Monday, April 25, 2016

Constructing Musicals: Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical

Cast of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, 1977. (Photo: Bobby Bank)

Jack Viertel’s new book The Secret Life of the American Musical (Sarah Crichton Books) is a gift for those of us who love musical theatre; I read it over just a couple of days and would have devoured it in a single sitting if time had allowed. Viertel, a one-time dramaturg, drama critic and arts editor who is now, among many other accomplishments, the artistic director of City Center’s Encores! series, has taught musical theatre at NYU’s Tisch School for the last ten years, and this volume emerged from his classes as well as from his extensive experience with musicals over the past three decades. I suspect it would be impossible to find anyone who knows more about the subject, and in The Secret Life of the American Musical he offers a comprehensive master class in how good musicals are constructed. Even for those of us who have seen and listened to hundreds of musicals, the book is a series of revelations – mostly because of his method of juxtaposing shows that are vastly different in style, tone and subject matter to show how the same principles operate across the spectrum.

Relatively early on Viertel quotes the critic and historian Martin Gottfried (the author of the gorgeously appointed 1979 coffee-table book Broadway Musicals): “Any show the audience likes is a good show.” It’s no surprise that Viertel, a producer and administrator, is drawn to that point of view, but it serves him well here. Some of the musicals he samples, like Rent and Wicked (the success of which he handles with admirable even-handedness, charting its evolution into a beloved millennial icon), are huge hits for which I have neither affection nor respect, but Viertel uses them – admittedly with less frequency than much better shows – to show how, in a populist art form, the canny manipulation of musical-theatre structure can drive a work to success. What he’s after isn’t a critical analysis of musical plays but a detailed examination of their mechanics. He keeps returning to Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, and the four critical and popular triumphs Rodgers and Hammerstein enjoyed in the first decade of their collaboration, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I. I’m not a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan but only a fool would quarrel with their architecture; they’re indestructible. Viertel’s repertoire is broad, however: he discusses the Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg operettas that predated Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat with easy expertise, and he takes us right up to the sensation of the moment, Hamilton. In between he draws on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, She Loves Me, Cabaret, Company, The Most Happy Fella, A Little Night Music, Mack and Mabel, Sweeney Todd, A Chorus Line, Hairspray, Camelot (which he admits to finding a bit of a bore), West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors, Sunday in the Park with George, The Producers, Annie, City of Angels, The Producers, The Wedding Singer, The Book of Mormon, Hello, Dolly!, Spring Awakening, It’s a Bird . . .  It’s a Plane . . .  It’s Superman , The Light in the Piazza, Caroline, or Change, and Finian’s Rainbow.

He divides his analysis into opening numbers, “I Want” songs, conditional love songs, “the noise” (first-act production numbers), second couples, villains, star turns, “tent poles” (numbers on which the plot pivots), first-act wind-ups, second-act openers, surprise numbers, subplot wind-downs, second-act production numbers, penultimate scenes and finales. His examination of opening numbers provides an example of the breadth of his approach. He covers the way “Comedy Tonight,” the now-legendary opening number of A Funny Thing, saved the show when it was in trouble in New Haven: choreographer Jerome Robbins, who’d been called in to give it a look, persuaded Stephen Sondheim to substitute it for the original opener, a charmer called “Love Is in the Air.” He shows how the opening of Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel doomed it to failure. He takes apart the inventive and distinctive openings of Oklahoma!, Gypsy, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof and A Chorus Line. That is, he attacks the same topic from three or four different vantage points.

I don’t wish to spoil the fun of discovery for other musical-theatre fans, so I’ll limit myself here to a few of my favorite parts of Viertel’s study. He demonstrates how Guys and Dolls alters the main couple/second couple dichotomy of conventional musicals by giving the two couples – Nathan Detroit, purveyor of the floating crap game, and his long-suffering eternal fiancée, the club singer Miss Adelaide; and Nathan’s friend, gambler Sky Masterson, and the Salvation Army maiden Sarah Brown – equal weight by linking their arcs (and their fates) to a single ingenious plot device: a bet Nathan makes with Sky, in the hope of making enough money from it to secure a location for the game, that he can get Sarah to go on to Havana with him. He contrasts Fiddler’s inspired “tent pole,” “Tevye’s Dream,” with the plethora of them that fill the first act of Hairspray. He talks about “the hill beyond the hill” – the moment in some musicals when you realize that what you thought was the premise masked what the play was really about (as in Gypsy, which turns out be about the power struggle and reversal between Mama Rose and her wallflower daughter Louise). He identifies The Book of Mormon as a kind of wild-card rewrite of, of all things, The King and I. The most remarkable discussion in the book, in my view, is of the next-to-last scene. Here he cites three musicals that shift toward their finales with moving dialogue exchanges that, in Viertel’s words, put the audience in touch with “the Gordian knot of the play and the way it is untangled.” In Gypsy it’s the moment when Rose, now relegated to an unimportant role in her daughter’s life once Louise has become famous as Gypsy Rose Lee, asks, “What’d I do it for?” and Louise answers simply, “I thought you did it for me, Momma,” cutting to the heart of her mother’s narcissism. In Fiddler on the Roof it’s the Rabbi’s answer to the question one of his flock asks after the Jews have been exiled from Anatevka. The question is “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come”; the answer is “We’ll have to wait for him someplace else.” And in The Music Man it’s the line that turns Harold Hill inside out to reveal the romantic inside the con man. When Winthrop, the little boy who has hung around him since he came to town, accuses him of tricking him with a non-existent band, Hill replies, “Kid, I always think there’s a band.”

Viertel has a sharp, unadorned writing style and though he wears his heart on his sleeve, his analysis isn’t held hostage by sentimentality. Even when you find yourself disagreeing with his taste, there’s not a moment in The Secret Life of the American Musical when you think he’s missed something or either overstated or given too short shrift to an element in one of the shows he’s exploring. On the contrary: he keeps revealing what you’ve been missing. I’ve loved Guys and Dolls since I acquired the original cast album at the age of eight or nine; I’ve seen half a dozen different productions and reviewed at least two; I even directed it with teenagers at a summer camp when I was in my early twenties. Reading Viertel on it, I felt as if I understood it fully for the first time. This is the best book about musical theatre I’ve ever come across.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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