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‘The Secret Life of the American Musical’ review: producer Jack Viertel takes us backstage

Jack Viertel, author of "The Secret Life of

Jack Viertel, author of "The Secret Life of the American Musical." Credit: Joan Marcus

THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL: How Broadway Shows Are Built, by Jack Viertel. Sarah Crichton Books, 312 pp., $28.

From the opening song that declares what’s at stake to the closing number that wraps it all up, most successful Broadway musicals share a sturdy structure. That basic design, hammered out by Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 1940s, still frames the characters’ antics in such we’re-not-in-“Oklahoma”-anymore shows as “Wicked” and “Kinky Boots.” Veteran producer Jack Viertel offers a savvy tour of this architecture in “The Secret Life of the American Musical.”

Expanded from Viertel’s classes for aspiring theater professionals at New York University, his book delves deeply and seriously into a handful of shows that best serve his analysis of what makes a musical work. But this is showbiz, so he also lards his text with plenty of jokes and asides. (Acknowledging the stormy collaborations of such composer-lyricist teams as Rodgers and Hart, he comments, “The history of the Broadway musicals is the history of short Jewish men yelling at each other.”)

Viertel favors backstage anecdotes, many of them often retold, but employed here to good effect. Take his chapter on beginnings. The primary job of the opening number, Viertel avers, is to answer the question, “What kind of show is it?” If the first song is a delicate ballad, the audience will be confused and unhappy when a knockabout farce ensues. For just that reason, Stephen Sondheim had to replace “Love Is in the Air” with “Comedy Tonight” in order to save “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” This well-known bit of theater lore illustrates how an opening number must perform its traditional function of orienting the audience and telling them what to expect.

In “A Chorus Line,” by contrast, the curtain rises on dancers scrambling to learn an audition step. Director Michael Bennett wanted the audience to be as confused and disoriented as the characters. On that opening night in 1975, “the Golden Age of classic Broadway had vanished into the mist, like Brigadoon,” Viertel writes.

Classics mingle with contemporaries as Viertel explains how various kinds of songs advance the story. The so-called “I Want” song can be belted by Ethel Merman (“Some People” in “Gypsy”) or rapped by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“My Shot” in “Hamilton”), but it must tell us who the protagonist is and what she or he wants. The “conditional love song” establishes an inappropriate couple with more in common than they realize (“I’ll Know” from “Guys and Dolls”). The first-act curtain may leave the characters flailing amid smashed dreams (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy”) or quivering with anticipation (“A Weekend in the Country” from “A Little Night Music”), but in either case, it must dangle enough loose ends to ensure that the audience returns from intermission eager to see what happens next.

Things get a little more complicated after that. Viertel acknowledges that in Act II any really good musical must develop a distinctive path, and the signposts along the way are not securely fixed. Perhaps that’s why he takes a personal intermission to sketch his own path from theater critic to producer for Jujamcyn Theaters. Now in his late 60s, he makes no secret of his affection for the gritty theater district that catered mainly to native New Yorkers before Times Square became a Disneyfied tourist playground. Now that Broadway is an international brand name, he sighs, some of its product is, inevitably, “more generic and less eccentric, less unusual, less New York.”

But recent hits like “Hairspray,” featuring a male star in flamboyant drag, and “The Book of Mormon,” sporting the most scatological language ever heard in a musical, still have plenty of New York edge. More to the point, the 21st-century attitudes of these productions hang comfortably on a framework that has supported every kind of musical across eight decades. Viertel’s knowledgeable, engaging blueprint of that framework is instructive fun for cognoscenti and general readers alike.

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