What's New on the Rialto
The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volume 4
by Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Book Review by Wendy Caster
Eden Theatre in the East Village was sometimes considered a Broadway house, strangely enough, though not by the Tony organization. Stagehands care for the theatre as well for the show; for example, electricians care for the chandeliers, props people fix seats, etc. Ann Harada reveals that when the Clintons saw Avenue Q, the audience only laughed after they laughed, resulting in a sort of time delay. In three-quarters-round theatres, says Christopher Durang, people with a better view of a scene naturally laugh more, while in a proscenium theatre, reactions are more unified. In the first production of Hair, the nude scene was never rehearsed. In a theatre that seats 125 people, 40 people not enjoying the show can temper the response of the other 85.
Jennifer Ashley Tepper's fourth volume of The Untold Stories of Broadway intersperses theatre professionals' recollections with histories of various Broadway theatres. (This volume features the Imperial, Morosco, Bijou, Helen Hayes, Gaiety, Astor, Minskoff, Samuel J. Friedman, Golden, and Studio 54.) It's a large book, stuffed full with the (not-always-)untold stories of Broadway, some of which are wonderful.
The problem is, the book is a mess. Some chapters are split up at random. For example, a discussion on Drood is interrupted by nine pages on Dreamgirls and They're Playing Our Song. There are far too many bland examples of "I love theatre X" or "My first Broadway show was so exciting" or "I'd really love to work in theatre Y." In contrast, there are not enough thoughtful entries that tell entire stories, although they are some of the best things in the book. See, for example, Paul Gemignani, Michael Rupert, Randy Graff, Fritz Weaver, Peter Gallagher, Anita Gillette. (Unfortunately, you'll have to riffle through the book to find them, as it lacks an index.)
Necessary editorial additions are sadly lacking. For example, Reed Birney says that Casa Valentina saved his life. Would it be too much to insert the phrase "[by Harvey Fierstein]" after the first mention of the play? Fairly common phrases/references are explained (e.g., chewing the scenery, Michael Jordan) but less-well-known ones go by without a murmur (e.g., legacy robe). And while it is clear when interviewees are speaking, and therefore any opinions are theirs, actual errors should be pointed out (e.g., Gower Champion did not die of AIDS). Also, Tepper's writing can be less than ideal. For example, she writes of the "boffola" My Fair Lady, when she means "boffo."* This might seem to be a nit-picky comment, but there are many more examples, and they add up.
If the book were well-organized, better edited, and free of chaff, and had an index, it would be a real treasure. Tepper interviewed 275 people and dug up a ton of information about lost shows. She loves theatre and it shows. The result is indeed messy, but it's also fun. I'd recommend leaving it where people might just read bit and pieces at random. It's a great bathroom book.
*"Boffola," I now know, means a line in a show written to get a big laugh. Has anyone out there heard it used? No one I know has, including my playwright brother-in-law, Tom Dudzick, who has written hundreds of fabulous boffolas.