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Sheldon Patinkin Knows His History


No Legs No Jokes No ChanceThe vibrant history of the American musical is explored in Chicago author Sheldon Patinkinís encyclopedic and opinionated new book, "No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance" : A History of American Musical Theater.††Patinkin guides readers through the evolution of the American musical from its roots in 19th Century burlesque, revue and operettato the phenomenon of modern-day extravaganzas such as Wicked and Rent.

Patinkin is a beloved elder of the Chicago theatre scene.† Now chair of the Theatre Department of Columbia College Chicago, and also artistic consultant for both The Second City and Steppenwolf Theatre and ensemble member of The Gift Theatre, Patinkin has been observing and contributing to the Chicago theatre for almost six decades.† He was there at the University Chicago with the band of brainiacs that became The Compass Players, and he was there at the beginning of The Second City phenomenon -- a "founding uncle" as he puts it.

Longevity gives Patinkin an historical perspective thatís at the heart of "No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance."† Patinkin argues that every time Broadway dies (again), it's because the genre has clung to old forms even as American culture has moved on.† The title refers to a case in point.† "No legs, no jokes, no chance" was producer Michael Todd's infamous comment at the intermission of an out-of-town tryout of Oklahoma! ††His pronouncement, though pithy, could not have been more misguided.† Despite full-length calico dresses and a dearth of one-liners, Oklahoma! became a smash box office hit and, according to Patinkin, the prototype of a uniquely American form.† And that's what interests Patinkin most.† The tried-and-true can succeed for a while but eventually it must give way as the genre ignores old bromides and invents itself afresh.† (The original title of the book was "Keeping Up with the Times.")

Patinkin is a true fan.† As he says, "One of the most important functions of both art and entertainment is to help us transcend troubled times, to make us laugh or feel deeply or both.† Musicals have done both of those things."† But, as he also makes clear, the musical -- like all theatre -- is and must be very much of its time and place.

Patinkin himself has been an important influence on the theatre of our time, in our place.† His work as a director includes over one hundred plays, musicals and operas, in Chicago and throughout the world.† And he has trained scores of Chicago's most talented young directors, including two who have been the toast of New York in recent months: David Cromer (The Adding Machine) and Anna Shapiro (August: Osage County.)

Patinkin shares stories and insights from a lifetime in the theatre on this week's Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast.†† Patinkin talks with Anne Nicholson Weber about his book, his work, and his love, hopes and fears for Chicago theatre.

Anne Nicholson Weber
Anne@TheatreInChicago.com

Theatre in Chicago contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw Jack and the Beanstalk at the Goodman Childrenís Theatre and has loved theatre every since. She is the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age, which includes interviews with Tony Kushner, Julie Taymor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Martha Lavey and Sir Peter Hall, among many others, and her work has been published in American Theatre Magazine and other national publications.

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