This post is about books and, you”ll have to bear with me on this one, it needs a little introduction. Back in year 6 my class were set a long term homework task of writing an autobiography. Yes, at aged 10 I was being asked to produce literature on my short and insignificant life – what a pointless exercise. Combine this with volunteering in a charity shop for years and seeing rather unloved (and clearly uninspiring) copies of ‘celebrities’ biographies constantly abandoned left me completely put off the idea of ever reading one. I stuck to this (naive) decision until my current, ripe-old, age of 21. It was only this summer that I finally saw the light and discovered just how brilliant biographies can be.

At West Side Story rehearsals (sorry – there will eventually be a post that doesn’t reference NYMT) Tom Deering had brought along his copy of Leonard Bernstein’s biography and, after professing how it had changed his life, offered to lend it to anyone willing to read it. As I was playing the ever-elusive-act-two ‘Somewhere Girl’ I had a lot of free time in rehearsals so took him up on the offer and began tackling the impressive text. Not long into the book a quote appeared:

“You must work, work very hard. You must devote all your time to your art. You must keep yourself pure. Do not let your friends spoil you with flattery. You have everything to make you great; it is up to you only to fulfill your mission” – Dimitri Mitropoulos

I scribbled it down in my notebook and from then on I knew that this book was going to be a worthwhile read. I will, however, have to be honest and tell you that I did struggle to read it! Humphrey Burton did not leave a single stone unturned and whilst I sped through the musical theatre related chapters I would always reach somewhat of a halt when it returned to his conducting years. My advice here would be: always persist! In these difficult chapters I learnt so many new things (least of all that his name is pronounced Bern-STINE – a mistake I made on many occasion) and, a few weeks later, when I met someone who knew Bernstein I wasn’t an uneducated fool when he referenced Tanglewood or the ‘Age of Anxiety’. Proof that you never know when knowledge will serve you so you should always look to expand it!

Reaching the final chapters of Bernstein’s biography I was getting progressively more upset and emotionally attached. You really feel like you know the person by the time you’ve read all about their life and I wasn’t ready to let go of Lenny. Instead of crying myself to sleep I decided to put the book down and read it the following day in a rehearsal – where at least I’d have some human comfort if I was a crying mess. Sitting listening to his work being played by a 33 piece orchestra as I read his final moments was an overwhelming experience. When the orchestra went on a break, and I had finished wiping away my tears, I mimed across the concert hall to Tom my heart being ripped out and he graciously waved it goodbye. It was official, I was hooked. Reading the biography of a person who has made an impact on your life/your career/your love of something is unlike anything else. Additionally, as morbid as it may seem, reading the biography of someone who has died means that you know the mark that they left on the world – or, more importantly, your world. It’s definitely my new favourite form of non-fiction. So, having spoken quite a lot about my first biography experience I will try and keep it brief on the books that followed. I’ve read a composer’s, a choreographer’s, a performer’s and now I am currently reading a playwright’s biography – theatrical enough for you?


Clockwise starting top: Somewhere by Amanda Vaill, Judy Garland by Anne Edwards and Leonard Bernstein by Humphrey Burton.

Next up was (the aptly named) ‘Somewhere’ on the life of Jerome Robbins. In a nutshell: it is stunning. If you’re a fan of any of Jerome’s work then it is an absolute must read and you will find it (comparatively to Bernstein) easy to read. The top inspirational quote of the book being: “Just remember each day, hour, and minute of your life is a passing one – and it’s gone forever – so enjoy all of it…stop trying to solve it. It doesn’t solve.”

This was followed with ‘Judy Garland’ by Anne Edwards. I will have to say a bit more on this one than on Jerry’s I’m afraid. Whereas Lenny and Jerry (that’s right, I feel like we’re buddies after reading all about their lives) had relatively happy lives with the occasional bad spell, Judy’s was one life-long struggle. I knew she had lived a hard life (I mean I saw ‘End of the Rainbow’!) but nothing could have prepared me for the contents of that book. When I finally reached the chapter where she died I had already cried numerous times and felt that I had mourned the loss of her life much earlier in the book – her death felt like a relief. I really recommend that you read this book if you’re ever worrying about your career, and struggling with the hard graft at the bottom, so you can have a reminder that it isn’t always fun at the top. Here are a few quotes which struck me:

  • “I can live without money, but I cannot live without love”
  • “A great entertainer doesn’t really die” – I think this was the point that I ran out of tissues.
  • “You don’t always keep on the top. My life, my career has been like a roller-coaster”

On a much lighter note: Leonard Bernstein appears everywhere! He obviously appeared in Jerome Robbin’s biography countless times, but I was more surprised when I read: “I remember Bernstein, the tears running down his face” whilst present at Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. He also appeared in my current read (Tennessee William’s ‘Memoirs’): “I was lonely at first. But soon I met Leonard Bernstein”. Well whaddya know? He gets around doesn’t he? What a man. Now that’s lightened the mood…

To try and round up my opinions on biographies I think John Waters, who wrote the introduction ‘Mr Williams saved my life’ to ‘Memoirs’, puts it perfectly: “Reading his book is life having a few stiff drinks with Tennessee…as he tells you juicy life stories that were once off the record. Listening could save your life too”. Reading biographies (or autobiographies) of a person that influenced your life could be just what the doctor ordered. It certainly was for me. As my first blog post was about my experiences of highs and lows since graduating I thought that recommending some books on other people’s lifetimes of highs and lows was a suitable follow up! I cannot recommend them highly enough. Do let me know, on here or via twitter (@beccaridout), whose you pick up and how they affect you. Happy reading!


Memoirs by Tennessee Williams and my first ever show merchandise purchase!

“I read about the joys, the world dispenses to the fortunate, and listen for the echoes. I read to live”

– Rebecca Ridout