While we may be missing nights out at the theater, we still have access to their stories in the books that inspired them or emerged from their creations. Better, almost, is the idea that now we can read and experience them at our own pace, revisiting our favorite passages or pairing with a memorable soundtrack for ambiance. Enjoy a night in with these nine books that will remind you of your favorite plays or musicals or give insight into the Broadway scene.
To add perspective and layers to a well-known story, I urge you to read MARY POPPINS, SHE WROTE. Revealing the behind-the-scenes story of Mary Poppins creator, Pamela Lyndon Travers, the book surprised me both in its measures of the relationship between a writer and her craft, and the world in which Travers was immersed. She butted heads with Walt Disney over the Disney film’s choices for adapting her character to screen; she knew W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot; she followed the practices of a famous guru. There are memorable stories of Travers’ childhood, moments where she pretended to be a hen for hours, sometimes having to be pulled away from her “nest.” There is the constant accumulation of ideas and daydreams, situations and desires that help readers see where the character of Mary Poppins was born. The story leaves you with the sense of double life: one of creator and one of a character that has taken on a life of its own.
THE ONLY TRUE STORY BEHIND THE CREATOR OF MARY POPPINS
The remarkable life of P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins—perfect for fans of the movie Mary Poppins Returns and the original Disney classic!
“An arresting life…Lawson is superb at excavating the details.” —Library Journal
The spellbinding stories of Mary Poppins, the quintessentially English and utterly magical nanny, have been loved by generations. She flew into the lives of the unsuspecting Banks family in a children’s book that was instantly hailed as a classic, then became a household name when Julie Andrews stepped into the title role in Walt Disney’s hugely successful and equally classic film. But the Mary Poppins in the stories was not the cheery film character. She was tart and sharp, plain and vain. She was a remarkable character.
The story of Mary Poppins’ creator, as this definitive biography reveals, is equally remarkable. The fabulous English nanny was actually conceived by an Australian, Pamela Lyndon Travers, who came to London in 1924 from Queensland as a journalist. She became involved with Theosophy, traveled in the literary circles of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and became a disciple of the famed spiritual guru, Gurdjieff. She famously clashed with Walt Disney over the adaptation of the Mary Poppins books into film. Travers, whom Disney accused of vanity for “thinking you know more about Mary Poppins than I do,” was as tart and opinionated as Julie Andrews’s big-screen Mary Poppins was cheery. Yet it was a love of mysticism and magic that shaped Travers’s life as well as the character of Mary Poppins. The clipped, strict, and ultimately mysterious nanny who emerged from her pen was the creation of someone who remained inscrutable and enigmatic to the end of her ninety-six years.
Valerie Lawson’s illuminating biography provides the first full look whose personal journey is as intriguing as her beloved characters.
It’s impossible to write this without the title song immediately jumping into my head, which is always a welcome burst of energy. I don’t know that I’ve ever listened to a more upbeat musical soundtrack with such serious topics, and that’s a testament to the hope and connection that the story ultimately inspires. The book is just as engaging, complex, and impactful, which is unsurprising as it’s written by the show’s creators. High school senior Evan Hansen tells one lie about knowing Conor Murphy, motivated by a letter to Evan found in Conor’s pocket the day he dies; as the lie grows, Evan is accepted by Conor’s family and feels he can’t possibly take it back—especially when he realizes that what he’s unintentionally begun is bigger than himself. This is a great read when looking to feel close to a community and reflect on what our actions mean to others.
THE COLOR PURPLE is still on my list of top three Broadway shows, and the book has a prominent spot on my shelf. Alice Walker gives voice to characters whose stories need to be heard, touching on topics that are often buried or ignored. The book’s letter format and the two-decade span give readers time and reflective insight into the lives of a strong group of women as they reveal, examine, explore, and search for meaning. THE COLOR PURPLE more than deserves its Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and I hope continues to be read for years to come.
