THE BOOK SHELF: A Les Miz Coffee Table Book and Benedict Nightingale's "Great Moments in Theatre"

By Steven Suskin
24 Feb 2013

Mr. Nightingale, at the same time, has given us a most interesting tome filled with theatrical meat. It is far easier to describe what Great Moments in the Theatre [Oberon/Theatre Communications Group] is not than what it is. This is not a compilation of opening night reviews written by the long-time critic over his 50-year career; nor is it a compilation of opening night reviews by Nightingale and other critics. Nightingale has more or less tried to create opening night reviews.

Some of the plays and musicals he surely attended, of course. But he was unlikely to have been present at the first night of the Chicago tryout of The Glass Menagerie in 1944, when he was a five-year-old living far across the sea. Nor was he at the 1930 opening of Private Lives, the 1904 debut of Peter Pan, the 1898 Moscow premiere of The Seagull, or the infamous 1849 Macready Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House in New York which culminated in a riot which left 25 dead bodies on the street. (You can now get, on the very spot, a vente caramel macchiato. Just up the street from The Public Theater.)

Nightingale places us at the 17th-century premieres of Hamlet and Tartuffe — he liked them both — and even The Oresteia at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, in 458 BC. (I wonder how much legroom they had in the loges?) On the other hand, he takes us to many openings — or press openings, anyway — which he surely attended, right up to Jerusalem at the Royal Court in 2009. We get about 100 essays, at least 40 of which seem to have been reasonably before his time.



So this is not what you might consider accurate first night reporting. But it is not meant to be so. Nightingale borrows liberally from contemporary accounts, in the early stages at least; how else can he reasonably describe Garrick's Hamlet at Drury Lane in 1742? (Here he borrows from Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones," in which the performance is described by Mr. Partridge, the former schoolteacher who is initially accused of being the hero's out-of-wedlock father.) But Nightingale's accounts of the plays, the performances, and the collective mood of the audiences do indeed give us a sense of these many "Great Moments in the Theatre." He takes us along on a trip across centuries of greasepaint, and does it so very entertainingly that we are glad to go along for the ride.

Nightingale's "greats" are not restricted to high quality; he even includes a report on one of the British theatre's all-time greatest fiascos, Lionel Bart's Twang!! At one point during the Manchester opening, leading lady Barbara Windsor — confused after so much turmoil and so many script changes — stopped center stage and innocently said, "I don't know what's going on here." Nightingale reports that someone yelled out from the audience, "nor do we."

And yes, the reports include the opening of Les Misérables at the Barbican in 1985. Nightingale seems to have liked it, but he helpfully quotes an unnamed critic who opined that it was "like eating an artichoke, you have to go through an awful lot to get a very little."

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and The DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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