The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built

The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built

by Jack Viertel


$17.00 View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


A New York Times Bestseller

For almost a century, Americans have been losing their hearts and losing their minds in an insatiable love affair with the American musical. It often begins in childhood in a darkened theater, grows into something more serious for high school actors, and reaches its passionate zenith when it comes time for love, marriage, and children, who will start the cycle all over again. Americans love musicals. Americans invented musicals. Americans perfected musicals. But what, exactly, is a musical?

In The Secret Life of the American Musical, Jack Viertel takes them apart, 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 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.

Structured like a musical, The Secret Life of the American Musical begins with an overture and concludes with a curtain call, with stops in between for “I Want” songs, “conditional” love songs, production numbers, star turns, and finales. The ultimate insider, Viertel has spent three decades on Broadway, working on dozens of shows old and new as a conceiver, producer, dramaturg, and general creative force; he has his own unique way of looking at the process and at the people who collaborate to make musicals a reality. He shows us patterns in the architecture of classic shows and charts the inevitable evolution that has taken place in musical theater as America itself has evolved socially and politically.

The Secret Life of the American Musical makes you feel as though you’ve been there in the rehearsal room, in the front row of the theater, and in the working offices of theater owners and producers as they pursue their own love affair with that rare and elusive beast—the Broadway hit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536893
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/14/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 86,725
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jack Viertel is the senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway theaters. He has been involved in dozens of productions presented by Jujamcyn since 1987, including multiple Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winners, from City of Angels to Angels in America. He has also helped shepherd six of August Wilson’s plays to Broadway. He is the artistic director of New York City Center’s acclaimed Encores! series, which presents three musical productions every season. In that capacity he has overseen fifty shows, for some of which he adapted the scripts. He conceived the long-running Smokey Joe’s Cafe and the critically acclaimed After Midnight and has been a creative consultant on many shows, including Hairspray, A

Christmas Story, and Dear Evan Hansen. He was the Mark Taper Forum’s dramaturg and the drama critic and arts editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and he has spent a decade teaching musical theater at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Read an Excerpt

The Secret Life of the American Musical

How Broadway Shows are Built

By Jack Viertel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Jack Viertel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71125-2


1. 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." 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 1927 Show 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.


Excerpted from The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel. Copyright © 2016 Jack Viertel. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Tuning Up: or, How I Came to Write This Book

A Note About the Shows Discussed-and a Few Other Items

1. Overture

2. Curtain Up, Light the Lights: Opening Numbers

3. The Wizard and I: The "I Want" Song

4. If I Loved You: Conditional Love Songs

5. Put On Your Sunday Clothes: The Noise

6. Bushwhacking 1: Second Couples

7. Bushwhacking 2: Villains

8. Bushwhacking 3: The Multiplot, and How It Thickens

9. Adelaide's Lament: Stars

10. Tevye's Dream: Tent Poles

11. Coming Up Roses: Curtain: Act 1

12. Intermission

13. Clambake: Curtain Up: Act 2

14. Suddenly Seymour: The Candy Dish

15. All er Nothin': Beginning to Pack

16. The Little House of Joseph Smith, the American Moses: The Main Event

17. I Thought You Did It for Men Mama: The Next-to-Last Scene

18. You Can't Stop the Beat: The End

19. How Woody Guthrie-of All People- Changed Broadway Musicals Forever: Curtain Call

Listening to Broadway



Customer Reviews