The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built

This romp through musical theater (336 pages) was published in March of 2016 by Sarah Crichton Books. The book takes you to rehearsals and front rows. David read The Secret Life of the American Musical and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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The Secret Life of the American Musical

How Broadway Shows Are Built

Jack Viertel

Jack Viertel is a producer, director, and author who’s helped bring some of Broadway’s biggest hits to life: Into the Woods, Angels in America, and Dear Evan Hansen, just to name-drop a few.

He’s an old pro who worked Broadway for decades, ‘handicapping musicals,’ a specialized skill that had him traveling the world, watching shows, then recommending which ones should make their way to Broadway. He also taught a class at New York University for most of a decade; this book is a result of that class.

This is probably stating the obvious, but let’s make it overt: Viertel loves musicals. And he knows how they work.

You might assume this book will be about how shows are produced: an idea, then a script, then music writing, casting, choreography — that kind of thing.

This is not that. Instead, and more compellingly, this is a book about the structure of a musical and how musicals work as story.

First, there’s the opening number. In that first blast from the stage, one character or the entire cast introduces the audience to the show, setting expectations for what’s to come. Fail to do that, and the night’s over before it’s begun. So what’s this show about? Where are we going together? Think about ‘Tradition’ from Fiddler on the Roof, or ‘Alexander Hamilton’ from Hamilton.

Then, usually, there’s a musical number that expresses the main character’s desires. An example of that might be the line, ‘All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air,’ Eliza Doolitte’s fervent wish from My Fair Lady — or the ‘I hope I get it’ chant from A Chorus Line.

Viertel takes us through the structure of a musical from the overture to the curtain call, explaining what typically happens at each step — and why. He tells stories about shows that have succeeded, but he also tells stories about shows that failed and speculates about why they did.

This thing is packed with insider stories. For example, Viertell was part of an attempt to bring the 1998 movie The Wedding Singer with Adam Sandler to Broadway. That show fails, he says, because the main character doesn’t want anything at the beginning. When the curtain goes up, he’s a wedding singer who wants to be a wedding singer. The movie can get away with that; there are other things to entertain us in the film. But in a musical — sitting in a live theater together — that lack of want is an insurmountable hurdle. The audience needs to know the main character’s dream. It has to be big, and the audience must be in on the ride.

The final chapter is a treasure trove: Viertel recommends the best recordings of the 47 musicals he’s analyzed and 20 more that he says ‘can’t be ignored even though they are not quoted in the book.’ That’s the mark of a true fan, no? ‘Here are dozens I love, and, oh yeah, here are 20 more I couldn’t leave out.’

Fair warning: This book will frequently send you to Spotify and YouTube, and inspire you to want to see more musicals. Your life can only be better for it.

Miranda wrote all of Hamilton — book, music, and lyrics — by himself, but many of the greatest classic musicals were the result of famously fractious collaborations. One might look at the master collaborators — from Kern and Berlin to Rodgers and Hart and Loesser and Jule Styne and Jerome Robbins — and come to the conclusion that the history of the Broadway musical is the history of short Jewish men yelling at each other. But to understand how these shows really came to be, it’s important to know what they were yelling about: the form and function and how the pieces fit together. These are the things that Broadway writers and directors used to carry inside them. You can’t turn back the clock (the world only spins forward, as Tony Kushner reminds us in Angels in America), but there’s pleasure in understanding this unique form of American entertainment and how it worked in its heyday. In the bones of that disused machine, some writers in the twenty-first century have begun to find inspiration, although most of their shows sit side by side with others that are more inspired by theatrical rock concerts than by Oklahoma. Hamilton is a telling example, being a work that grows out of a tradition and grows radically away from it at the same time.
— Jack Viertel

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