Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff: A

underfootFrom the front flap:
“Each year, hundreds of stagestruck kids arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre… One in a thousand turns out to be Noel Coward. This book is about life among the other 999. By one of them.”
– Helene Hanff

In her spirited, witty and vastly entertaining memoir, Helene Hanff recalls her ingenuous attempts to crash Broadway in the early forties as one of “the other 999.”

From the joys of summer theatre and furnished rooms to being Seen at Sardi’s and weathering one more Theatre Guild flop, Miss Hanff recalls the rigors of crashing Broadway with warmth and generous humor. Her exuberant account of a misspent youth will hearten theatre hopefuls and entertain the large, devoted readership she has acquired through her subsequent works.

Helene Hanff’s memoir of her attempts to break into the threatre spans decades from the early ’40s to the early ’60s. Conforming to Flanagan’s Law, a theory advanced by a friend of hers that states, “If you can predict it, it doesn’t happen. In the theatre, no matter what happens to you, it’s unexpected,” Hanff’s career does not go as planned. It starts off well, with Hanff taking top prize in a contest, but soon sputters. Though she wants to be a playwright, and can create excellent characters and settings, she’s never been a fiction fan so her plots are always weak and her plays never sell. To make ends meet she takes a variety of part-time jobs, and eventually ends up writing for television. Just as she accepts that it’s time to give up on plays and focus on TV, all of the writing jobs for that medium move off to the West Coast and she’s left unemployed once again.

Hanff tells the story of her career trajectory with warmth and wit and, though I just used this adjective the other day and am hesitant to do so again, the result is nothing short of delightful. Interspersed with tales of her various odd jobs—including a memorable episode where she and an assistant have to alter 10,000 mimeographed press releases for Oklahoma! by hand when its creators decide it needs an exclamation point—are stories about the places she used to live (garrets with a communal kitchen and colorful neighbors), the free entertainment she and a friend used to enjoy (courtesy of a nifty trick of mingling in with the crowd at intermission), and snippets of wisdom gleaned from so many years in the business.

Toward the end, the narrative overlaps a little with 84, Charing Cross Road, probably the best known of Hanff’s works. At least one story shared with her English penpals is recounted in this book, too—about a dramatization of the life of Aesop and Rhodope—but it’s not tiresome by any means. It’s more like your friend telling you an amusing story and not quite remembering they’ve told you already, but it’s fun and you like them, so you play along and don’t interrupt.

And speaking of not interrupting, this book is so captivating that I very nearly read it in one sitting and would have if not for the pesky necessity of going to bed at a reasonable hour. A special thanks to MJ for the recommendation!

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  1. I’m so happy you enjoyed this! It gives me great glee.

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