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JOE PAPP by Helen Epstein


An American Life

by Helen Epstein

Pub Date: Aug. 29th, 1994
ISBN: 0-316-24604-2
Publisher: Little, Brown

 A sympathetic biography of the legendary New Yorkbased theater producer, who died in 1991. Epstein (Music Talks, 1987, etc.) was a close friend of Papp's; although she makes an attempt to be evenhanded, she admits that this is a ``friendly'' biography. Born Yussel Papirofsky in Brooklyn, Papp discovered the allure of the theater while putting on amateur shows in the Army. He joined the fledgling West coastbased Actors' Laboratory after WW II and then moved to New York, where he worked as a stage manager at CBS. Meanwhile, he founded his New York Shakespeare Festival and, working out of a tiny Lower East Side church, vowed to bring the Bard's works to the masses through touring productions in the city's parks. Papp's first great battle was fought with New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who resented his pushy behavior and his ``do-now-pay- later'' attitude. His successful battle with the aging power broker led to the establishment of free Shakespeare in New York City's Central Park, which has since become a beloved tradition. Papp established the Public Theater in the landmark Astor Library building, producing such surprise hits as the first rock musical, Hair, and the longest-running Broadway show ever, A Chorus Line. Meanwhile, his attention moved to championing contemporary plays, often by women, black, or Latino authors. Papp spent his last years hiding the fact that he was suffering from cancer and championing freedom of speech. His sympathy for the urban poor, his open- casting policy at a time when it was hardly trendy, and his basic libertarianism are all to be admired, but he comes across as a tireless self-promoter who often confused his personal good with the common good. Spending so much time with Papp is like spending a long holiday with an annoying, if lovable, relative. Recommended for theatrical mavens and cultural historians. (32 b&w photos, not seen)