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A CurtainUp Book Review
Backstage Pass to Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
It wasn't until I read that show's hard-working press agent Susan L. Schulman's just published memoir, Backstage Pass to Broadway, that I learned that Warren was a disaster backstage as well as on stage. While I do know all of New York's theatrical press agents, my dealing with them are pretty much limited to reading their press releases, responding to invitations and, occasionally a quick chat when I pick up my tickets for a press performance. And so, though Susan and her colleagues aren't quite as invisible to me as they might be to the average theater goer, this memoir with its wealth of anecdotes about her first three decades as a press agent proved to be not just an entertaining "good read" but a most informative one.
The book's Playbill-like opening page features a cast list bigger and with more celebrities than even a producing team with really deep pockets could afford. Though not all the players have starring roles, this insider's reminiscences about dealing with some of the best known ones would be the envy of New York Post gossip columnist Michael Riedel (who happens to also have a small featured role). But despite some decidedly unflattering revelations, Schulman's tell all is never mean-spirited, but the story of a love affair with the theater — a love affair that dates back to a New York raised teenager's regular theater outings followed by her waiting at the stage door after a show to express her thanks and admiration to the star.
As Schulman makes clear, being in an up close and personal relationship with the people whose names light up Broadway marquees is not for marshmallows and can be especially challenging for a young, fledgling press agent. Perhaps her most harrowing dealings with a talented but uber-egotistical and difficult to work with superstar was her gig to help shepherd a production of Arnold Wesker's The Merchant to Broadway.
In a Chapter titled "The Show That Killed Zero Mostel" Mostel's treatment of the young press agent was not just a case of thougtlessness or bad manners but real abuse. Actually that whole show was overhung by a black cloud. Mostel did die and had to be replaced. But that wasn't the only problem. John Dexter,the director, was also so painfully difficult to work with that he demoralized the entire cast.
Schulman's less than euphoric experiences also include her relationship with the legendary David Merrick during his last years when he was made literally speechless by a stroke. It's something of a David and Goliath story since it ended with David (Schulman) suing the Goliath (Merrick and his wife)— and winning.
Applause (1970) was film star Lauren Bacall's first Broadway musical. It was also a big first for the 23-year-old Schulman. Though she'd worked on a number of Broadway productionss as an assistant, this was the first show she handled from scratch. It was a heady experience for both Bacall and Schulman, though even Bacall could be prickly about unintended missteps.
Some big-timers who helped to make all the hard work and stress of a press agent's life worthwhile include Yul Brynner, George C. Scott, Kathleen Chalfant and cellist Yo Yo Ma. In a chapter entitled "Robert Redford and the Art of Disappearing in Plain Sight" Schulman endearingly admits that her trajectory from being an awestruck stage door fan to a cool and collected professional accustomed to working with iconic celebrities did not make her altogether immune to loosing that cool. As she sums up her interaction with Redford during a pro bono charity gig "having all that intelligence, personality and charm focused directly at me proved I wasn't quite as cool as I thought I was. Robert Redford was, and still is, the real deal."
There's also a fun account of her reconnecting with Henry "the Fonz" Winkler whom she first met and became friends with when they appeared in Of Thee I Sing co-produced by her high school (Hunter) and his (McBurney Schol for Boys. A picture of this early Schulman show biz adenture is just one of many photos that enliven Backstage to Broadway.
Except for the accounts of details about her early years of growing up in Manhattan and examples of her professional and personal life merging, don't count on any non-job related information on Schulman's private life. British actress Susan Hampshire exemplifies one of these professional-personal mergers. (Schulman has often visited Hampshire's home many times over the past forty years and attended her son's wedding).
My one quibble with this fun to read book is that after her chapter on Vanessa Redgrave ends it abruptly changes course and moves into the how-to genre. The author has done a fine job of weaving information about what a press agent does into her behind the scenes stories. However, her final chapters, "So What Does A Press Agent Do?" and "How Has PR Changed?" read a bit like outtakes from her lectures on public relations at Columbia.
The chapter on the changing PR scene might have had more of the book's overall flavor and resonated with a broader reader spectrum if she'd included specific examples of facebook/twitter success stories; and also if she'd touched on how the the PR business, like so many other enterprises, has posed new challenges to the solo practitioner with just a couple of assistants who must compete with mega-sized publicity firms.
But why quibble? If you skip or skim through these final chapters, you'll still have plenty of more colorful stuff to enjoy.
It's available in multiple formats. To get your copy go to the Backstage Pass to Broadway website at www.BackstagePassToBroadway.com or to amazon.com.