[We pestered our contributors to offer one essential theatre book and explain why it is essential. Here are the first two essays.]
Angels in America by Tony Kushner
...more than its accolades
by Christopher Douglas, senior contributor, Toronto
So, difficult as it is to claim that one play script is more essential than any other, Angels in America by Tony Kushner is a play on my shelf (fine, I’m cheating a bit: a pair of plays) that definitely stands out. Since the first productions just over 20 years ago, Angels won almost every American award for playwriting, has been produced numerous times in numerous cities despite its thematic and budgetary challenges, was adapted into one of the most successful mini-series of a generation and has been anointed a canonical work taught in many universities within record time for a modern classic.
But, for me, Angels is more than its accolades. This Kushner guy – he’s a damn fine writer. Sure, he’s insanely academic and ridiculously political but that is what gives the work something to revisit; the play always has another layer of depth that can be peeled away: a new message, an image that hadn’t hit the audience before or a possibility to be played. These are characters with foibles, multi-faceted damaged people with backgrounds and beliefs that symbolize their era. They are positive characters (in more ways than one) that present an image of real-life to their audience: not merely stereotypes representing sexuality or religion. With appropriately varied levels of good and evil and wisdom, the epic scope and imagination of this sprawling work still astounds me after multiple visits to its pages – and I don’t re-read scripts often. I hold this script up as one of those examples of what theatre-work should be.
...from a producer's perspective
by Christian Baines (Senior contributor, Toronto)
If Russian Roulette has a theatrical equivalent, it must surely be the community musical. Either the show is too big, or the cast are trying too hard to replicate another version, or the whole thing just collapses under the weight of ‘Look Mom, I’m in Rent!’
I don’t think there’s a community theatre group on Earth that would not benefit from turning to Peter Filichia’s Let’s Put On A Musical! as their bible, both in staging their productions, and in planning for the future. It’s essentially a big-ole-book-o-musicals, fully explained with cast, staging and technical requirements, suggested audience, licensing options and valuable tips from successful (and not so successful) companies that have staged these shows in the past.
If you can name a show to which the amateur rights were available up to 2007, you’ll almost certainly find it, neatly categorized into such chapters as “Can You Use Any Money Today?” (We’re broke. What’s a guaranteed sell-out?) , “Put On Your Sunday Clothes!” (Our costume designer is an egomaniac), “Don’t Tell Mama!” (We need a musical for Pride) and “7½ Cents Doesn’t Buy A Helluva Lot” (Hey, there hasn’t been a production of The Last 5 Years within the last 20 minutes, right?).
If you’re wanting a comprehensive, single-volume encyclopaedia of musical theatre from a producer’s perspective, this is it. I also admire the book’s sense of balance. It acknowledges that there are genuinely bad musicals in the world, while still pointing out that many of these are still successful and even quite loved (eg: “If you produce it, the Jekkies will come!”). But Filichia never sucks up to these shows, finding assets and liabilities in each one. Liabilities as in, not just shortcomings within the shows themselves, but challenges you’re likely to face in attempting to stage them. And if your project proves impossible, don’t worry! There are over 200 famous and lesser known musicals listed.
Since I’m fully in favour of seeing as many obscure, rarely produced musicals on stage as often as possible – and because I’m probably one bad production of Rent away from self-harm – I urge any wannabe theatre director, producer, music director, or just anyone who cares for the art, to track down a copy of this book.
In fact, I’m bringing it next time I go to see Rent. Ready to throw in case I get shout-sung at by a bunch of angry, whiny proto-hipsters on stage.