Stage and Screen

Billy Crystal
Billy Crystal (Shawn Baldwin/ap)
By Celia Wren
Sunday, January 22, 2006

"All art is quite useless," Oscar Wilde famously wrote. He obviously didn't work in 21st-century book publishing, where art provides useful fodder for a steady stream of new releases -- from artist biographies to historical studies to playscripts and screenplays, to coffee table books. Many of these volumes deal with the performing arts, a situation that may seem problematic. After all, a performance is essentially fleeting and unrepeatable and can be hard to capture in written words. Here's a passel of recent books that take up the stage-to-page challenge, in one case examining the convergence of a theatrical genre, the musical and film.

Gotta Dance

One of the most celebrated death stories in theater history lends a "wow" finish to John Anthony Gilvey's dexterous biography Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical (St. Martin's, $29.95). First, the facts: Though his legend has been overshadowed by those of other choreographer-directors, such as Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, Champion dazzled his contemporaries with his imaginative, witty and fluid stagings of Broadway blockbusters, including "Bye Bye Birdie" (1960) and "Hello, Dolly!" (1964). After gaining fame on the nightclub circuit and on television as a dance act with his wife, Marge, Champion tacked over to the theatrical big-time, where he helped birth inventive shows like "Carnival" (1961).

Gilvey's admirably researched book identifies the traits that fueled Champion's success, including his martinet-like discipline -- "Hello, Dolly!" star Carol Channing spoke of the feared "Gower glower" -- and his flair for fusing choreography, dialogue scenes and shtick. Astutely comparing sequences that Champion crafted at different periods in his career, Gilvey pinpoints the lessons the director learned from his apprenticeship in nightclubs, where staging needed to be economical and catchy.

Though weak from a rare blood disease, Champion masterminded the spectacular "42nd Street" in 1980; producer David Merrick, a PR genius, announced Champion's death from the stage on opening night, shocking the audience. Perhaps not coincidentally, the show became a sensation.

Champion had little success in Hollywood, even though he and Marge were under contract with MGM in the 1950s, the Golden Age of movie musicals. In later decades, of course, the genre fell out of favor with the studios, but the success of the movies "Moulin Rouge" in 2001 and "Chicago" in 2002 might suggest that a renaissance is under way.

Singing on Celluloid

In his capricious Singing a New Tune: The Rebirth of the Modern Film Musical from "Evita" to "De-Lovely" and Beyond (Applause, $24.95), John Kenneth Muir places movie musicals in a context that goes all the way back to "The Jazz Singer," the first talkie, in 1927. A prolific chronicler of popular culture ( Horror Films of the 1970s , Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest, etc.), Muir rustles up a few smart aperçus about releases from the last decade -- for example, his eye-opening analysis of how the movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" lampooned musical-comedy tropes.

But he undermines his credibility by largely ignoring the theatrical currents that shaped classic musicals. And he has other tics, such as constantly quoting Joss Whedon, creator of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." No doubt Whedon is indeed a "virtual encyclopedia of musical film history," as Muir maintains; that hardly means one wants to know his opinion of "Oklahoma!" And then there are Muir's bizarrely painstaking critiques of fly-by-night flicks like "Spice World" (remember Ginger, Scary, Sporty and Posh?) and the "American Idol" spin-off "From Justin to Kelly." Still, with movie versions of "Rent" and "The Producers" just out, Singing a New Tune scores points for timing.

A Night at the Opera

If Muir's tome feels less than authoritative, there's a little too much expertise behind Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers (Crown, $24.95), by the late William Murray, a New Yorker staff writer and sometime opera singer who spent the 2003-04 season following a group of young singers in a training program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The resulting account of auditions, coaching sessions and backstage panics should gratify opera wonks, who will relish all the shoptalk about breathing techniques and sonorous top notes. The eyes of other readers may glaze over, except when Murray discusses the behavior of his "sacred monsters," luminaries so in demand that they can indulge in arrogance and caprice.

Murray found himself holding the pet terrier of one such monster, director Franco Zeffirelli, during a rehearsal of "Carmen" that lasted until 2 a.m. Unfortunately, backing up every operatic VIP are hundreds of administrators, teachers, stagehands and chorus members, and descriptions of their exertions -- vital as they are to the feats of the musical maestros -- make for pallid reading.

The Making of a Comedian

No intermediaries clutter up the focus of 700 Sundays (Warner, $21.95), the text of Billy Crystal's solo show. A hit on Broadway this past spring, now running in Los Angeles, 700 Sundays is Crystal's valentine to his late parents and his childhood in Long Beach, Long Island. Not surprisingly, given his credits (TV's "Saturday Night Live"; movies like "Analyze This" and "When Harry Met Sally . . . "), this fragmentary autobiography packs in its share of jokes: a yuk-fest about circumcision; a send-up of Crystal's Aunt Sheila, gabbing on the phone about her lesbian daughter's wedding; a few irreverent conversations with the Almighty ("There should be an Eleventh Commandment. Thou shalt not be a schmucky god").

But there's no stinting on sentiment, particularly when it comes to Crystal's jazz-producer father, who died when Billy was 15. (With family time limited to dad's day off, Crystal calculates that he shared a total of 700 Sundays with his father.) The death of Crystal's mother, decades later, also looms large. Still, despite the elegiac elements, the ample supply of irrepressible wisecracks makes 700 Sundays a fast, fun read -- one that, with its images of little tykes grandstanding in the living room, casts light on the incubation of a comedian.

Swimming to the End

The Grim Reaper maintains a more macabre profile in another book based on a one-man show, Life Interrupted (Crown, $19.95), the final, unfinished monologue by Spalding Gray, who committed suicide in 2004. As the novelist Francine Prose observes in her introduction, the piece positively shivers with intimations of mortality. "Death seemed everywhere in Ireland," Gray broods as he recalls a trip there in which his family suffered a serious car crash and where he spotted various eerie omens, such as a team of grave diggers taking a cigarette break.

But his monologue also incorporates memories that seem strange and wonderful, rather than sinister: There's the offer of toast from a cross-dressing worker with green fingernails, in the hospital that took Gray in after the car crash. There's Gray's recollection of a friend who, in the aftermath of a comparable auto accident, followed a new-age healer's directive to eat only Campbell's celery soup for months. Such vivid minutiae, the random souvenirs of everyday experience, assumed a shimmering significance in Gray's writing: He had a "raconteur's genius for investing ordinary details with more universal magic," recalls the former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, whose tribute to Gray figures among the 22 memorial service eulogies included in the volume. Given the somber mood of the speeches -- by Laurie Anderson, Eric Stoltz and other friends -- and the morbid timbre of Gray's monologue itself, Life Interrupted can be something of a downer. But it does leave one with a grim conviction that existence itself, viewed through the right lens, can be a work of art. ยท

Celia Wren writes about theater for The Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other publications.

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