BWW Exclusive: Read the First Chapter of Tony-Winning Producer Jack Viertel's Book THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL

BWW Exclusive: Read the First Chapter of Tony-Winning Producer Jack Viertel's Book THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICALIn THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL, Jack Viertel takes about musicals, puts them back together, sings their praises, marvels at their unflagging inventiveness, and occasionally despairs over their more embarrassing shortcomings. In the process, he invites us to fall in love with the art form all over again by showing 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.

Jack Viertel is the Artistic Director of New York City Center's Encores! series, and is also the Senior Vice President of Jujamcyn Theaters. In addition to his work as an acclaimed Broadway producer, he has also worked on Broadway and at LA's Mark Taper Forum as a dramaturg, as well as a theatre critic at Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

Below, you can read the first chapter from THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL, and you can purchase the book HERE.


Excerpt from The Secret Life of the American Musical
Jack Viertel

BWW Exclusive: Read the First Chapter of Tony-Winning Producer Jack Viertel's Book THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL1. Overture

Is the American musical an animal or a machine? That's a peculiar question, but think about it for a moment. A machine is made from standardized, manufactured parts, assembled according to a particular logic; when switched on, it does a task, or perhaps a series of them. An animal is, in some ways, not so very different. We human animals are also standardized to a great extent. Two eyes, two lips, a nose, as Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote, and we perform a certain set of actions, some of them repetitively. These include the mundane (brushing our teeth) and the profound (falling in love). We're like machines, but we're not machines; we're individuals with our own hearts, our own brains, our own ways of looking at the world informed by experience, temperament, taste, and desire. We're better than machines.

A lot of Broadway musicals are well-made machines, but the best ones rise above-they stand up and dance on their own, with their own unique beating hearts. This book is mostly about those very best ones, and about deconstructing the machined parts that allowed them to work.

Why? Because that other element, the lightning bolt that gives life, can be described but never entirely understood. That intangible thing that separates the special Broadway shows from the routinely competent ones-My Fair Lady from Camelot, or Hairspray from Legally Blonde-is partly a matter of craft, but who really knows what makes that final difference happen? Every now and then the divine spirit comes down for a visit, that's all. The idea behind this book, though, is that such blessed events don't have much of a chance of happening unless the machine is up and running. Without the lungs and liver, there's no way for the heart to soar or the brain to make lightning and thunder. So this book is an attempt to describe the mechanics of the great musicals-how they were planned and built, and why, so often, they get under our skin and remain a part of us for a lifetime.

The architecture of musicals dates back to Broadway's Golden Age, the dates of which can be agreed upon by no one. My opinion is that it begins on the opening night of Oklahoma! (March 31, 1943) and ends on the opening night of A Chorus Line (July 25, 1975). During those decades, musicals found a form that was so rock solid and so satisfying to audiences that the components of that form served as the road map for creators who revised and refined but never abandoned it. There were great musicals produced before and after, of course, and I do have some things to say about shows in the '20s and '30s, and about shows that Stephen Sondheim and his collaborators wrote in the post-Chorus Line era. And there's a lot to be written about shows like Wicked, The Producers, The Book of Mormon, and, of course, those produced by the Disney empire. But my Golden Age ends where it ends. By the mid-'70s, the world had changed both on- and offstage in a way that caused a flurry of experimentation, some notable disasters, and a period of wandering in the desert.

The '70s and '80s saw a scattering of attempts to exploit the fashionable on Broadway-hence musicals like Got Tu Go Disco, a curiosity that tried to cash in on the disco craze without a discernible plot or characters, and Rockabye Hamlet, a rock version of Shakespeare's classic that proved something really was rotten in the state of Denmark. There was a lot of confusion about appropriate subject matter too-was it really a strong idea to write a musical about the Shroud of Turin? Into the Light gave it a try, leading to one of the more memorable lead sentences ever published in a Variety review: "Those who never miss a musical about the Shroud of Turin will rush to Into the Light."

