The Stage, On The Page

The-Secret-Life-of-American-Musicals-by-Jack-ViertelThe Broadway musical is as American an art form as jazz or the blues, and it has patriotically survived the recent British invasion led by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The term “musical comedy” has become rather archaic, since we find very little humor (but there is some) in bombastic productions like LES MISERABLES or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Yet troupers are still singing and dancing on the Great White Way, and to record-setting business, too; the New York “legit” theater has never been healthier.

I know a few people who don’t like musicals on principle. It annoys them whenever a character breaks into the story to sing: it’s unnatural, unrealistic, even silly. (Now when a hobbit puts on a magic ring to turn invisible, they’re perfectly happy. But we all have our own contradictions, don’t we?) My niece, one of the most devoted Broadway fans I know, attends nothing but musicals. But to non-aficionados they’re all pretty much the same, distinguishable only by the setting or, more rarely, by the intrusion of a contemporary type of music (HAIR, RENT, HAMILTON). A devotee would certainly disagree, but how many of them have sat down and truly thought it through? Any presentation that demands the attention of an audience for nearly three hours has to lead it on some kind of narrative ride. My biggest takeaway from an eye-opening new book is how much commonality most well-made musicals share, even when very creative people are racking their brains for brand new ways to surprise and delight the folks in the seats.

There are general principles that most of the best, longest-lasting musicals observe, and they are deconstructed for you in THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel. It’s packed with anecdotes and lore, authoritative without forgetting to be fun, the best general-audience guide to “how Broadway shows are built” (per the subtitle) that I’ve ever encountered. Mr. Viertel is senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of the three big Broadway owner/producers (see more below), and he has also been a dramaturg and newspaper critic. Over a long career he’s worked with both the creators and the landlords, combining an expert’s breadth of knowledge with a fan’s appreciation and enthusiasm. I used to joke that I was the only straight man in New York who saves all his Playbills. Evidently I was mistaken.

“Building” a musical, no matter what kind, requires some basic materials. When the curtain rises, the audience immediately needs to know, Where are we? Who are these people? How can I tell them apart? And why should I care? From there, a remarkable number of classic pieces — including the current hottest ticket in the world, HAMILTON — use similar patterns to create interest and pleasure in their audiences. “It’s only in hindsight that the patterns emerge,” Mr. Viertel writes, and he takes pains to assure us that writers and composers are not working from a cookie-cutter template. But in his hands it’s amazing to compare creative solutions that achieve common goals. Not all hit shows follow these patterns, and not every show contains every single one, but there’s much more agreement on what the author calls the “classic chassis” than you’d expect at first thought.

The book is organized like a two-act show. From the overture to the curtain call, Mr. Viertel illustrates structure with historical examples, trivia, and backstage color told with savvy assuredness. He shows how the “song plot” advances storytelling: despite my friends’ distaste, there are perfectly valid reasons why somebody starts singing. We learn about the “I want” song, which establishes a difficult goal (like “My Shot” in HAMILTON); the conditional love song (there’s a dramatic reason it’s “If I Loved You” in CAROUSEL instead of just “I Love You”); the “noise,” which uses comedy and kinetics to recharge the audience in the third or fourth song slot (“Hasa Diga Eebowai” in THE BOOK OF MORMON); the song which is basically there so a big star can shine; the Main Event, sometimes called the “11 o’clock number”; and lots more. You find yourself nodding your head at aspects of the musical experience that you’ve frequently seen but never really noticed, like the Second Couple (Will Parker and Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA!, Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) which provides counterpoint to, and frequently comic relief from, the romantic leads. It’s a little like finding out how a magic trick works, but the net effect is to make you appreciate originality even more.

razzleMr. Viertel’s book is about the show. A second one is about the business. RAZZLE DAZZLE by Michael Riedel recounts the colorful, sometimes oddball history of the people who own the Broadway houses and battle each other for the best bookings. Mr. Riedel has been the wildly popular theater columnist for the New York Post for nearly twenty years; he’s probably the second most influential journalist in the field, just behind the lead critic for the New York Times. He is impressively well plugged in, and has either witnessed or heard first-hand accounts of some hair-greying events in a wobbly industry that was almost snuffed out by the slow deterioration of its Times Square neighborhood by the mid-Seventies. Now, of course, Times Square, most notably the formerly notorious 42nd Street, has been transformed into a booming, profitable family destination — and the Broadway theater owners had a great deal to do with it.

