In 1999, John Robert Allman joined his grandparents on a trip to New York to catch the Tony-winning revival of “Annie Get Your Gun,” starring Bernadette Peters, on Broadway. The experience left the Texas native, who was 9 years old at the time, “completely smitten with musicals and, in particular, musicals with brassy female leads.”
Now 29, Allman’s love of Broadway still burns bright, as evidenced by his first children’s book, “A Is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies From A to Z.” Aimed at readers between the ages of 3 and 7, the 48-page guide pairs letters of the alphabet with rhyming couplets that honor musical theater’s most celebrated female performers, each illustrated by Peter Emmerich.
As the book’s title suggests, “A” introduces six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald. Peters is also featured, as are Patti LuPone, Idina Menzel and Barbra Streisand. For era-defining stars like Carol Channing, Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch, the book serves as a posthumous tribute. Ultimately, it’s a unique and reverent introduction to the women who helped create an iconic art form.
Allman, who works in television marketing and is known for his self-effacing (and often musical-referencing) Twitter presence, got the idea for “A Is for Audra” after talking with a co-worker who didn’t know her divas in spite of a theater background.
“One thing that’s amazing about fans of musical theater is that it’s something that they’re so passionate about, they want to share it with other people,” he told HuffPost. “It clicked for me that a fun 101 on leading ladies would be something that I’d want to give my friends, and my friends’ kids.”
“It’s a great guncle gift,” he quipped.
Emmerich turned out to be a kindred spirit. The Brooklyn-born illustrator has spent much of his career animating for Disney television and theme parks, but had yet to find a project that would reflect his deep knowledge of musical theater. He was paired with Allman by a Random House editor who’d spotted a caricature he’d done of Liza Minnelli.
“I knew exactly what John was doing,” recalled Emmerich, who spent months poring through archival photographs of musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “Gypsy” for research. “I knew everyone in the book. I knew every reference they were throwing at me. A lifetime of knowing, learning and following all this stuff paid off.”
Thus far, Broadway fans seem to be embracing Allman and Emmerich’s vision wholeheartedly. Shortly after its release last fall, “A Is for Audra” was named one of NPR’s favorite books of 2019, a rarity for a children’s title. The book also received praise in Broadway-centric outlets including Playbill, and was selected for Vulture’s 2019 Holiday Gift Guide.
Accolades aside, Allman and Emmerich have also heard directly from a number of the featured stars, including McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Lillias White, each of whom has said they feel honored to be included.
And while Allman is mum on specifics, he’d like to follow up “A Is for Audra” with other arts-focused books for young readers. For now, he and Emmerich are hopeful readers of all ages will see the project simply as “a beginning.”
“Performances are ephemeral [so] I’d like it to be a gateway that opens readers of all ages up to this big, wacky world of musical theater,” Allman said.
“I’d like it to ignite interest in a medium that doesn’t get enough attention on a grand scale because it’s overpowered by film and television,” added Emmerich. “I hadn’t expected it to be so important to people. It’s important to me.”