There seemed to be a lot of amateurism around, and to some extent that's still the case today. As the ideas for new musicals and the justifications for producing them got thinner and more erratic, the craftsmanship often evaporated altogether. Part of the reason for this, to be fair, was that there were suddenly some extremely compelling shows rooted in the most unlikely source material, seemingly semi-improvised: Hair may have started the trend, which has continued and encouraged both inspired outsiders and rank incompetents alike. Opinions may differ on shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Passing Strange, but their failure to find large, appreciative audiences has a lot to do with their formlessness. 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.

Nowhere was this clearer to me than in the long journey taken by August Wilson's play The Piano Lesson, which is, admittedly, not a musical (though it has a couple of amazingly powerful musical sequences in it). Set in Pittsburgh, the play revolves around an almost three-hour argument between a brother and a sister over who gets to control the piano in the parlor, a mystical heirloom onto which the family's history was carved by an ancestor who was a slave. The sister wants to save it as a testament to the family's suffering. The brother wants to sell it to a collector and buy a piece of land in Mississippi so he can start a farm and begin to help the current generation prosper. What does one do with one's legacy?

The play is also a ghost story; the spirit of the white man whose family once owned both the piano and the land in question has arrived from Mississippi and is terrifying the residents of the house, though what exactly he wants isn't stated. It is a wildly entertaining, imaginative evening. In the original script, the ghost was exorcised in the end, but the question of who winds up with the piano was left unresolved. At its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, audiences appreciated the play, but they left the theater a little baffled. Through three or four out-of-town productions, I kept gently asking the playwright a simple question: After three hours of argument, who gets the piano? He purported not to be interested in the question (I actually think he just didn't know the answer). He'd given strong arguments to both combatants. With a Broadway opening staring him in the face, he finally went into retreat and came back with two new scenes, one in the middle of the second act in which the sister explains why, although she won't let go of the piano, she'll never play it again. And one at the end where, to exorcise the ghost, she changes her mind and plays it, driving away the sprits of the past. She earns the piano, and her brother gives in.

The first night the play was performed with those two new scenes, the audience whooped and cheered at the end and stood up and whistled. They had their answer. Thematically, August Wilson may have been right that it didn't matter who got the piano. The argument was more important to him than the outcome. He could have found a justification for the brother winning, and the audience would probably have been just as happy. But in a show about who will end up with a piano, the spectators want to know and won't be satisfied until they do. That's what makes a story a story, as anyone who has ever told a bedtime story to a child-or watched a baseball game-will immediately understand. Something is at stake. Someone wins the stake and someone else loses. There are mechanical niceties, and they have to be observed, "The Lady or the Tiger?" notwithstanding.

* * *
But the niceties are different for musicals than for straight plays. Unlike in any other kind of story, the characters in musicals keep interrupting themselves to burst into song. They dance, they leap, they speak one line and sing the next; they convey what's in their brains in dialogue; they turn what's in their hearts into melody and movement. And when the men and women who are creating this odd hybrid form of storytelling do it brilliantly, audiences respond in a way that is as unique as the form itself, because the storytellers are operating on different parts of the human brain simultaneously. In that sense, musicals have more latitude than plays. Audiences understand the story-the characters and what's at risk for them as they try to achieve their dreams. But sitting there in the dark, they also experience a certain kind of visceral charge that goes well beyond the logic of storytelling. Musicals tap into an emotion center that creates profound feelings of ecstasy, sadness, heroism, nobility, or simple giddiness. That's why the hair stands up on the back of your neck, that most illogical but universally recognizable sensation.

It happens right after Harold Hill says, "You'll feel something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed when Gilmore, Liberatti, Pat Conway, The Great Creatore, W. C. Handy and John Philip Sousa all came to town on the very same historic day," and then sings the line "Seventy-six trombones led the big parade." The audience falls apart right then. You can argue that familiarity is the cause, and that we're all waiting for him to sing it, and you can certainly point out that we're being manipulated and spoon-fed, but who cares? I bet it happened on opening night, before anyone had ever heard the song, and long after they could have identified "The Great Creatore."1 And they've been falling apart ever since.

