Theater historian or gonzo journalist? Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the author of “The Untold Stories of Broadway” series of books, thinks of herself as both. “Because I put my own discoveries and memories in the book, it’s not a straight-up research book,” she said of the just-released fourth volume of “Untold Stories.” “It’s more gonzo journalism…The act of interviewing became part of the story too.”
Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:
On the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, Tepper revealed some of the backstage tales and behind-the-scenes shenanigans that appear in her new book, from the longest-running poker game on Broadway to the little-known history of Studio 54 to the time Ethel Merman saved Anita Gillette’s job on “Gypsy.” Those were among the tales she heard from interviewees including Hal Prince, Laura Linney, Terrence McNally, Kenny Leon, Lin-Manuel Miranda and more.
The fourth volume of the series focuses on six current Broadway houses (including the Imperial, the Minskoff, the Jacobs and the Friedman) and covers the five theaters demolished in 1982 to make way for the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square. Her research, Tepper said, has highlighted for her the silver lining to the loss of those theaters: “There was such an uproar from the theater community, which in itself is very inspiring,” she said. “And in talking to the people who were there and who read plays on basically a stoop built by Joe Papp, in honor of the plays in the Morosco and the Bijoux and all the rest…While it didn’t save those theaters, it did lead to the rest being landmarked by the city.”
Her research has also given her a historical perspective on some of the contemporary issues facing the theater industry today. On Stagecraft, she cited a long-ago radio broadcast of a play at the Imperial Theater, which caused an uproar among producers: “People were like, ‘Why would anyone ever go to a Broadway show when you can listen to a show on the radio in your house?'” The controversy reminded her of the same argument being made about streaming shows today. “Will streaming impact theater positively, negatively? Regardless of what side you land on, there were people in another century having a similar conversation. It’s just made me realize there’s always something interesting you can look at that will shine some light on a current situation.”
Also on the new episode of Stagecraft, Tepper talks about what it was like to write her latest book — released earlier this month by Dress Circle Publishing — during Broadway’s extended shutdown. She also dug into the ways that her gig as a historian has overlapped with her work as a producer (“Be More Chill”), a consultant (“Tick, Tick… Boom!”) and as the curator of the cabaret space Feinstein’s/54 Below.
To hear to the full conversation, listen at the link above, or download and subscribe to Stagecraft on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and the Broadway Podcast Network. New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.