The Alchemy Of Theatre

Book Review by Willard Manus

"Theatre has been called the most collaborative art form. Here is a group of people who have figured out how to achieve success in an environment where giant egos are locked up together under mounting financial and emotional pressure, and expected to deliver great art," explains Robert Viagas, editor of THE ALCHEMY OF THEATRE: THE DIVINE SCIENCE (Playbill Books and Applause Theatre & Cinema Books).

The handsome, 296-page book contains essays exploring the challenge of collaboration by such Broadway luminaries as playwright Wendy Wasserstein, director/producer Harold Prince, musical director/conductor Paul Gemignani, casting director Jay Binder, actors Chita Rivera and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

Wasserstein (who died last year) credited the collaborative skills she learned as a playwright with helping her get through the difficult birth of her daughter, who was born prematurely at just twenty-seven weeks and spent the next three months of her life in intensive care. "Hospitals, in many ways, are like theatres. You go inside, the lights go down, and you focus. Crazy people start running in and out and bells go off. But in order for there to be a success, there needed to be a collaboration of me, my premature daughter, the doctor, and her nurses. And I believe, just as in the theatre, that the people I chose to collaborate with work to the best of their ability. They know things I don't know and I know things they don't know. And if we all work together and believe it will work out, then at least we've got a good shot at doing something good."

Harold Prince has some surprising things to say. Known for his successful musicals (Follies, Cabaret), he now favors shows that take place in a black box--an empty space. "Given the sumptuousness of Phantom of the Opera," he confides, "it may be difficult to recognize that it essentially is told in a black enamel box. There are glorious curtains, beautiful props, elegant costumes, but the rest is black. Each member of the audience imagines details where there are empty spaces--wallpaper, additional furniture, that sort of thing.

"Of course, audiences go to theatre to be entertained," he continues. "It is defining 'entertainment' that matters. Few people equate a good time with controversy, with being emotionally disturbed by what's happening on stage. But those, too, are the components of entertainment. Personally, crying is a lot more entertaining for me than laughing. Laugh is cheap. I laugh fifty times a day."