Certain people (I'm one of them) shed tears at the end of the first act of Sunday in the Park with George when the ensemble sings:

People strolling through the trees

Of a small suburban park

On an Island in the river

On an ordinary Sunday

Why? No one has died, nothing momentous has happened. But art has somehow given stature to an everyday moment-visually, musically, and narratively. The whole first act has been preparing an unsuspecting audience for this moment, and it's overpowering. The emotions are sudden, unexpected, apparently completely surprising and spontaneous. We weep because we've been shown something we didn't expect to see-a vision of everyday life elevated. (Sondheim has confessed that he, like many others, cries on the word "forever," which comes earlier in the song. Perhaps I'm a tougher audience.)

The strangest of these experiences for me-because it has nothing to do with anything in everyday life-occurred in the Encores! production of Pipe Dream by Rodgers and Hammerstein, a quite troubled show with a good score that we felt was worth exhuming for another look. But it wasn't the story that caused the magic (the story is almost impossible to explain, and, frankly, not worth the effort). Late in the first act, Leslie Uggams, who was playing the madam of the local bordello, had a number called "Sweet Thursday." It's a bouncy charm song in the manner of "Honey Bun" from the much superior South Pacific. But almost no one in the audience had ever heard it before, which gave it some extra charm. Halfway through it, Uggams was joined by two young sailors, each of whom took her by the arm and led her downstage toward the audience as she sang. They were shorter than she, and they flanked her with perfect visual symmetry. As she launched into the second chorus and began a gentle, three-person soft shoe, I could swear the floor fell away from me, I was suspended in midair, and I thought I felt the almost two thousand patrons of City Center having the same experience. We were floating, en masse, watching a star be a star. If I could tell you why that happened, I would.

That's why the form has endured. And that's why it's worth talking about the mechanics that help make it happen.

* * *
Most musicals are romances, and for decades the principal responsibility of the Broadway musical was to be an effective aphrodisiac. What is a night out, after all, if not an invitation to intimacy? And if the songs, heard later in a club or on a bedside radio, cause a revival of passionate feelings, so much the better. This may sound like a trivial pursuit for an art form, but it's just the opposite. The Broadway musical, in its heyday, was an integral part of human courtship for a considerable portion of the American population. It gave validity to the idea of taking sex seriously, while laughing at it, along with those of us who were perpetually trying to figure out romantic love. It showed us beautiful, sensuous, sinuous people trying to get it right, which inspired the rest of us mere mortals to redouble our efforts. It gave harmonic voice to desire and ecstasy in ways we never dared to do out loud in our own lives. And it endorsed the idea that romance-the kind that demands a bed right away-far from being destructive, was the first building block to happiness in society. That was very encouraging.

In its earliest phases of operetta and musical comedy, the American musical promoted romance in a somewhat unlikely context. The operettas of the teens and '20s were grandly ridiculous, wonderfully melodic spectaculars whose plots concerned exotic locales and remote, romantic figures: pirates, Arabian princes, Canadian Mounties, and the women who couldn't stay out of their arms. The "modern" musical comedies of Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, and Cole Porter used the emerging sounds of the Jazz Age to domesticate things. Suddenly couples were succumbing at Long Island garden parties and on college campuses. But with the notable exception of Kern and Hammerstein's 1927Show Boat, context didn't much matter back then. Shows were a showcase for great songs, great performers, an antic spirit, and not a lot more than that. That's the real reason that the arrival of Oklahoma!, in 1943, was a revolutionary moment. Not only did it present songs as an integrated part of the storytelling, it also made the story itself count. This is more unlikely than it sounds, because Oklahoma!'s story really shouldn't count for much. For the first ninety minutes of it, the only real issue seems to be the burning question of who is going to get to take Laurey to the box social.

But while Oklahoma! did not have a plot worth talking about, it had a subject. It placed its rather routine romantic story against the context of impending statehood. It asked audiences to consider courtship (and marriage, and the inevitable next generation) in the light of what it meant to be an American, to become an American. Suddenly, sexual love was joined to responsibility to the land, to fellow feeling and patriotism, to an implied critical review of the democratic process itself. The show even ends with a murder trial, conducted by ordinary citizens who are trying to invent a system to live by. And in wartime America, it created a new landscape for the musical theater, because in some profound way it was about the birth of us-of the country we were defending.

