Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel

Jack Viertel has been the producer or has overseen the production of dozens of Broadway plays and musicals, including multiple Pulitzer and Tony Award winner, such as City of Angels and Angels in America. In addition to conceiving of the ideas for Smokey Joe’s Cafe and After Midnight, he has been a creative consultant on many other shows, from Hairspray and A Christmas Story to the recent hit Dear Evan Hansen. He has also spent more than 10 years teaching classes about musical theater history at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, which he used as the inspiration for this fascinating look at the underpinnings of American Musicals.

Though there are always exceptions to any standardized formula, you’d be surprised how many American musicals follow the blueprint that Viertel lays out in this volume. He breaks each significant part of an American musical into its own section, and each section gets a chapter of focus: Opening Numbers; the “I Want” song; Conditional Love Songs (“If I Loved You”); The Noise (the rambunctious numbers in the first 1/3 of the show that ramp up the energy); Bushwacking (secondary couples, villains, multiple plot lines); Stars (the numbers that create break-out stars; Tent Poles (the numbers that shows prop up entire shows…a.k.a. the numbers everyone will remember about the show); the Curtain numbers that end Act I and open Act II, “The Candy Dish” — fun, often light-hearted numbers early in Act II that bring the energy back up and make people smile; Beginning to Pack (starting to wrap up the plot); The Main Event (the songs that solve most of the major problems for the characters); the Next-to-Last Scene; and The End (finales). Not to mention the various ways that shows handle their curtain calls, from simple to complex.

Viertel’s expertise and trenchant observations give this a scholarly feel, but his enthusiasm for his topic makes it more engaging than a dry college course. My only complaint, and he addresses this in his introduction, is that he doesn’t use more varied examples to prove his various points…but as he says, the “rules” he is explaining are hewed to by so many different successful shows that he could have pulled from a lot of other shows…he just sticks with those he likes the best or is most familiar with.

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway.]

[ publisher’s official Secret Life of the American Musical web site ] | [ official Jack Viertel Twitter feed ] | [ 1-hour video lecture on this topic by Jack Viertel ]

Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library

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