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August 4, 2020 4:10 am

Two New Books Examine the Heyday of the Broadway Theater

avatar by David Meyers


The marquee outside the Broadway revival of ‘A Chorus Line.’ Photo: WIki Commons.

Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey by Bob Avian (University Press of Mississippi, 2020).

The Understudy by Ellen Tovatt Leary (Hansen Publishing, 2020).

Bob Avian is not Jewish, but many — if not a majority — of his most famous collaborators were.

Avian — an iconic musical theater choreographer, director, and assistant — worked on many of the greatest shows ever written, from Follies to A Chorus Line to Dreamgirls.

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His new book Dancing Man (written with Tom Santopietro) is a whirlwind tour through the history and legacy of the American musical theater. Throughout his 60 year career, Avian seems to have worked with anyone and everyone — from choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Gower Champion, to actors like Mary Martin and Barbra Streisand, and writers like Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But his greatest collaboration was with Michael Bennett, with whom Avian worked on such groundbreaking shows as Company, Follies, and A Chorus Line. Although Avian was credited as an assistant or associate on most of those shows, he played a much larger artistic role in Bennett’s work and success (Bennett often paid Avian a piece of his salary and commission on projects they worked on together).

Following Bennett’s untimely passing, Avian continued as a director and choreographer in his own right, and also served as a guardian on future productions and the legacy of Bennett’s biggest smash: A Chorus Line.

Quite frankly, there is only one critique of this book: it is much too short.

Avian worked on some of the most important musicals of the 20th century, yet the slim nature of this volume (less than 200 pages), means that the reader only gets passing insights into the creative processes and talents behind these shows. Major names like Alfred Drake and Robert Preston are described in just a sentence or a few short paragraphs.

And we only skim the surface of the creative process behind such shows. When it comes to Promises, Promises, for example, Avian doesn’t spend much time on “Turkey Lurkey Time” — one of the greatest musical theater dance numbers in history. Avian tells us he kept a diary during the creative and rehearsal process for Dreamgirls, but we only get the smallest excerpts.

To compare, Ted Chapin’s Everything Was Possible: The Birth of Musical Follies devotes 330 pages to the creation of that musical (every page of it earned). Avian covers the same show in only 10 pages.

Obviously, given the vast scope of Avian’s work, it isn’t possible to go quite as in depth (although I certainly would have been willing to read it), but one does feel like Avian is allowing the reader to only skim the surface of many of his greatest experiences and accomplishments.

Nevertheless, Dancing Man is a must-read for anyone who loves the musical theater — and wants to better understand its legacy.

Ellen Tovatt Leary’s The Understudy is a 241-page book. On page four, I knew I would be entertained — and it did not disappoint.

The book tells the story of a New York actress navigating the highs and lows (though mainly the highs) of the theater industry in the 1970s.

Anyone who has ever pursued or contemplated a life in the theater — especially during the 20th century heyday of New York theater — will relate to this book. While some of the insights into acting as a craft and profession are simplified for the lay reader, even the most experienced pro will recognize themselves in the lead character Nina’s journey.

Even though I personally experienced the New York theater community of the 21st century, the book was eminently relatable to my own history. It’s a quick and engaging read (I finished it in two long nights), and my only real issue with the book is that it’s a bit thin — both in terms of length, and in exploring Nina’s story.

The Understudy focuses only on a very small part of Nina’s career and life — and I would have liked to see more of her journey both before and after the events in the book (which ends on a bit of a simplistic and overly happy resolution).

Because the book markets itself as based on the author’s experience as a New York City theater artist in the 1970s and 80s, I was hoping for a wider scope of what that life was like. And given that the book is inspired by the author’s own experiences, I couldn’t help but wonder what was true and what wasn’t.

Nevertheless, The Understudy is an engaging, fun, and enjoyable book — especially for those of us afflicted with the disease of the theater.

David Meyers worked in the White House for George W. Bush, and later in the US Senate.

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