A pause for some definitions. Despite how it sounds, the difference between a “Broadway” and “off-Broadway” production is not location, but the number of seats in the theater. Five hundred and above makes it a “Broadway” house, no matter what’s playing there. One hundred to 499, “off-Broadway.” Below 100, “off-off-Broadway.” At Lincoln Center, for example, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, current home to THE KING AND I, is “on Broadway.” Under the same roof, down one flight of stairs, is the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, much more intimate and thus “off-Broadway.” And neither one of them is located in the Times Square “theater district.” So it’s the auditorium, not the address. There are exceptions, like Carnegie Hall, which usually hosts individual musical performances rather than scripted theatre; and the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, home only to two “free Shakespeare in the Park” shows each summer.

This distinction isn’t simply academic. As you have probably guessed, money is involved. The actors, musicians and backstage crew work under different contracts depending on the producer’s potential gross. Furthermore, some Broadway houses are physically much smaller than others, so they tend to book straight plays, where every cost is more modest, and those productions can certainly yield profitable hits too. But big brassy shows, in the largest theaters, are where the real money is and where the tourists flock. If you’re waiting for discount tickets at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square and you fancy a play, go straight to the far window. Non-musicals only. Nobody’s there. Smaller doesn’t equal worse: much of the most exciting theatre in New York, including a few reduced-scale musicals, is performed off-Broadway. But razzling-dazzling singing and dancing in Broadway-sized houses is what each of these books is overwhelmingly about.

Mr. Riedel chronicles the rise of the Shubert family, Broadway’s biggest landlord, beginning with its hardscrabble upstate origins and finally its brave move into New York City, where a loose consortium actually referred to as “the Syndicate” — its founders were the five largest theater owners at the turn of the century, who controlled the best houses in the biggest cities across America — intimidated its rube competition as surely as Vito Corleone and his boardroom peers. We watch the bold, determined Shuberts buy and build, and suffer its own clan’s fools as must any family-run company. On July 7, 1972, the feckless, drunken surviving Shubert was deposed as head of the Shubert Foundation, which legally owns the theaters, by family lawyers Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld. “Bernie and Jerry” then became responsible for the Shubert Organization’s greatest years, and for a notable era were the most powerful producers on Broadway. Mr. Riedel has the most intimate access to these people, and my main beef is that he gives the other players short shrift. But after all, the Shuberts are arguably where the action is. They are far and away the largest landlord, with 17 Broadway theaters. The competing Nederlander organization owns 9, and Jujamcyn (Mr. Viertel’s employer, which is mentioned here only in passing) has 5.

The colorful business story is interspersed with fascinating producers’-eye views of how a few landmark shows (at least in a business sense) made their way to the stage: EQUUS, A CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS, CATS, NINE, CHESS, 42ND STREET, and more. Creative talents like Michael Bennett and Andrew Lloyd Webber deal with both adulation and ignominy before our eyes. And the long slog toward the desperately needed rejuvenation of Times Square — featuring Atlanta architect John Portman, he of the glass elevators, and his mammoth Marriott Marquis Hotel, which plants a gentrifying flag in the seedy district (its lobby is five floors above the hoi polloi at street level, and there’s a Broadway theater inside the hotel) — becomes a life-and-death struggle from the producers’ point of view. (“Where’s Broadway going to go? New Jersey?” asks a skeptical Mayor Ed Koch about the neighborhood.) Again, the book is too Shubertcentric: we also don’t get that close a look at interlopers like the Walt Disney Company, whose seemingly daft 49-year lease of the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater was the key to the revival of 42nd Street.

In the analog era I might have noted that some of the location description might be a little off-putting to people who don’t know New York City that well: I might have complained that there was no theater-district map. But everybody can locate these places on their frickin phones by now, so all you really need for SECRET LIFE and RAZZLE DAZZLE is a love for the American musical, and/or a curiosity about how it’s served to you. One’s for the notes. The other’s for the C-notes. But you can’t have Broadway without both of them.

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