Oklahoma! has gone into hiding from time to time, but it has never disappeared. Not only has it survived by itself (there have been notable productions in every decade, including one at the National Theatre of Great Britain that brought stardom to Hugh Jackman), but it has also spawned many shows that have asked the same questions about America, citizenship, and the ever-evolving habits of lovers who are bound to explore democracy in all its facets. From Bloomer Girl to Hair to 1776 to Hairspray to Hamilton, we keep wrestling with the questions raised by Rodgers and Hammerstein's first hit. Without even knowing it, today's theater makers continue to repay the debt. Show Boat came first, with its serious intentions and somewhat integrated score, but it straddled the worlds of operetta and the musical play-a fascinating experiment, and a great musical, but not quite modern. Oklahoma! joined subject to form in a genuinely new way and created the template that continued to work for generations.

That template proved a fertile one for Broadway shows that have stood the test of time. And these shows shared not only a common worldview but also a common set of rules for construction. Writers learned how to erect an opening number, introduce a hero or heroine whose burning passion would drive the plot, send in the clowns, create an uncertain romance that would blossom, founder, and, usually, recover. They learned what it meant to confront a penultimate scene in which the nub of the issue came to a head and was then concluded with a climax that would send audiences home satisfied. They weren't always able to follow these ideas to a successful outcome, but at least they knew where they were aiming, even though it was sometimes at a moving target.

Fortified with a somewhat reliable set of blueprints, the Broadway musical had found its path-romance joined to social issues, sex, love, politics, and place. It questioned American attitudes while promoting American values, and it gave us a soundtrack suitable for courtship and moral authority in equal measure. It preached tolerance, promoted dizzy passion, endorsed personal responsibility, and ultimately told us that although we might have been carefully taught to hate and fear, we still had the capacity to overcome, to love and embrace. It continued evolving along this circuitously entertaining route securely and confidently until the '60s, and somewhat less steadily until the end of the '70s. But by then the path had begun to splinter.

Changing style in America accounts for some of the evolution away from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein model-nothing stays in fashion forever. Hammerstein died in 1960, by which time Rodgers was already at the north end of a long career. But the twin causes of the demise of the classic Golden Age Broadway musicals were-in some senses-social and racial. The grim victories of the civil rights movement, combined with the grim failures of the Vietnam War, with JFK's assassination casting a long shadow in the midst of it all, caused Americans to discard the naïve optimism that had fueled the spirit of Broadway musicals, even the most serious of them, since the triumphs of World War II. We had always been-or so we had thought-a harmonious, can-do nation. And then, one day, that conviction was gone.

There had been other dark periods in American history, of course, but by the '60s, we were able to watch it all on television as it unfolded, and that changed everything. No one enjoying Show Boat in the '20s at the Ziegfeld up on Sixth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street had any real sense of what life was like for African Americans down in Mississippi, even though the show was about miscegenation on the river. But once we saw the dogs attacking black children protesting in Birmingham on the nightly news in 1963, a new America entered our consciousness.

At the same time, the record business had for several years been steadily drawing the best young writers away from Broadway, courtesy of the rock-and-roll revolution. And many young audiences went with them. There was quicker money to be made writing hit records than there was writing for Broadway. You could get your stuff heard more readily over the radio, and it didn't need to come from a show or conform to the needs of a longer narrative, so you could do the work more efficiently. Rock somehow seemed antithetical to the narrative traditions of the musical play-many of the pop hits seemed content-free-so why bother? Early rock promoted the immediacy of rhythm, not the intricacy of melody or the complexity of character. Americans were thirsty for a new music, a new means of communication, a new approach to what they were feeling as the Eisenhower years plodded onward with no end in sight. And a huge and exciting African American talent pool, which had once been segregated in a separate record chart called the "Race" or, later, the "R&B" chart, was integrated into the regular pop charts as radio stations across the country finally came to their senses. That music exploded in popularity and created a brilliant new art form that had nothing to do with Broadway. Talent, as it always has, swarmed to the place where it was most likely to be appreciated and employed. In the '40s and '50s, Broadway writers were royalty in the music world. Songwriters planned for, and expected to have, a couple of chart hits with every Broadway show they wrote. Whether it was "Some Enchanted Evening," or "On the Street Where You Live," or "Hey There," or "Small World," Broadway scores were created to sell records as well as to tell stories. Even the once ubiquitous "Mutual Admiration Society," which spent ten weeks on the pop charts in 1956, turns out to have been a show tune, from one of Ethel Merman's rare flops, Happy Hunting. But by the mid-'50s, theater songs were sharing space regularly with rock writers and performers. And over time, Broadway began to become something of a musical backwater. It certainly wasn't a place Lennon and McCartney, Carole King, Paul Simon, or Billy Joel thought about first, though the Beatles did record a couple of show tunes early in their career. The era's Broadway writers-Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb, Strouse and Adams, Bock and Harnick-continued to do terrific work, but with few exceptions their songs didn't chart anymore. Louis Armstrong's version of "Hello, Dolly!" was virtually the end of the line until the rock anthems of Hair came along.

