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Books on stage and music that are worth the drama

Stephen Sondheim's opus on songwriting, Finishing the Hat, is the big stage book of the season. The first of a planned two volumes, it brings together the lyrics of Sondheim's musicals from 1954 to 1981, from Saturday Night to Merrily We Roll Along. The title is from a Sondheim song about making art in a later show, Sunday in the Park With George.

This is not just a superb primer on songwriting — the Sondheim principles: "Content dictates form. Less is more. God is in the details'' — but the essays and commentary by the composer-lyricist constitute a compelling history of Broadway. His self-criticism can be tart, as in his embarrassment at the glibness of lyrics to I Feel Pretty from West Side Story. Also included are Sondheim's assessments of other practitioners ("Lorenz Hart is the laziest of the preeminent lyricists'') and a treasure trove of vintage photography.

Sondheim's tome is just one of several books published this year about the art of the stage, from the life stories of actors to the playwrights and songwriters who put the words in their mouths. Then there are volumes on dance, classical music and the score of The Lord of the Rings films. All would make marvelous holiday gifts for the performing arts lovers on your list.

American professional songwriting began with Stephen Foster (1826-1864), whose blackface minstrel songs (Oh! Susanna, My Old Kentucky Home) and parlor ballads (Beautiful Dreamer, Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair) laid the groundwork for generations to come, from the Gershwin brothers to Carole King. Stephen Foster & Co., edited by Ken Emerson, compiles lyrics to Foster's most famous songs plus 49 other 19th century American songs, such as The Yellow Rose of Texas and Oh My Darling Clementine.

Noel Coward's musicals aren't produced much anymore — Bitter Sweet, his most successful, hasn't had a major revival in decades — but you get an idea of what a consummate lyricist he was in The Noel Coward Reader, edited by Barry Day. Coward provides a brilliant perspective on 20th century theater, and Day (who also edited The Letters of Noel Coward) has put together an entertaining grab bag of scenes from Coward plays and movie scripts, short stories and essays, verse and lyrics (Mad Dogs and Englishman, Sail Away, Mad About the Boy), an excerpt from his only published novel, Pomp and Circumstance, and more.

Another, very different English playwright was Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker), master of the pregnant pause. Pinter's widow, biographer Antonia Fraser (The Wives of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots), has written a memoir, Must You Go? It's based on Fraser's diaries, which chronicle their 33-year relationship, from first meeting, when both were in their early 40s and married to others, to Pinter's death from cancer in 2008. It's a splendid portrait of a literary marriage.

In Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Gottlieb gives a lively, idiosyncratic account of the most famous actor of her time (1844-1923), whose iconic roles ranged from La Dame aux camelias to Hamlet. A diva of our day tells her story in Patti LuPone: A Memoir, ranging from her disenchanting experience with Andrew Lloyd Webber in Evita and Sunset Boulevard to her triumphs in Sweeney Todd and Gypsy.

Jennifer Homans has created a stir with her forecast of ballet's death ("Over the past two decades ballet has come to resemble a dying language'') in Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet. Her book is a four-century history of dance by a former dancer whose influences range from "the intensely intellectual milieu'' of the University of Chicago (where both her parents worked) to George Balanchine. Cultural history of another dance form is on exuberant display in Tap Dancing America by Constance Valis Hill, who showcases an array of tappers from legends like Bill "Bojangles'' Robinson and Charles "Honi'' Coles to modern-day hoofers like Brenda Buffalino and Savion Glover.

The Lord of the Rings obsessives will revel in Doug Adams' immersion in the making of Howard Shore's score to the screen trilogy. The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films is an exhaustive exploration that includes many musical examples, a rarities CD and lavish illustrations. To sample Adams' approach, check out his blog on the project,

Composer John Cage is most famous for 4' 33" — four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, a piece of conceptual theater that was either praised as a revolutionary meditation on listening or denounced as a schoolboy prank. Kenneth Silverman tells the story of the 1952 premiere and much else in Begin Again, the first comprehensive biography of Cage.

Why Mahler? asks Norman Lebrecht in his latest book, which tries to answer "the riddle of why Mahler had risen from near oblivion, to displace Beethoven as the most popular and influential symphonist of our age.'' Lebrecht supplies a brisk, gossipy biography of the composer and a guide to recordings of his works. Beethoven gets his due in The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, in which Harvey Sachs, author of a biography of conductor Arturo Toscanini, delves into the history and meaning of the fabled symphony.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer Samuel Barber, whose best-known piece, Adagio for Strings, has become the music of choice for funerals and occasions of national mourning, as well as for its use in the movies Platoon, The Elephant Man and Lorenzo's Oil. Barber wrote lots of wonderful music — the Violin Concerto, three Essays for Orchestra, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 — but Thomas Larson focuses on his greatest hit in The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Alex Ross, classical music critic for the New Yorker, collects some of his best writing from the magazine in Listen to This. It includes crossover gems on Radiohead, Bob Dylan and Bjork, as well as the usual suspects: Mozart, Brahms, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette collaborated with Leon Fleisher on the pianist's memoir, My Nine Lives. Fleisher went from virtuoso to career-ending injury to inspiring reinvention.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at

A reading list

Books on stage and music

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) by Stephen Sondheim, Knopf, 445 pages, $39.95

Stephen Foster & Co., edited by Ken Emerson, Library of America, 204 pages, $20

The Noel Coward Reader, edited by Barry Day, Knopf, 596 pages, $39.95

Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser, Doubleday, 328 pages, $28.95

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb, Yale, 233 pages, $25

Patti LuPone: A Memoir by Patti LuPone with Digby Diehl, Crown, 324 pages, $25.99

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans, Random House, 643 pages, $35

Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History by Constance Valis Hill, Oxford, 441 pages, $39.95

The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films by Doug Adams, Carpentier, 401 pages, $59.95

Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman, Knopf, 483 pages, $40

Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World by Norman Lebrecht, Pantheon, 326 pages, $27.95

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs, Random House, 225 pages, $26

The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings by Thomas Larson, Pegasus, 272 pages, $26.95

Listen to This by Alex Ross, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 364 pages, $27

My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette, Doubleday, 325 pages, $26

Books on stage and music that are worth the drama 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 3:30am]
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