A poignant pastiche of interviews and “soliloquies” by many principals and walk-ons tells the story of New York’s most powerful theater impresario.
Los Angeles Times film critic and NPR contributor Turan (Film Criticism/Univ. of Southern California) originally assembled the book 23 years ago with the cooperation of producer and director Joseph Papp (1921–1991), but when the temperamental showman read the result, he pulled the plug. Turan later approached Papp’s widow, who greenlighted the project. At first glance, the text is off-putting: snippets of observations, comments and memories from decades ago from a huge cast, some of whom are no longer living. But the cumulative effect is riveting. After dealing briefly with Papp’s parentage and struggling Brooklyn boyhood, the narrative follows him into the Navy, then out to Hollywood, where he participated in the Actors’ Laboratory. He moved back East to work for CBS-TV and begin his career producing and directing plays. His crowning glories, of course, were the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. Papp comes across as a highly persuasive, indefatigable fundraiser and a terrific (if not always enduring) champion of actors and writers, especially playwright David Rabe. The rising, then falling arc of that friendship and professional association is a highlight of the narrative. As time moves on, chapters focus on specific productions. Those involved with A Chorus Line tell of its genesis and surpassing success. There is a sad story about Papp’s relationship with Sam Shepard (they fell out over True West), many inspiring ones (about The Pirates of Penzance with Linda Ronstadt and The Mystery of Edwin Drood), tales of failure (Papp’s tenure at Lincoln Center) and glorious serendipity (Two Gentlemen of Verona, That Championship Season).
A wonderful book that clearly and powerfully shows that Papp’s own story was the most enduring drama he ever produced.