An Impresario's Towering Career

JOE PAPP: An American Life'' is the first biography to appear about the legendary theater producer, who died in 1991. Papp, who dominated the theater scene for decades, founded the New York Shakespeare Festival and produced hundreds of plays, including such influential and important works as ``A Chorus Line,'' ``Hair,'' ``The Normal Heart,'' and ``The Pirates of Penzance.'' He fought political battles throughout his career, from the blacklist in the 1950s to the government arts restrictions in the '80s. He worked in television and movies. He once had his own cabaret act. No producer except for Florenz Ziegfeld had a more distinctive presence in the theater world.

At one point, an oral history of the Shakespeare festival was in the works, with contracts signed and hundreds of interviews conducted, but Papp buried the project in midstream, complaining that it was merely serving as a vehicle for disgruntled associates to air their grievances. Although he cooperated with journalists and gave many interviews, especially when it helped serve his purposes, he found no time for his autobiography, so he gave approval to Helen Epstein, a friend and journalist, for this project. She had access to his extensive holdings of papers and documents, and the book reflects this, with copious, if sometimes numbing, excerpts.

Papp, like most successful men, was a mass of contradictions. He downplayed his Jewishness early in his career, but embraced it in later life. He championed the avant-garde and the uncommercial, but he produced the greatest hit in Broadway history (``A Chorus Line'') and never stopped trying to repeat its success.

The biography is less adept in detailing the sociological circumstances surrounding Papp's life, which began in a middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood, than it is in describing his many epic struggles. Chief among them was his battle with New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses over the creation of free Shakespeare in Central Park. Moses, who had strict ideas about what should go on in his parks, resisted the idea, and insisted that admission be charged. But Papp prevailed. Epstein also does a good job in detailing Papp's successful lawsuit against CBS, which fired him from a stage manager's job in 1958 after he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to provide information.

Later, Papp continued to fight the good fight, but he was often overwhelmed by opposing forces. He fought Congress' attempts to restrict the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, and in protest refused to take government money that was sorely needed by the Shakespeare festival. But he couldn't stem the conservative tide sweeping the country. Nor could he save the classic Broadway theaters, the Helen Hayes and the Morosco, from being razed to make room for a luxury hotel in Times Square.

Epstein has done an excellent job of providing a journalistic account of Papp's career, interviewing hundreds of actors, directors, writers, critics, colleagues, and rivals, many of whom were on bitter terms with the producer; the multiplicity of perspectives gives the book a needed depth. Most of her personal contact with Papp came later in his life, and her account of his lengthy struggle with cancer is exhaustive and ultimately quite sensitive.

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