Broadway often feels as if it has its own language, community, and culture. RAZZLE DAZZLE gives the rest of us a glimpse at what goes on behind the curtain, beginning in the mid-1970s with the decline of the Shubert Organization and its confident rescue by two board members, Bernard Jacobs and Jerry Schoenfeld. Suddenly a struggling theater company was entertaining thousands as it climbed back to the top, granting the Times Square scene another chance at mesmerizing audiences—and generating drama and rivalries backstage in a competitive scene full of talented, strong-willed people. The conversational tone of the first chapter drags you into a world of “angel[s],” or “backers of Broadway shows,” and I found myself hanging on every word
For the Broadway baby
RAZZLE DAZZLE tells the story of the rise, fall, and redemption of Broadway—its stars, its biggest shows, its producers, and all the drama, intrigue, and power plays that happened behind the scenes. The author, Michael Riedel, is one of Broadway’s most respected (and feared) commentators.
I read this in the middle of March at the recommendation of my roommate; with the promise of an impromptu apartment-wide book club, I dug in and finished in two days. Christopher is the kind of narrator whose voice stays with you, who you feel like you know on a personal level by the end of the first chapter. His reaction to the events around him—the discovery of the neighbor’s dead dog, and his vow to solver the murder—is both unique and relatable, speaking with a directness and honesty that drives the story. At fifteen, Christopher provides an interesting lens for strange and unpredictable events; if I had the option, I would gladly read ten more novels about his life, and was thrilled to learn the book was also adapted into a play.
Now adapted into a Tony Award-winning play, this captivating novel is told through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy who relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. This powerful story of his quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for a captivating read.
Like many of the young musical theater-obsessed, WICKED may have captured the most hours of my devotion, despite the fact that it took me years to actually see the show. The book is one of many treasured tales from Gregory Maguire, spins on popular stories that offer new perspectives and insights. There’s something so nostalgic about the land of Oz, and Wicked invigorates and reimagines the world and its characters, giving us a full picture of this unique society with very relatable troubles. It will definitely leave you looking at your surroundings and the people you know from different angles, wondering what lies beneath.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s beloved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Gregory Maguire’s novel views the land of Oz, its inhabitants, its Wizard, and the Emerald City, through a darker lens. Brilliantly inventive, it offers a radical new evaluation of one of the most feared and hated characters in all of literature: the much maligned Wicked Witch of the West.
When TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD hit Broadway at the end of 2018, it felt like the buzz spread quickly and unanimously, likely a tribute to the book’s reach and status as a classic literary work. I still remember reading it in high school English, along with many other students in the country, I’m sure. Scout was always the star of the show for me, with her curiosity and spunk. Now feels like the time to reread books first discovered in childhood, or dive into one you’ve always meant to read but somehow haven’t. Atmospheric and thought-provoking, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a worthy place to spend your reading time.
Wendy’s Fictional Dinner Party Guest: Atticus Finch
Perhaps it’s a cliché to want to have dinner with Atticus Finch—lawyer, father, all-around good man. Atticus is known for his conscience, grace, compassion, and morality. I suspect that his words would be full of insight and wisdom, and challenge me to sit straighter in my chair.
It’s hard to talk about the theater scene without mentioning Hamilton, which has taken the world by storm, bringing new life to the history of Alexander Hamilton. A complex man with a controversial story, Ron Chernow’s biography reveals Hamilton’s early days as an orphan, educating himself, up to a suspicious death amidst a duel with Aaron Burr. In between, we learn about his political career, coauthoring The Federalist Papers and earning a spot as the US’s first Treasury Secretary, as well as his relationship with his wife, Eliza, and other friends and prominent figures. With this book and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton soundtrack, you’re all set.
In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Chernow tells the fascinating story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. Hamilton’s story will remind readers of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.
There is as much history in the story itself as there are ways in which nearly two centuries worth of readers have arrived at this book; I remember touring an Estonian museum and learning that many refugees during World War II had clung to tattered copies and shared quotes from LES MISERABLES. The story of ex-convict Jean Valjean and the music from the Broadway musical is familiar to many, but reading the written text brings an entirely different experience where readers get to visualize the scenes and attach emotion. The power of conviction and the timeless discussions of poverty, war, and inner turmoil lodge themselves in Hugo’s prose, as we get a deeper look at many of the characters and their motivations.
Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty. A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale, moving inexorably from the eve of the battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830.
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