Bob and I are fans of the American musical. The second radio program that we did for Theatre Talk in 2011 was about the American musical. Later we talked about musicals with Steve Stettler, a program we have already posted on this blog. We are fortunate in our area to have wonderful musical productions at affordable prices. Each year Barrington Stage has a classical musical on its main stage and new musicals on its second stage. Weston usually has two musicals a season on its main stage, one classic and one contemporary and a smaller musical on its second stage. Oldcastle Theatre has been doing wonderful small productions of musicals, like last season’s Big River. The Berkshire Theatre Group also offers musicals at the Colonial and on its other two stages. Then there are high school and community theatre productions which are delightful. It may take a while before we see Hamilton, but meanwhile we are enjoying the wonders of the American musical in our own backyard.
While waiting for the musicals to begin again we recommend reading Jack Viertel’s book The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built. Viertel, who is a Broadway producer, has worked at the Mark Taper Forum and produced the City Center Encore series, is a perfect guide to the musical and its evolution over time. The book starts with the early days of the musical and goes up to and includes Hamilton. Viertel shows what makes a successful musical, song by song, giving examples from many musicals. As he talks about the changes, he also talks about what is constant, what engages audiences and what is special about the musical form. His discussion of primary and secondary plots is enlightening. He highlights those musicals that changed the form. What is essential over time is not only the music, but a story and characters that engage the audience. His discussion of the eleven o’clock number, the I Want song, the second act opening number are all informative. He writes with humor as well as knowledge that comes from his years of experience and his pleasure in the form and the great performers. As an added bonus, Viertel reviews available recordings of the musicals he discusses as well as some outstanding musicals that he does not discuss. This is a must read for anyone who cares about the unique contribution of the American musical to world culture.
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