[7 January 2010]
If your tribe is the theatre and you’d rather trade anecdotes about Patti LuPone and David Hyde Pierce than LeBron James and Albert Pujols then you’re squarely in the target market for the Playbill Broadway Yearbook, now in its fifth year of publication. It’s just what the title suggests, a yearbook of the Broadway season (June 2008 through May 2009 in the current edition) including players and staff for each show (78 in all, from Accent on Youth to You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush) which played at a Broadway theatre under a Broadway contract during that time period. There are also sections for special events, “faculty” (staff of organizations central to Broadway) and an In Memoriam section for those now treading the boards in that big theatre in the sky. There’s even a page at the back reserved for autographs.
The Yearbook provides an overview of the Broadway season, beginning with a preface by editor Robert Viagas which discusses some of the major events of the past season. This is followed by a three-page timeline of major Broadway events and a section dedicated to “trends, extraordinary achievements, and peculiar coincidences of the season” (examples: lists of shows in which the lead character flies, plays which feature the president as a main character, and awards which should be given but aren’t). There’s also a detailed index, invaluable in a publication which includes over 9,000 names.
The heart of the yearbook is the show-by-show section which, as you would expect in a yearbook, includes a lot of pictures. The listing for each show includes head shots for all the actors (including understudies, swings, and substitutes) along with head shots or group photos for the show’s creators (authors, choreographers, designers) and the production’s staff members (management, box office, front of house staff, running crew, pit orchestra). Even the doorman gets his own photo, reminding you that it takes a village to put on a show. The subjects are not all wearing round-neck sweaters and white shirts with black neckties like kids were in my high school yearbook (circa 1978) but the format is similar enough to prompt memories of those days and allow the reader to reflect with delight that there’s a community out there sort of like high school but where the most valued members are actors and lighting designers instead of football stars and cheerleaders
The section for each show also includes a detailed list of who did what for a particular production (including things like payroll and physical therapist) making the Yearbook an invaluable resource for people trying to break into the business as well as an excellent reference for anyone who writes about the theatre. There’s also a reproduction of each show’s Playbill cover and some of the information you would get from the Playbill were you attending in person including lists of musical numbers, cast and crew, and pit musicians.
Many of the shows also have a scrapbook section including production photos and notes from “correspondents”, i.e. cast and crew members sharing their experiences. The content of these sections are organized in categories like “Most Exciting Celebrity Visitors”, “Special Backstage Rituals”, “Fastest Costume Changes”, and “Coolest Thing About Being in this Show”. This is where the real fun begins: you’d be hard put to come up with these kinds of insider tidbits short of working on the production yourself. In these sections you can learn, among other things, that Tyra Banks attended Billy Elliott and performed an African dance for the ballet girls, Javier Muñoz (Usnavi from In the Heights) once signed the bald head of a teenager who came to the stage door, Lorin Latarro got the Gypsy Robe for Guys and Dolls, and in the production of Waiting for Godot at Studio 54 confusion was averted by referring to John Glover (Lucky) as “J-Glo” and John Goodman (Pozzo) as “Goodie.”
The events section includes photos and summaries of everything from Broadway Bares (an annual fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS featuring gypsies and stars flashing more flesh than they get to in your average Broadway show) to the Tony Awards, the latter including lists of nominees and winners for each category. Winners of lesser-known awards also get their mention in this section, including Irene Sharaff Awards for costume design, the Clarence Derwent Awards for “the most promising female and male performers on the New York metropolitan scene”, and the St. Clair Bayfield Award for “the best supporting performance by an actor in a Shakespearean play in the New York metropolitan area”. Even the winners of the Broadway Show League Softball Championship get a group photo.
The faculty section includes titles and photos of movers in shakers in organizations including theatrical producers, charities, publicists and the theatrical unions. Since these are creative people some of them have a little fun with the yearbook concept by supplying pictures of their pets or well-aged high school photos, but mostly it’s a useful listing of names and faces which could save embarrassment should you ever encounter, say, Robert E. Wankel (president of the Schubert Organization) in a theatre lobby.
The Playbill Broadway Yearbook is a comprehensive guide to the past year’s season on Broadway and makes an excellent gift for a theatre fan as well as serving as a vital resource to people working in or covering the theatre.