Back on Broadway, the most remarkable shift that occurred in the decade that followed was caused by a set of startlingly innovative musicals produced and directed by Harold Prince and written by Stephen Sondheim with various collaborators. After the 1970 show Company, the Prince-Sondheim team (with the book writer James Goldman) produced Follies (1971), which had the temerity to ask what happens when your dreams don't come true, when you wake up to realize that they never could have come true-that you weren't who you thought you were. Follies was emblematic of the America that had been rudely awakened from the dreams fostered by Oklahoma! and its descendants. In addition to Company and Follies, the Prince-Sondheim team went on to create A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along, all in a little over ten years. Critical reaction was diverse (though ever more convinced), but it was quickly clear that these musicals had changed the form and content rules forever. Prince and Sondheim flew high above the rest of Broadway during this period, covering everything from Manhattan marriage to American imperialism in Japan to English cannibalism on Fleet Street, but they did it with the kind of daring that's earned by years of deep experience in the more traditional forms. Both had long histories of working with experienced show makers: Prince had spent decades working on, and then producing, George Abbott musicals. He had worked as a producer extensively with both Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. Sondheim had grown up with Oscar Hammerstein II as a mentor and had his first hits with Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Jule Styne. Both men knew how to grab an audience and hold it, when to introduce a subplot, how to create a showstopper for a star. They were musical theater virtuosi before they leapt into the unknown. No matter how wild and unbridled their shows became, they were operating from a deep understanding of where the form had been and how it had succeeded. Their success set a standard, but it also hurled out a gauntlet: Could other, less grounded writers and directors take these kinds of leaps and land on their feet?

Well, not regularly. And by the mid-'80s, the American Broadway musical had lost its grip, even as some individual shows continued to succeed and break ground. To be fair, it was largely a decade of musical hits from England produced by Cameron Mackintosh, several composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Spectacle and big rococo melodies, once the hallmark of the early operettas of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml, returned (with the addition of some rock influences) as a principal attraction of shows like Cats, LES MISERABLES, and, of course, Phantom of the Opera. But in America, the techniques, the mechanics of show making, of musical storytelling, ceased to be passed on and built upon constructively according to tradition. The Rodgers and Hammerstein model seemed worse than dated-it seemed like a lie. Writers began trying to reinvent the wheel because they hadn't been raised in the traditions that would inspire the next steps, or because they simply felt duty-bound to reject a past they didn't believe in. Perhaps, by embracing rock, they embraced the not unreasonable half-truth that a backbeat and a narrative story are natural enemies. But in the process of revolutionizing the Broadway show, as much was lost as securely found. A few shows, notably the 1981 Dreamgirls, married a rock-style score to narrative strength-a memorable protagonist, the inevitable challenges of a changing era, the satisfactions of a fully told story with a moving conclusion. But for every sure-handed experiment that worked-Sunday in the Park with George, Tommy Tune's spectacularly imaginative production of Nine-there were a fistful of experiments that seemed lost in the dark-Starmites, Into the Light, and the legendary Carrie among them. And even a show like Sunday played as the experiment it was, not as a bona fide hit satisfying a general audience. That audience was still buying tickets for the deeply traditionally structured La Cage aux Folles, which had married a daring (for the time) story of gay romance to a formula plot that dated back to before Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It with You2 and a score that could have been written more than a decade earlier.

