‘Up in the Cheap Seats’: hooked on theater

“Up in the Cheap Seats” (Griffith Moon) should make lifelong theater lovers almost crazy with happiness.

Ron Fassler describes how he got hooked on going to musicals and plays after his aunt took him to see Robert Preston and Mary Martin in “I Do, I Do” in the fall of 1967 when he was only ten-and-a-half.

The boy was so bedazzled by the experience that he became determined to see as many shows as he could with his earnings from delivering newspapers. Over the next few years, little Ronnie saw 200 plays and musicals and kept records of all of them.

(Among its many other wonderful aspects, the memoir becomes an endorsement of what is now known as “free-range” child rearing, as the pre-teen Fassler visits the theater district on his own, or with a friend or two, from his Long Island home.)

The book gives us a dual view of theater love – from the boy who became addicted (and wrote amusing reviews of everything he saw) and from the man whose passion for the stage pushed him into a career as an actor and writer. Fassler’s access to fellow thespians allowed him to do dozens of contemporary interviews to deepen his text – with some of the people he saw way back when (such as William Daniels of “1776” and James Earl Jones of “The Great White Hope”) as well as directors and actors he has worked with (Mike Nichols and Nathan Lane, among them).

Fassler’s adult appreciation of stage acting results in some of the best chapters in the book in which he writes with affection and technical insight about performers who devoted much of their lives to acting in plays, from stars like Julie Harris and Maureen Stapleton to less celebrated but great artists such as Joe Maher (who also became a beloved Connecticut neighbor from his years of living in Stratford and Fairfield).

The documentary aspect of “Up in the Cheap Seats” invites comparison with the William Goldman classic “The Season” in which the novelist and playwright looked at almost every Broadway show produced during the 1967-1968 season. Fassler’s boyhood immersion covers more than a single season, taking us from 1967 to 1973, but like Goldman, he reminds us of long forgotten flops (“Dude”), near misses (“The Rothschilds”) and huge hits (“1776”).

Since so many theater lovers have gone through a similar journey, from that first thrilling childhood contact with a stage show through many years of devoted attendance, Fassler’s memoir will strike deep chords. My only criticism is that, at 198 pages, the book is much too short. Let’s hope that a sequel is in the works.