State of the Art

The American musical gets dissected wisely by Jack Viertel

Author Jack Viertel explains what makes great American musicals tick in “The Secret Life of the American Musical.”
Author Jack Viertel explains what makes great American musicals tick in “The Secret Life of the American Musical.” Sarah Crichton Books

Think of the Broadway musical as a human body. In addition to a heart, head, voice and feet – the emotions, dialogue, songs and dances – it has a spine, a form that carries the narrative from the opening number to the closing curtain.

Jack Viertel shows us these bones in “The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built,” the best general-audience analysis of musical theater I have read in many years. It comes out March 1 from Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Critics like to claim America has produced just two cultural forms that truly belong to the New World: jazz and musical theater. Musical theater evolved from operetta, which has been popular since the 19th century in Europe, and operetta evolved from opera (which goes back to 1600). But the American musical uses a different vernacular, partly because its composers didn’t always have classical training.

Viertel knows this ground. He’s artistic director of New York City Center’s “Encores!” series and has produced or presented shows for almost three decades. He earned Tony nominations for “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and revivals of “Gypsy” and “Finian’s Rainbow,” as well as August Wilson’s nonmusical “Radio Golf.” He has also spent a decade teaching musical theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

He used the adjective “American” in his title because he didn’t want to deal with British megamusicals, such as “Les Miz” and “Phantom.” They may share elements of their American cousins: The “I want” song, the conditional love song (“I could fall in love if...”), the 11 o’clock number that sums up the show (as in “The Producers”) or jolts the audience (“Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy.”) They may carefully balance first and second couples (as in “Guys and Dolls”) or include splashy production numbers that do nothing to move the plot forward. (Is there any dramatic reason for the title song in “Hello, Dolly”?)

But Viertel feels – as I do, after reading this book – that there’s a specific narrative structure that has sustained American musicals for almost 90 years, from “Show Boat” through “Book of Mormon.” Reading his scene-by-scene, even song-by-song breakdown, you understand the pattern clearly.

Yet that form isn’t a straitjacket: It’s like a classic tuxedo or little black dress that adapts to all occasions and makes the wearer look good, whatever his or her body type may be. The leading man may be a cowboy or a Jewish dairyman or a drag queen, because the archetype serves equally well for “Oklahoma!” and “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Kinky Boots.”

Along the way, Viertel drops in a rich store of theatrical anecdotes from legend and personal experience. He analyzes performers’ styles and recommends recordings in “Listening to Broadway,” a long appendix. (He can be forgiven a slight preference for casts of shows he’s produced.)

We may all have noticed some of the elements he highlights in musicals on stage or screen: Disney has adapted them brilliantly for “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and other animated film classics. But I haven’t seen them analyzed as clearly and convincingly as Viertel does in “Secret Life.”

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