But in the '90s, as the British Invasion wound down, a kind of redemption began to be seen in American musicals-fresh ideas and craftsmanship. Urinetown, a genuine satire about a ruined world where people have to pay to pee, featured a book that actually had shape, and a smart score that took its cue from Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera and updated it with a modern kick. The turn of the century brought both The Producers and the underappreciated The Full Monty-beautifully shaped comic yarns with appealing scores, which took advantage of all of the traditional structural lessons of the Golden Age. Hairspray followed, and The Book of Mormon, which consciously aped and poked fun at the Golden Age classics while telling a rude yet sentimental tale in defense of faith no matter how unlikely or illogical its tenets may be. Mormon demonstrated that, even as America becomes more jaded, there's something inherent in an effective structure with a traditional song plot that taps into a fundamental human journey. Like The Producers before it, Mormon is a buddy story as much as a romance-a form borrowed from the movies and pretty much absent from Golden Age shows. But these shows figured out how to marry the bromance to the traditional musical theater template, and both are better for it. Wicked, which is a girl-girl buddy story, had a little more difficulty meeting the same challenge (though obviously, it more than succeeded in the end), but let's leave that story for another day.

The show that broke the mold again, in early 2015, was Hamilton, which opened off Broadway at the Public Theater, site of the birth of A Chorus Line forty years earlier. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda as a hip-hop-influenced retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, the show demanded an immediate Broadway transfer, as had A Chorus Line. As unusual (possibly insane) as both the subject and the style seemed for a Broadway musical, Hamilton discovered an almost shocking synergy between then and now. Its Revolutionary War heroes seemed completely contemporary, reimagined as smart, angry, unpredictably high-spirited rappers, and, indeed, within moments, it was almost impossible not to begin imagining the members of Public Enemy, or Jay-Z, Nas, and Ice Cube, as the natural offspring of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, internecine feuds and all. Revolution is revolution, whenever-and messy, too.

This ricochet effect created a palpable excitement in the theater, because it implicitly raised questions about how race, immigration (Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean), political cowardice, and class have been burning American issues since before the beginning of the nation and have never gone away. It also provided a fascinating discovery that should have been obvious: rap is a great way to tell a theatrical story. Unlike in classic pop-rock, where the lyrics tend to be abstractly poetic, ruminative, repetitive, or simpleminded pleas for love and/or sex, the best of rap wants urgently to communicate something bigger-a personal and political creed and a contextualized view of the world as it really is. As a key component of the hip-hop life, it is always on the attack, trying to change things and call things by their right name. In a rich and varied score full of jazz and rock influences, Hamilton uses rap sparingly, but when it does, the urgency is palpable.

Unlike rock, rap is a narrative form by nature, and Hamilton has a huge story to tell with it, as the very first iteration of the American landscape is built right before our eyes. Clearly more influenced by LES MISERABLES than by Rodgers and Hammerstein, it nonetheless follows the American rules in a number of fascinating ways, and always to its advantage.

* * *
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.

* * *
Within the story of how a Broadway show is built is an actual story as well-about several eras on Broadway, the characters who populated the street, the things they learned from each other, and the rivalries, partnerships, competitions, and collaborations that made the creative process as intriguing as the results are enduring; but also about the inexorable move forward, as each generation carried some of the past on its back while blazing trails into the future.

In form, this book somewhat resembles the "song plot" course that I teach at NYU. I'm going to examine the musical as it moves forward from opening number to first-act climax to finale, drawing examples from many shows that remain with us, and a few that have been lost over time. I've pulled examples from all directions, and left out a lot that could probably have served exactly as well as what I've chosen. You have to draw the line somewhere. I hope that by the time I get to the curtain call, readers will have a sense of how this work got done by the people who did it best, at a time when aspiring to do it well was the highest goal an American songwriter or librettist could set.

Copyright © 2016 by Jack Viertel



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