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The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built
By Jack Viertel
Book Review by David Levy
Structuring his book like a musical itself, Viertel leads us from opening numbers to finales with chapters devoted to "I Want" songs, conditional love songs, songs to bring down the curtain at the end of an act, songs to raise it again at the start of the next, and so on. While this may sound like a rehash of earlier guidebooks by the likes of Lehman Engel, Viertel offers his own take. For example, you will find neither "charm songs" nor "eleven o'clock numbers" among the chapter headings, although Viertel certainly discusses songs that fall into both categories. Viertel's unique experience stewarding shows on the road Broadway as both dramaturg and producer ensures this addition to the field is worthwhile.
As a successful commercial producer as well as Artistic Director of New York City Center's Encores! series, Viertel has seen the construction of a wide variety of hits, flops, and everything in between at a level of detail that few others can claim. With his background in dramaturgy informing his analysis, Viertel has the rare ability to back up his emotional responses to shows with clear-eyed examination of how songs function within their shows and why they workeven when their successes occasionally contradict the rules he's outlining.
Unlike many of his predecessors who sought to diagram the architecture of great musical theater, Viertel is writing for a popular audience, not for practitioners, although many writers could benefit from Viertel's wisdom. Limiting himself largely to examples drawn from well-known, successful shows from Show Boat to Hamilton (with a couple of digressions for sentimental favorites from his own career, like The New Moon and The Wedding Singer), Viertel presents an accessible yet sophisticated discussion. An extensive appendix on "Listening to Broadway" helpfully guides the reader to recordings of all of the shows discussed, plus a few worth hearing that didn't make the final cut in the main text. While this is unlikely to lead many readers to new discoveries, it's a helpful list should you want to coordinate your listening and reading habits - and given the nature of this book, you surely will.
With breezy, conversational prose and just a touch of memoir-like detail when appropriate, The Secret Life of the American Musical should make for an enjoyable read for any Broadway fan.