Some people love to watch swans on the water. I can’t blame them, it’s a gorgeous sight. There, on the flat surface of a pond or lake, beautiful birds glide by, graceful and long-necked, pristine and white. They lift their wings more than flap. They don’t splash. There’s something perfect about the above-surface swan.
Okay, but I like what makes it glide. Underneath that smooth surface, wide, waddling feet are peddling like mad to achieve what looks like effortless motion. The submerged part of the bird looks ungainly but it’s what makes the surface appearance work. That’s what I like about creative structure. Instead of the eye-capturing, realized vision, it’s the mechanism that made the imagined vision real.
That mechanism is what Jack Viertel talks about in The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built. Like any other devotee of musical theatre, Mr. Viertel adores being swept away by a show and he’s been one of those lucky audience members for more than sixty years. He’s also been a theatrical critic, an artistic director, a producer, a dramaturg (Mr. Viertel explains a dramaturg is the “noodge” who asks questions about a developing theatrical piece that either improve the production or get him killed) a writer and teacher of the American Musical Form. And, as much as he loves the perfect production of a musical spectacle, he also loves taking a show apart to see what makes it work. Or, with some shows, why it doesn’t.
It turns out that a large part of any musical’s success depends on understanding what the audience needs at any point in the show. After the overture, an audience needs to know the who, where and when of the story. You could tell them but nothing is more boring than bald exposition so musicals have opening songs to set the tone and the scene of their stories. Next, an audience needs to meet the central characters and learn what makes them tick so the leads sing “I need” songs to tell the crowd their greatest desires. After that, the plot needs to ease back a notch so it’s time for a few loud, crowd-pleasing numbers. What seems like an effortless story is actually a well-structured form.
But art pushes form and as times and tastes change, Broadway musicals have changed as well. The plot-shy, song heavy vehicles my grandmother knew changed into the integrated story/song/dance vehicles my mother adored. The standard boy/girl plot was dropped as a requirement in my day (Thank God!) and the current Broadway hit has contemporary music styles integrated into a history-based plot to show just how revolutionary the American Revolution really was. Viertel tracks how each decade of musicals reinvented and redefined the form while honoring the internal guidelines from the overture through the eleven o’clock number that brings down the house. His enlightening narrative is shot full of show-business anecdotes and examples that affirm musical theatre isn’t just a consciousness-elevating art-form; it’s very big business as well. It’s the quintessential blend of high and low art; thought provoking but entertaining and, at best, accessible to everyone. Mr. Viertel helps us understand why that is.
Sure, there are folks who insist they don’t like musicals just as there are people who simply loathe swans. The world is big enough to contain all types. Nevertheless, the greatest anatidaephomes must admit those long-necked birds look great on the water. And when a production flows with grace and joy, seated musical haters have been known to stand up and cheer. Thanks to Mr. Viertel, we can cheer along with them and never let the haters know the show that got past their prejudices was constructed to be easy to love.