It will be impossible to read The Secret Life of the American Musical without singing the songs you remember.
As consumers of entertainment we take spectacle for granted. Very few of us care to know the labors required to make our favorite amusements, but those who want to peek behind the curtain do so with gusto. We become benign, loving obsessives for our favorite art form, and the best of us can share our passion with infectious excitement. For Jack Viertel, the art that became his fixation was the musical and he was able to foster his zeal into a career as a dramaturge, Broadway producer and vice-president of Jujamcyn Theaters, the corporate parent of several Broadway theaters.
Musicals are always on Viertel’s mind, so it was completely in character when the idea to teach a college course about musicals and how they are constructed came to him while touring the Greek island of Delos one summer. Using his expertise, Viertel would dissect the qualities that all musicals aspired to but made great musicals timeless. He found a partner in NYU and was assigned a slot at its famed Tisch School of the Arts. Viertel believed he would be a one-semester curiosity because no one really cared about musicals, but, of course, he was mistaken. The musical is the lifeblood of Broadway. Every decade is defined by a smash like Oklahoma!, Gypsy, Hair, A Chorus Line or Hamilton. Audiences love musicals, so Viertel’s class proved to be enormously popular and from it came his excellent book, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built.
The book is pioneering in that it is very much a survey textbook akin to David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art: An Introduction, but instead of explaining the basics of film stock, shot composition and editing, Viertel has structured his book like a musical from overture to intermission to curtain call. Each chapter contains a thorough examination of an element of the Broadway musical, historical examples and how each element progresses into the next. In this way it recalls Robert McKee’s screenwriting bible Story, but that tome is most often read with a specific goal in mind: writing a mainstream screenplay. For those not schlepping downtown to Tisch, Viertel’s book can exist as a delight to further the appreciation of the art form he loves so dearly.
Unlike most dry textbooks, The Secret Life of the American Musical slips into memoir at times. Viertel’s journey from fan to theater professional began with a stack of vinyl LPs, original cast recordings and the beautiful album covers that sheathed them. They were portals into other worlds at a time when radio and television were the technologies that connected the culture. Music from Broadway shows would often get radio play and ascend the charts. Ed Sullivan, the entertainment reporter turned variety show host, would often have scenes from Broadway musicals performed on his long-running program, offering the nation a glimpse at what was then a regional enterprise. Most people would never see a Broadway musical until it was adapted to the silver screen. Adaption of Broadway musicals helped sustain movie studios for decades, but now the roles have reversed with musical makers seeking recognizable movie properties to adapt. This trend has brought Spider-Man and Groundhog Day to the stage with middling results, but there is also a Disney theater empire that can’t seem to miss with The Lion King and Frozen.
Viertel begins his book by demarcating a golden age of the American musical, beginning with the opening night of Oklahoma! in 1943 and ending with the opening night of A Chorus Line in 1975. In his estimation, the formula for the American musical was established in these decades and the boundaries around experimentation were set. Before Oklahoma! the songs in musicals existed to showcase performers. Rodgers and Hammerstein committed the revolutionary act of making the songs an integrated element of the storytelling while offering a story that counted. With its opening ballad, “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” the duo introduced what would become known as the “I want” song where the protagonist states his desire. Decades later, A Chorus Line would become a revolutionary act in its own right, offering what is essential one long “I want” song. Most of the great musicals come under discussion during the course of the book, depending on chapter and the element under discussion, so fans of Wicked, The Book of Mormon and Hamilton will not be disappointed when those shows are put in their proper historical context.
A good teacher inspires his students with passion for his subject and Viertel certainly succeeds in deepening one’s appreciation of the musical. He is a candid storyteller, willing to discuss his flops more readily than his successes. The efforts that fail often have more lessons to teach than their opposites, and creators like Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins add insight into what makes a classic as opposed to an afterthought. This is foremost a book about structure, but even though the roadmap is drawn, success is no guarantee. Viertel admits that the element that makes a classic succeed beyond mere structure is akin to magic. The small space between competency and classic is what separates My Fair Lady from Camelot. It is indescribable yet obvious when witnessed.
Reading The Secret Life of the American Musical often feels like discussing old friends. Viertel has done a service to joy with his effort and the book should come with a warning: It will be impossible to read without singing the songs you remember. Time will be lost to long dives down YouTube.