Former stage designer Burlingame (Two Seeing Eye Dogs Take Manhattan, 2012) recalls the highs and lows of his time on Broadway.
“Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and I had to design,” the author confides in the opening chapter of this elegant, amusing memoir. In 1940, when he was 5 years old, his father took him to see a performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado, after which the author returned home to build his own version of a Japanese garden in a shoe box. His destiny was set, and in his teens, he studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie Mellon University), drawn there by its prestigious drama department. By 19, he’d taken over set design at the acclaimed Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The author recounts many humorous calamities during this period of developing his skills; for example, during a production of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain, a beaded curtain made of macaroni fell gradually in pieces to the floor, leaving the actors crunching hard pasta underfoot. In 1956, Burlingame was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the Signal Corps’ Army Pictorial Center in Queens, N.Y., but he received a reprieve from duty in Korea, which allowed him to begin a dazzling career on Broadway. He details his Manhattan beginnings, during which he set up a makeshift scene shop in a Greenwich Village warehouse using tools from the Army. Much of the book reads like a Who’s Who of 1960s and ’70s theater, with appearances by such luminaries as Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli and English theater director Peter Brook. One pull-no-punches chapter is devoted to the author’s work with the “devil of Broadway,” producer David Merrick. These accounts of grand collaborations are skillfully nuanced with moments of devotion and humility; at one point, for example, the author was forced to search the Bowery at night for plans he had lost, and when he kneeled in a snow-filled gutter, he was hit by a car. Overall, Burlingame is a skillful raconteur who transposes his experiences to the page with an understated wit, poise and grace.
A consistently intriguing backstage glimpse of Broadway’s brighter past and a must for theater buffs.