Entertainment & Arts

For theater lovers, these holiday gifts would be a show of affection

Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky in "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.
(Matthew Murphy / Center Theatre Group)
Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

Still haven’t checked off those on your gift list who are of a more melodramatic or histrionic temperament? Never fear. There is a cornucopia of holiday goodies waiting for the thespians and theater buffs, to say nothing of the divas, in your life.

The stocking stuffer of choice this year is the “Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording” CD (Atlantic, $27.98, suggested retail price) by author, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. Not only is this widely considered the most thrilling Broadway musical in ages, but it also has been hailed by Billboard as the best rap album of the year. I picked mine up in the lobby of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, but you don’t need to splurge on the airfare.

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As I was decorating my Christmas tree, Josh Groban’s television special based on his CD “Stages” was airing on PBS. Hearing his sumptuous interpretations of Broadway classics (from the heady complexity of Sondheim to the emotional sucker punch of Andrew Lloyd Webber) was just what I needed to relieve some of the year-end stress and strain. The “Stages Live” CD/DVD is on pre-order, but the “Stages” Deluxe Edition CD (Reprise, $20.98, suggested retail price) is available now and will bring cheer to your musical theater buff friends. I’m not yet a Grobanite, but this impressive recording has heightened my interest in the announcement of the singer’s overdue Broadway debut next year in the charmingly innovative musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.”

Sondheim’s cult following — I hang with the crowd from time to time — is insatiable for merchandise and memorabilia on the maestro. Fortunately, two items have come out this year that should satisfy these terrifyingly demanding fans: the “Stephen Sondheim Collection,” a six-DVD set that includes filmed productions of “Into the Woods,” “Company,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Follies in Concert,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Sondheim: The Birthday Concert” (Image Entertainment, $129.98, suggested retail price), and the book “On Sondheim” (Oxford University Press, $27.95) by that most astute — and opinionated — chronicler of the Broadway musical, Ethan Mordden.


Speaking of theater books, there has been such a bounty of new titles in 2015 that it’s impossible to choose just one. “Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway” (Simon & Schuster, $27) by Michael Riedel, the New York Post’s flamboyantly mischievous Broadway columnist, tells the thrilling history of the larger-than-life impresarios who helped transform the Great White Way from cultural ugly duckling in the seedy 1970s to the grand billion-dollar swan it is today.

“The Blue Touch Paper” (W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95) is a memoir by the prolific English playwright and screenwriter David Hare (“Skylight,” “The Blue Room,” “Stuff Happens”) — a writer whose fervent political commitments are personally explored in a highly articulate and probing self-examination that is at the same time a vivid cultural study of postwar Britain. Hare takes us through his student days at Cambridge, proceeds to London in the swinging ‘60s and ends at the dawn of those Thatcher years he dissected in his dramas.

Next year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and the Bard will be feted all over the globe. There is no one better at connecting Shakespeare’s life and art than Columbia professor James Shapiro, whose latest work, “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606" (Simon & Schuster, $30), sets out to understand the harrowing public and private forces that shaped what many consider to be the playwright’s supreme tragedy.

Theater, thank heavens, still requires us to gather communally, but for those who want to experience some of the riches of the theatrical past, BroadwayHD (, offers a streaming service that allows us to watch from the comfort of our couch more than 100 productions from the BBC, WNET and Broadway Worldwide, among others. I might start with Fiona Shaw in Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” or Ian Holm in “King Lear” to reexperience these ferocious tragedies in unflinching hands. Gifts can be given as a monthly subscription for $14.99, an annual service for $169.99 or as a one-time rental of a particular show.


Nothing, of course, makes musical theater lovers as ecstatic as a pair of tickets to a show. This year the choice is easy: “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (tickets range from $25 to $130). Jason Robert Brown’s Tony Award-winning score, which he conducts at every performance, contains some of the most lushly romantic music since Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza.” This may not be a happily-ever-after love story, but after listening rapturously to the musical at a recent matinee, I left the Music Center more alive to the beauty of the season.

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