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Steven Watson

STEVEN WATSON’S ROUSING CHRONICLE of the making of the 1934 Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, is a 42nd Street for the American avant-garde. This is a backstage saga that seems itself the stuff of opera, replete with a petulant diva (the cantankerous Gertrude); an eager-beaver impresario from Kansas-City-by-way-of-Paris who wants to put on a show, goshdarnit (the composer Virgil Thomson); a bunch of unknown players (an all-black cast culled from Harlem church choirs and nightclubs); a fantastically out-there set decorator and costume designer (the then-sixty-three-year-old painter of tinseled fantasy and bubbly glitz Florine Stettheimer); a glamorous but perpetually broke producer (Chick Austin); a first-time director (John Houseman); and a highfalutin Brit choreographer who is sleeping with the chorus boys (Frederick Ashton).

Once in rehearsals at Hartford’s

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