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Theater stars spring to life on the pages of 'B is for Broadway'

Bernadette Peters, who played The Witch in the first Broadway run of <em>Into the Woods</em>, is one of the illustrated characters.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Bernadette Peters, who played The Witch in the first Broadway run of Into the Woods, is one of the illustrated characters.

A few years ago, a children's book called A is for Audra celebrated musical theater divas, while teaching kids the alphabet. Its creators have written a new book, B is for Broadway, which, in rhyming couplets and witty illustrations, celebrates theater, from auditions to Ziegfeld.

the cover of B is for Broadway
/ Penguin Random House
/
Penguin Random House

"I always joked that it is the book that I wished I could give my friends' kids that didn't exist," says author John Robert Allman, a long-time musical theater fan, about A is for Audra. "And any time a friend or a family member was having a baby and as a passionate, you know, diva loving musical theater fan, the first thing I wanted to do was indoctrinate them into loving all of the dames that I love."

He found a perfect collaborator in illustrator Peter Emmerich, another huge Broadway fan. Random House's art directors had seen his work online. "They had pulled something off of my Instagram or blog or something – an image of Liza Minnelli," says the artist. "And they had decided right then and there that I was the right person for it. And within a half an hour we agreed to it and I had a book."

The book was a hit, so the two decided to collaborate on a sequel. "What about doing a book that is more about the entire industry and the entire art of making theater, doing shows?," explains Allman. "As a way, I guess, of being able to share with young people who might be getting into theater, all of the different aspects that go into making a show."

Emmerich wanted to depict Broadway actors in an accurate, loving way, including these illustrations of the actors in different productions of <em>Oklahoma. </em>On one side, there's the 1943 production with Betty Garde as Aunt Eller and Alfred Drake as Curly. On the right, there's Ali Stroker as Ado Annie and Mary Tester as Aunt Eller in the 2019 revival.
/ Courtesy of Penguin Random House
/
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Emmerich wanted to depict Broadway actors in an accurate, loving way, including these illustrations of the actors in different productions of Oklahoma. On one side, there's the 1943 production with Betty Garde as Aunt Eller and Alfred Drake as Curly. On the right, there's Ali Stroker as Ado Annie and Mary Tester as Aunt Eller in the 2019 revival.

On a recent afternoon, Katherine Johnson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, sat down with her daughter to read the book, which begins: "A is for auditions, at which actors try their best. A Chorus Line puts dazzling, driven dancers to the test." Emmerich's illustration is of the famous moment at the end of Chorus Line's opening number, where all the cast members in the show hold their resume photos in front of their faces.

"There are so many things in here that are just favorite shows of mine that I never would have imagined being able to work into a children's book and just feel so lucky," says Allman. "And I love Michael Bennett's shows, so having A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls in here was a win for me."

Allman's alliterative couplets celebrate directors and designers, costume and wig makers, playwrights and songwriters: "S is for the songwriters, whose stirring soaring tunes are what Henry Higgins bellows and what Dolly Levi croons."

Illustrator Peter Emmerich did a great deal of research to create the loving, accurate portrayals of people in the book. But sometimes, he was able to use his own memories, like meeting the late great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. "I put him in the book wearing what he was wearing when I met him," says Emmerich. "Because, like, I will never forget him in that red sweater. Like, it just stood out to me. And of course, I put him right up front." Sondheim sits at a baby grand, next to George Gershwin – along with 13 other Broadway songwriters, including Jeanine Tesori, Tony-winning composer of Fun Home. "One of my first internships ever in New York was for Jeanine Tesori," says the author, "so having her in here is really special to me."

And, of course, there are tons of Broadway babies portrayed in the book, from Kristin Chenoweth to Lin-Manuel Miranda to Brian Stokes Mitchell. Mitchell, pictured as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, is chair of The Actors Fund, a nonprofit that has provided financial aid to more than 40,000 people in the arts because of the COVID crisis. (A portion of the book proceeds are going to the fund.) "What better way to honor Broadway than by celebrating everyone who works so hard to make the magic happen?" writes Mitchell. "

The book, in fact, is such a who's who of Broadway personalities and shows that there's a five-page index in the back, "as a way to provide a little bit more detail about someone that you might want to know more about," says Allman. "[It can] act as a catalyst for someone to go listen to that album or try to find a video of a show they might not know so well or want to know more about. It was just another way to give people some more to dig into."

B is for Broadway certainly piqued the interest of Katherine Johnson's daughter, Cora, who seemed completely taken by the pictures of dancers throughout the book. "Do you think some day you want to go to Broadway and see a show with mommy?," Johnson asked her daughter. Cora replied, with no hesitation: "Yeah."

The book has become a favorite of Cora's; she and Johnson do jazz hands when they read it. For John Robert Allman and Peter Emmerich, that's another Broadway fan in the making. Mission accomplished.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.