Rumstick Road on DVD feels like taking part in a history lesson so relevant and contemporary it’s eerie—like discovering a blueprint that’s still in use today. In this defining work of the New York avant-garde, Spalding Grey’s work as a writer and performer laid the foundation for a generation of performers to come. Combining recorded conversations, family letters, dance, video projections and music, Rumstick Road explodes form and content while following a skewed three-act structure.
Radically experimental and deeply moving, Rumstick Road feels fresh and necessary and presages Gray’s own tragic end. Or, as Calum Marsh wrote in the Village Voice: “Not merely a document of something extraordinary—something extraordinary all on its own.” Rumstick Road is a must-view for experimental theatremakers (and those who love them), and for the cinephile who appreciates an expert translation of theatre to film. —Eliza Bent, senior editor
FOR THE ARTIST-PHILE
This was the year of Sondheim on-screen, with the release of the Into the Woods film and the subsequent rerelease of the original Broadway cast television performance. But for the aspiring composer who wants to know how the composer writes those iconic songs, gift-wrap a copy of the Six By Sondheim documentary, a look through Sondheim’s life and process via six of his most memorable songs.
In one memorable anecdote, Sondheim recalls how, when Leonard Bernstein gave him lyric-writing credits for West Side Story, Sondheim was so ecstatic for the credit that he refused those royalty shares—a mistake he wishes he could slap his old self for. Consider that a nugget of financial wisdom from the maestro himself: always accept the money!
For the aspiring playwright, there’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl, which contains the playwright’s musings on a variety of subjects—as clarified in the subtitle, “On umbrellas and sword fights, parades and dogs, fire alarms, children and theater.”
In a memorable piece on play structure, she writes, “Do we think the arc is a natural structure because of the structure of the male orgasm?” That’s an argument against patriarchy in the theatre I’ve never read before, but it makes a great deal of sense. Honest, funny, and with various nuggets of wisdom (especially in the essay “Colorblind casting; or, why are there so many white people onstage?”), 100 Essays is just the right amount of biting. —Diep Tran, associate editor