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The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written

Act One is an infectious evocation of a vibrant world written, it turns out, by a chronic depressive who also found the business “pure hell.”

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Moss Hart  

The poster shows a solitary adolescent boy of a bygone era standing across the street from a Broadway theater, the Music Box, staring at its dazzling façade as if he were a burglar plotting to break into a bank. The scene is bathed in the gold-and-purple glow of curtain time, yet the block is as deserted as a Magritte streetscape: Everyone has taken their seats to watch the show except this one boy, who, for whatever mysterious reason, remains stranded on the outside looking in.

This dreamlike visual vignette of loneliness and longing, by the illustrator James McMullan, has been plastered around the city for weeks now, heralding the first stage adaptation of Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One, written and directed by James Lapine and scheduled to open at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater just before Easter. Most pedestrians probably haven’t paid it much heed. The show has no marquee stars, and in a late-season theater crush awash in familiar brands (Rocky, Cabaret, Aladdin), its profile is second-tier; Act One is less well remembered than A Raisin in the Sun, another of this spring’s revivals, though Lorraine Hansberry’s play and Hart’s book both made their acclaimed debuts in the same year, 1959. So faint is Moss Hart’s afterlife in the 21st century that few recall he was a show-business superstar for three decades—the co-author of two of the most successful comedies in American theater history (the Pulitzer Prize–winning You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner), the director of the original production of My Fair Lady, and the screenwriter of the enduring postwar movies Gentleman’s Agreement and the Judy Garland A Star Is Born. A half-century ago, Act One, a memoir that was his first and only book, spent nearly a year on the Times best-seller list, some five months of it at No. 1.

For the small minority that does know of Hart and Act One, the poster for the theatrical version evokes a powerful response. The book is “treasured in a way that is singular,” in the words of Tim Federle, a 33-year-old former Broadway dancer who has transitioned into a successful career as a writer with an Act One–esque tale of his own, Better Nate Than Ever, a novel for young readers about a stage-struck eighth-grader in a small town outside Pittsburgh who runs away to New York. But even among Federle’s theatrical cohort, Act One is obscure. “There are always like three guys and a lady in the cast of a show who not only know it but it’s the reason they got into the theater,” he says. The rest “may think Moss Hart sounds like a Muppet.”

In fact, Hart’s story is the Ur-text of neo-Broadway television soap operas Federle’s generation has appeared in or watched, like Glee and Smash. But the book’s devoted fan base isn’t limited to theater nerds. Terry Gilliam has told of how Hart inspired him to bolt the Midwest for New York, where he sought out a cartoonist hero, Mad magazine co-founder Harvey Kurtzman, and started on the path to Monty Python. Graydon Carter is an Act One fanatic who discovered the book while in high school in Ottawa. Another obsessive, the late New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan, toyed years ago, as I did, with the notion of writing a full-dress biography of Hart, only to be discouraged by the strenuous efforts of his widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart, to keep his archives and their presumed secrets under lock and key. (I ended up writing my own Act One–influenced childhood memoir instead.) Hart and his Broadway writing partner George S. Kaufman have also been an acknowledged influence on Woody Allen, plainly visible in his earliest plays and the films Radio Days and Bullets Over Broadway (itself coming to Broadway as a musical this spring). Another, if unexpected, Hart devotee is the novelist Ann Patchett. After she started a second career as an independent bookseller in Nashville two years ago, she said thatAct One is one of the best things about owning a bookstore” because, as she put it, “I can sell Act One to people all day long.”

I can guess her pitch. Hart’s memoir is one of the great American autobiographies because it gives a certain kind of reader hope. It says you can escape a home where you feel you don’t belong, you can escape a town you find suffocating, you can follow a passion (the theater, but not just the ­theater) that is ridiculed by your peers, you can—with hard work, luck, and stamina—forge a career doing what you love. However modest or traumatic your beginnings, you can find your way to Oz—and you don’t have to go back to Kansas anymore.


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