The 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat introduced the memorable line, "Life upon the wicked stage ain't ever what a girl supposes."
Eighty-seven years later, that sentiment still rings true for the 20 performers profiled in theater journalist Eddie Shapiro's engrossing new book, Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater. The 349-page tome, which hit bookstores in late January, includes in-depth interviews with some of Broadway's most beloved female stars, from newly retired Elaine Stritch to five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald to Wicked icon Idina Menzel (not to be confused, of course, with "Adele Dazeem").
For theater devotees, Shapiro's book is a veritable treasure trove; the author doesn't paraphrase his subjects' thoughts, presenting each interview in a question-and-answer format that wouldn't feel out of place in a Playbill. With minimal introduction, Shapiro's non-expository format assumes audiences will have a working knowledge of musicals, and might discourage readers for whom the performing arts is more of a fleeting interest. By his own admission, Shapiro writes for the musical aficionado who bolts out of the theater at curtain call to secure a prime spot at the stage door in hopes of snapping a coveted selfie with their favorite star.
Take a look at the 20 stars featured in Eddie Shapiro's Nothing Like a Dame, then scroll down to keep reading.
Shapiro's admiration for his subjects is palpable, and he keeps their discussions focused on artistic endeavors rather than reaching for personal gossip. Still, there are some gritty backstage moments, like Donna McKechnie (A Chorus Line) recalling the sting of Ethel Merman's off-color diss during rehearsals for Call Me Madam in 1968. Others share their warts-and-all experiences working under the direction of Bob Fosse, Arthur Laurents and Hal Prince, among others. But the book's most compelling revelations are moments of insecurity and self-doubt expressed by many of the powerhouse performers; despite years of critical accolades and Tony Awards on their mantels, Chita Rivera, Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti say they continue to question the longevity of their performing careers.
These are surprising admissions from artists typically classified as "divas," and fortunately, Shapiro came prepared to delve into delicate areas like these with the upmost respect for theatrical craft. "Growing up, I would go home and listen to cast albums all day long," he said, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles. "I was completely, completely hooked and not especially popular for it ... I remember the first time I heard a full orchestra play the overture to Gypsy in a Broadway theater, I cried, because nothing felt as right to me in the world."
While there's nothing patently queer about the book, Shapiro, who also wrote 2009's Queens in the Kingdom: The Utlimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks is aware that Nothing Like a Dame will have a built-in audience of gay men. "There is sort of a Pavlovian gay male response [to female musical theater performers] that I don't even want to try to put my finger on," he said with a laugh. "I just sort of acknowledge that it exists."
Ultimately, Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater is an engaging peek behind the curtain of Broadway, as told by era-defining female stars. Shapiro casts aside much of the superficial glitz associated with the stage in favor of a no-nonsense, true-to-life look at these women and their varied careers, bravely emphasizing their struggles as much as their triumphs. Readers whose iPods are filled with cast album playlists will surely appreciate Shapiro's passion for his subjects, as well as his willingness to probe.