The Secret Life of the American Musical

Besides reading, one of my favorite things to do is to go to the theatre. So I was pretty excited to read this book about American musical theatre by Jack Viertel. Viertel has had a long career working behind the scenes to develop and stage Broadway musicals, and he uses that knowledge to deconstruct how musicals work.

Each chapter discusses a different point in the presentation, starting with the overture and moving all the way to the curtain call. He notes common patterns that recur in typical Broadway musicals, such as the early “I Want” song, the secondary couple, and the settling-in sequence at the start of Act 2. Not all musicals follow the pattern he lays out—Viertel notes some exceptions, and I could think of others—but the basic structure tends to hold, even if some elements are eliminated.

The book focuses on classic gems and modern successes from the 1920s to today. There’s lot of discussion of Oklahoma!Gypsy, and Guys and Dolls. But Hairspray, The Book of Mormon, and Hamilton get plenty of attention as well. I’ve seen lots of the musicals he discussed, often on stage. (This is where living in the DC area, near the marvelous Signature Theatre comes in handy.) I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much if I weren’t familiar with so many of the shows addressed. Whenever he spent more than a paragraph or two on a show I haven’t seen, I tended to fade out. As it is, I wished I’d seen Carousel and Little Shop of Horrors, more recently and on stage, instead of the movie versions years ago.

I could think of only a handful of shows that I wish he’d addressed. For example, I would loved for him to explore how this structure applies to The First Five Years, with its unusual backward and forward plotting. But, on the whole, this book felt pretty comprehensive to me. He at least mentioned most of the big shows I could think of, even if only in passing. This is a book about American musicals, so Andrew Lloyd Webber only gets a couple of mentions. Ditto Les Misérables. 

One thing I really appreciated about this book was that he helped me get over some of my snobbery about contemporary movie-inspired musicals. Xanadu and Hairspray feel like guilty pleasures to me, even though I had a great time seeing them. Heck, I even enjoyed Carrie: The Musical! But I still have a tendency to snootiness about the proliferation of these shows. Why can’t we get an original story? Never mind that I’ve been unenthused about a lot of the new musicals I’ve seen that weren’t based on other material. And especially never mind that most of the classic musicals were based on novels or stories. Viertel’s treating Hairspray with the same seriousness as Gypsy helped me get over that.

I also liked the Viertel doesn’t hold back on his own opinions even when I disagreed. He has no love for Camelot, and I love that show and argued back in my head about most of his complaints. He also owns up to his own mistakes, such as his argument that “I Know Where I’ve Been” didn’t belong in Hairspray.

If you’re a musical theatre nut like me, this book is worth a look. It is sadly lacking in pictures, but there’s a great list of musicals at the back with Viertel’s recommended recordings. It made me want to go out and buy all the cast albums. Listening to cast albums was one of my favorite things when I was in my teens and 20s, but I’ve fallen out of the habit.

So, if you are a musical theatre fan, what are some of your favorites? I’ll start with my top five: Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and Into the Woods. 

And because I know there are bound to be Hamilton fans among you, here’s a delightful tribute to my favorite musical by the cast of Hamilton:

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5 Responses to The Secret Life of the American Musical

  1. Jeanne says:

    Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Pippin, Candide, The Fantasticks, Man of La Mancha, Chicago, Once Upon a Mattress, Dames at Sea, Avenue Q, Little Shop of Horrors, The Music Man, The Book of Mormon, Hamilton.

    • Teresa says:

      We share a couple of favorites! I also really like Once Upon a Mattress, Candide, The Fantasticks, Man of La Mancha, and Chicago. And the Hamilton cast album, though I haven’t seen the show. Pippin is one I’d really like to see. I almost got a see Phantom a few years ago, but the trip got cancelled.

  2. Sweeney Todd did not grab me the one time I saw it, but maybe it was the production. Loved Les Mis, Into the Woods, Guys and Dolls, and West Side Story. I would put The Music Man in my top five.

    The most wonderful musical no one has heard of that I have seen was a lovely production called “Illyria” done at Taproot Theater in Seattle – based on Twelfth Night, as you can probably tell from the title. It flopped on Broadway but is definitely worth seeing. If you ever have a chance to see it, do!

    • Teresa says:

      So much depends on the performance! My two favorite theatres in DC are in small spaces and tend to use simplistic and abstract sets, which is something I love.

      When I taught high school, I was one of the theatre sponsors, and we put on a production of The Music Man. I have very fond memories of working on that show!

  3. I am a massive musical fan and my top two are actually neck in neck tied. Wicked and Les Mis are moved just as equally. Also love Pippin, South Pacific, Music Man, Newsies, Phantom of the Opera, Annie, Sound of Music, the list could just continue.

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