From overture to final curtain, a close look at how musicals work.
As a screenwriter and drama critic, senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns five Broadway venues, and artistic director of City Center’s Encores! revivals, Viertel is well-steeped in Broadway culture, lore, and productions. He adores musicals, which, he writes, deserve the same kind of attention that literary scholars give to Shakespeare: a scene-by-scene examination, “trying to piece out why every line of dialogue was there, what every lyric accomplished, and how music supported whatever the fundamental idea of the show was.” That’s the project he brings to his class at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, focusing on four musicals from Broadway’s golden age, from Oklahoma! in 1943 to A Chorus Line in 1975. After that, he claims, “formal rigor and craft” faded. This copious book could well serve as his text. Besides the four iconic shows—Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, and South Pacific—Viertel adds others, including The Music Man, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, The Producers, West Side Story, Carousel, and The King and I. He also deconstructs more recent fare, including, among other productions, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, and even the current hip-hop musical Hamilton. Viertel is lively, deeply informed, and irrepressibly enthusiastic, but the problem with translating his analysis into a book is that readers may not know the musicals as well as his students do—students who likely have scripts, lyrics, cast recordings (he offers a list of his favorites), or videos. Nevertheless, he offers discerning insights about structure: the “I want” song that sets out the protagonist’s hopes, the “conditional love song” that starts a romance, energetic interludes known as “the noise,” subplots, next-to-last scenes, star turns, and resolutions. He examines, too, a good show’s “happily unpredictable” qualities.
An enlightening trip for lovers of musicals.