Book Reveals Bones of Good Musicals

Writing a straight play (i.e. non-musical), refining the script, and getting it up on stage is a gnashingly difficult process and not for the weak of heart. It requires talent, perseverance, collaboration and luck – more or less in equal measure as far as I can tell. Oh, and to take it all the way to production Mammon needs to also be on the team.

And if that doesn’t put you off your meal, let me tell you about a surefire emetic – creating a stage musical. Higher stakes, so many more moving parts. Or better yet, let Jack Viertel tell you in his recent book The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built.

The author speaks with authority. Jack Viertel is a battle-hardened veteran with tours of duty as a dramaturg (Mark Taper Forum in L.A.), critic (Los Angeles Herald Examiner), and producer (senior V.P. at Jujamcyn Theaters). Jujamcyn owns and operates five Broadway theatres, currently home to The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Present Laughter, Groundhog Day and Amélie. Viertel helped shepherd to Broadway six August Wilson plays, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Hairspray. He also serves as Artistic Director of New York City Center’s Encores! series.

Viertel’s book takes musicals apart, puts them back together, sings their praises, marvels at their unflagging inventiveness, and occasionally despairs over embarrassing shortcomings. He wants to show us how musicals happen, what makes them work, how they captivate audiences, and how one landmark show leads to the next—by design or by accident, by emulation or by rebellion—from Oklahoma! to Hamilton and onward.

Organized like a musical, The Secret Life begins with an overture and concludes with a curtain call, with stops in between for “I Want” songs, “conditional” love songs, production numbers, star turns, and finales. Viertel believes a structure underlies successful musicals. The failure of some musicals “has a lot to do with their formlessness,” he writes. “Audiences really do like to be told a definite story in a compelling way. It has to have captivating characters, an exciting challenge for them to solve, and a solution that’s worthy of the time we’ve taken to watch it.”

A paradox of scriptwriting, and really of the creative process across many fields, is that while there is an architecture undergirding the finished creation, it’s only in hindsight that the bones can be seen. Implied is that while it behooves a writer to be aware of structure, if the creator tries too hard to make his work conform to such structure, creativity will be stifled and the outcome will be inert, it will lack life. We might almost see this phenomenon as an artistic version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” concept in economics. Viertel acknowledges this paradox: “good musical theater writers rarely write to pattern, even though this book keeps describing the pattern they don’t write to.”

Viertel dates Broadway’s “Golden Age” as beginning on the opening night of Oklahoma! (March 31, 1943) and ending when A Chorus Line opened (July 25, 1975). Something this book does well is place the changing tastes of the American musical within the larger context of changes in American society.

The book is also leavened with frequent anecdotes about theatre people. Think Hamilton was an overnight success? Viertel reminds us that Lin-Manuel Miranda spent six years writing it.

In a humbling note for writers, Viertel reports that a difficult lesson early in his career was accepting that the script is only the blueprint on which the theater makers depend. As he puts it, “theater is not the written word, it’s the word made flesh. Sometimes a light cue can make you cry. Sometimes an actor turning toward or away from another actor can tell more of the story than all the words a playwright could think up.” He’s right.

The Secret Life of the American Musical deserves to join the canon of essential reading for theatre people. It will be useful to a broad swath of theatre professionals, not just those directly involved with musicals. Playwrights who never want to come near a musical staff line can glean a lot from this book. Put it on the shelf alongside Moss Hart’s Act One, Robert McKee’s Story and Dialogue, William Goldman’s The Season, and Stephen Sondheim’s twin books on lyric writing.

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