…the rowdy oral history…Free for All is a heady stew of gossip and tumult, the place to go if you're interested in the backstage intrigue behind plays like Jason Miller's That Championship Season, Sam Shepard's True West and the Kevin Kline-Linda Ronstadt production of The Pirates of Penzance…The dark side of Joe Papp comes through in Free for All. He throws people against walls, cuts those who've offended him from his life and yanks plays away from directors he has lost confidence in. But by and large this book is the portrait of a mensch, a big-hearted man who loved the people he worked with and would do almost anything for them, from loaning them money to visiting them in the hospital to bailing them out of jail.
The New York Times
Joseph Papp, the Brooklyn-born impresario who changed the face of the American theater by founding the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, is unquestionably a hero of the complicated kind. His story is revisited in rich, rewarding detail in…Free for All…What it may lack in currency and noveltythe story of Papp and the Public has been told before, perhaps most notably in Helen Epstein's Joe Pappit makes up in vividness, comprehensiveness and intimacy.
The New York Times Book Review
Turan, now the film critic for the Los Angeles Times, was approached by theatrical producer Joe Papp in the 1980s to develop an oral history of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, then blocked the book from publication after reading an early draft. Years later, we can understand some of Papp's reluctance: former colleagues speak frankly about his failure to share credit for success with others, and why the effort to move his radical style of theater into Lincoln Center met with failure. Papp's personality can be prickly, to say the least; one of his first reactions to a surprise birthday party thrown by his staff was to wonder what else they could be doing behind his back. But stories like this, or accounts of the backstage turbulence on plays like That Championship Season or True West, never overshadow Papp's creative legacy and his engagement with New York City's diverse society. As dozens of actors, from the late George C. Scott and Anthony Quinn to Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, share their memories, it's easy to see how the constantly hustling Papp became “larger than life just by being himself.” (Nov. 3)
Over 20 years ago, with encouragement and assistance from Papp, Turan (film critic, Los Angeles Times) interviewed over 160 people (more than 40 are no longer living) for this oral history of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. The project was nixed in the end by Papp but later revived with permission from his widow. Beyond an introduction and afterword, the book is made up entirely of interviews, each chapter a mixture of Papp's words and those of other well-known personalities who worked with him as he realized his passion for providing free public access to Shakespeare and modern plays. While sometimes highly critical of Papp's methods, those interviewed clearly respect the man and his achievements. This is reminiscent of Theodore Mann's Journeys in the Night: Creating a New American Theatre with Circle in the Square but more oral history than memoir. VERDICT Superb editing and mixing of interviews make each chapter seem as though one is simply eavesdropping on conversations, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Highly recommended. [See also "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 24.]—Laura A. Ewald, Greenville Coll. Lib., IL
A poignant pastiche of interviews and "soliloquies" by many principals and walk-ons tells the story of New York's most powerful theater impresario. Los Angeles Times film critic and NPR contributor Turan (Film Criticism/Univ. of Southern California) originally assembled the book 23 years ago with the cooperation of producer and director Joseph Papp (1921-1991), but when the temperamental showman read the result, he pulled the plug. Turan later approached Papp's widow, who greenlighted the project. At first glance, the text is off-putting: snippets of observations, comments and memories from decades ago from a huge cast, some of whom are no longer living. But the cumulative effect is riveting. After dealing briefly with Papp's parentage and struggling Brooklyn boyhood, the narrative follows him into the Navy, then out to Hollywood, where he participated in the Actors' Laboratory. He moved back East to work for CBS-TV and begin his career producing and directing plays. His crowning glories, of course, were the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. Papp comes across as a highly persuasive, indefatigable fundraiser and a terrific (if not always enduring) champion of actors and writers, especially playwright David Rabe. The rising, then falling arc of that friendship and professional association is a highlight of the narrative. As time moves on, chapters focus on specific productions. Those involved with A Chorus Line tell of its genesis and surpassing success. There is a sad story about Papp's relationship with Sam Shepard (they fell out over True West), many inspiring ones (about The Pirates of Penzance with Linda Ronstadt and The Mystery of Edwin Drood), tales of failure(Papp's tenure at Lincoln Center) and glorious serendipity (Two Gentlemen of Verona, That Championship Season). A wonderful book that clearly and powerfully shows that Papp's own story was the most enduring drama he ever produced.
"A heady stew of gossip and tumult. . . . A rowdy oral history." —The New York Times
"[An] important, colorful, capacious book . . . rich, rewarding . . . immensely pleasurable." —The New York Times Book Review
“Eminently readable . . . [with] a highly theatrical momentum.” —The New Yorker
“Free for All is a powerful, in-depth, and deeply moving oral history of a man (Joseph Papp) who created an extraordinary place (the Public Theatre) during an unforgettable era in American theatrical history. It was truly the best of times, and the book returned me with awe to a period when a passionate mentor made all the difference in my life and career.” —Martin Sheen
“Anyone interested in Joe Papp, who played a legendary role in New York theater, or in his remarkable productions at the Public Theater, in Central Park, at Lincoln Center, or on Broadway, must read this long-suppressed, almost lost book. And if you have no interest in any of these things, the personalities that leap from its pages, their vividness and (usually) unstoppable charm, make it a must-read all by themselves!” —John Rockwell, former critic for the New York Times
"The theater book of the season ... a juicy, exciting read. It's history as intimate storytelling, and a must-have for any theater lover." —Charles Isherwood, The New York Times