My father was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928. His was not the “typical” childhood: he spent the 1930s and ’40s performing on radio and in the Yiddish theater, where divas starred in ingenue roles even after their daughters were old enough to play their mothers, and the actual words of the script were considered suggestions. Dad had a quintessential stage mother. Annie was a 4’8″ ball of determination where her son’s theatrical career was concerned, partially because she felt that she herself had been robbed of the opportunity. She’d been born with a wonderful singing voice, she said, although nobody ever heard her sing. When pressed, she’d tell you that “the sickness” had robbed her of it. Again, it was hard to pinpoint exactly which sickness had rendered her melodically mute, but it didn’t really matter. My father could sing, and Annie made sure that he did, both onstage and on radio.
Dad was still performing when he met my mother in the Catskills. Only the responsibility of marriage and family could make him take a hiatus from acting in exchange for more predictable employment. Still, my childhood memories are filled with him accompanying himself (and me) on the piano while singing standards from both the 20th-century-popular-music songbook and Broadway.
Vivian tells the story of octogenarian Milo Short, a Broadway producer and famous lyricist who, on his way to the office one day, encounters a woman he hasn’t seen in over sixty years. As if that weren’t impossible enough, Vivian is as young and beautiful as she was when he last saw her in the 1930s. The sight shocks Milo into a stroke, leaving him unable to communicate the flurry of thoughts that now race through his still-active mind. Vivian, you see, has arrived on a mission, and Milo suspects he knows what it is. It will take his granddaughter, Eleanor, to dig through his theatrical past to uncover the truth that can potentially set him free.
Of course, the theater part of this novel is a lot of fun. Ms. Riggle brings not only the research skills of the journalist she is, but a love of the stage fueled by her own past experiences in community theater productions. The reader follows Milo’s career from song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley through Broadway lyricist to successful producer. We are flies on the wall for the mounting of a 1930s musical (Ms. Riggle’s lyrics for Milo’s songs fit perfectly into the era), and once we sweat through the production/rehearsal process, we’re invited to opening night. We even get to mingle with celebrities like Cole Porter, Jimmy McHugh, and Dorothy Fields. But you don’t need an interest in theater or history to enjoy Vivian in Red. This is Ms. Riggle’s sixth novel, and she brings to it the same understanding of human frailty and strength that infuses all her work. If you’ve ever had a dream or a relationship, you’ll recognize Vivian‘s heart. You might even find yourself in the mix as well.
Milo’s rise from a poor Jewish family to Broadway success echoes the trajectory of a long list of great early-20th-century lyricists and composers (Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Yip Harburg to name but a few). My father’s story resonates against this; with so many Jews succeeding in show business, why wouldn’t theatrical success seem within the reach of both a young Jewish boy from Brooklyn and his immigrant mother? It was their version of the American Dream, and my father never quite left it behind.
Dad was back onstage before I left my teens, performing in Annapolis, Washington, and Baltimore. He did print ads and commercials, appeared in movies and on TV. He performed his last role between rounds of chemo; as far as he was concerned, missing a show was not an option.
Even now, over a decade past my father’s last performance, people still tell me how much they enjoyed watching him onstage. I remember the stories he told with the comic timing of a master. Sure, maybe we’d heard some of those stories before, but who cared? With Dad, there was always the chance for something more entertaining than mere conversation.
Milo Short reminds me of him, and I am grateful for the visit.