Bigger, Brighter, Louder: 150 Years of Chicago Theater
Chicago theater history gets a fresh look in a new book by the Tribune's Chris Jones.
Whenever I'm asked what purpose theater reviews serve (which happens more often than you'd think), I always mention among my many other salient points the way reviews act as a kind of archive for a transitory form. We can't go back and see a production that's no more, but we can see some of what was said about it at the time, as a way of gauging how a legendary (or infamous) staging's estimation has changed in the intervening years, or how a forgotten show marked an inauspicious debut by a future-star actor or playwright, or how a play or its producers fit into the theatrical landscape of the moment.
That's why I often find myself searching the Reader's online archives to bone up on the off-Loop scene before my time, and why pre-Internet collections of reviews by New York newspaper critics from Walter Kerr to Frank Rich are among the most-thumbed volumes on my bookshelf.
All of which is to say, Chris Jones's new book is right up my alley, and possibly yours. In Bigger, Brighter, Louder: 150 Years of Chicago Theater as seen by Chicago Tribune Critics (The University of Chicago Press, $27.50), due out tomorrow, my colleague at the Trib compiles a carefully curated selection of theater coverage from the "World's Greatest Newspaper," arranged chronologically from the first, anonymous stage notice in 1853, when the Tribune was six years old, up through Jones's own review of last year's momentous The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman (which also provides the book's cover image).
There are 101 items total, each accompanied by context and commentary from Jones. The choice reviews include Claudia Cassidy's famously vital raves for the pre-Broadway outings of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, alongside plenty of other snapshots of tiny moments that would come to seem larger than life: the first passing mention of the Second City (1959); the original reviews of Grease (1971), Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974) and a promising group of kids in Highland Park (1976).
The content's not just reviews; there's also the Trib's breathless initial coverage of the Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903, as well as one of reporter Maureen Dallas Watkins's front-page merry murderess stories from 1924, immediately followed by the 1927 Tribune review of the play Watkins penned about those molls. There are remarkable demonstrations of how the more things change, the more they stay the same (see the report of producers fretting that Chicago has more theaters than the market can sustain—in 1910).
And throughout, in both opinion columns and within the actual reviews, one can follow the steady critical drumbeat for Chicago to lose its dependency on imports from New York and develop a theater of its own, morphing into advocacy for New York to come pay attention to Chicago theater. It's a worthy companion, in fact, to the other indispensable book on Chicago theater history by a Tribune critic on my shelf—Richard Christiansen's A Theater of Our Own. Bigger, Brighter, Louder is a fascinating read, with Jones providing a thoroughly accessible exegesis.