Monday, July 09, 2007

A movie great and an ambitious theatrical project

These are just books I finished recently. I guess the link between them is they're about the performing arts.

Silverman, Stephen M. Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies. New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1996.
While I've seen Singin' in the Rain, I never really thought about who directed it until Stanley Donen received an honorary Oscar in 1998. Donen gave one of the most charming speeches I'd ever heard.

Some of the other movies Donen co-directed or directed include Charade, Two for the Road, Funny Face, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Pajama Game, Royal Wedding, and On the Town. He directed stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Cary Grant, and Frank Sinatra.

This biography relies quite a bit on interviews with Donen and many of the people Donen worked with, and thanks to that, it's a very lively biography, almost like an oral history. It covers nearly every film he worked on in some depth (well, not much on Blame It on Rio). Singin' in the Rain rates its own chapter. Silverman generally covers how Donen came to work on the film, any special challenges the film entailed, and where it fits in Donen's body of work. Silverman covers Donen's early life, his start in films as a dancer, and his private life, though the focus is on the professional side.

That makes it sound serious. It's filled with tons of entertaining behind-the-scenes anecdotes. It helps that Donen has a good sense of humor, and doesn't take himself or his work too seriously. Despite its length (nearly 400 pages), it's a breezy read.

Rubin, Leon. The Nicholas Nickleby Story: The Making of the Historic Royal Shakespeare Company Production. London: Heinemann, 1981.
This book focuses on one, very long (performance length about 9 hours, performed in two parts) theatrical production: Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) adaptation of Dickens's novel Nicholas Nickleby. Author Leon Rubin was an assistant director on the project, which was headed up by Trevor Nunn. As described by Rubin, it was really a group effort to create the play. Many ideas for staging and for the script came out of improvisational exercises, which Rubin describes at some length.

Among the things that made this production unique: Early in the project's history, each member of the RSC's acting company had the opportunity to opt out of the project; those that remained with it had no guarantee of any particular role. One of the first things the actors were asked to do was research and report on various aspects of life in Dickens's times. It took so long to create that there wasn't much time for full dress rehearsals (in the case of part 2, I don't think there was a full run-through).

The book covers the scriptwriting, directing and acting styles, set and costume design, and the music composed for the show--all the creative elements, basically. It's fascinating to see the show evolve.

At least two actors in the original production, who show up quite often in the book, are likely familiar to U.S. audiences: Roger Rees and Ben Kingsley. Of course, those from Great Britain will recognize many more of the cast members.

I knew nothing of the Dickens novel when I read the book. I only read a plot outline after I read the book (I ended up reading the book in a weekend because another library patron requested it), but knowing the plot outline would've been helpful. The book contains LOTS of pictures, so it's a pretty quick read.

For other books that go behind the scenes of theatrical productions, see my entries for Year-in-the-Life books, part III: Theater (August 26, 2006), and Behind the Scenes at a Classical Theater (August 8, 2006).