Book Spotlight: The Secret Life of the American Musical (How Broadway Shows Are Built)

Finished reading: The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel 📚

Are you a “Broadwaholic”? (It’s okay, we’re all friends here …) While I grew up in the NW and didn’t have much money to spend on big traveling Broadway productions all that often, when I finally did get to see them — they pretty much rocked my world. As a matter of fact, when I was fresh out of college, I volunteered at the venerable Portland Center Stage (pouring wine at galas) mainly so I could sneak into whatever plays were currently on the docket. Later on, I had the privilege of catching traveling productions like Rent, Miss Saigon and Hamilton (to name a few) — and my brain has never been the same.

Jack Viertel captures some of that same magic in The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built. Jack has produced many epic Broadway productions over several decades, and he’s seen it all …. He knows what propels shows to mega-stardom and successful runs all over the world — and he also knows what makes even the most expensive shows a total “snooze-fest”. The focus of this book is on the songs, specifically the “types” of songs that are present in most great musicals. From Guys & Dolls to Little Shop of Horrors, from to Gypsy to South Pacific, from My Fair Lady to Hamilton — Viertel runs the gamut and peels back the layers to show you what these (seemingly) different shows have in common under the hood. This is not to say that they all follow some “staid template”, but rather — to highlight how they’ve innovated on the song styles that have historically “worked” and song styles that, well … “haven’t” … While I came at this book from a writer’s perspective — this book is still a delicious backstage pass to Broadway history that any “Broadwaholic” would find fascinating.

Book Spotlight: How Musicals Work And How To Write Your Own

I recently finished reading the fascinating How Musicals Work: And How To Write Your Own, penned by Julian Woolford (and subsequently murdered the book with my highlight pen). Julian meticulously takes apart the Swiss watch that is the stage musical — piece by piece — pausing to show you the shiny innards, and taking time to explain precisely what makes it tick. He writes in vivid detail the history and variety of stage musical formats, pitfalls to avoid when crafting your own story, how to collaborate on the musical composition — and also what to expect when your newborn baby enters into production. Julian knows of which he speaks, as he has written and directed several musicals (many of which have had successful runs all over the world) and he teaches a college course on the subject in the UK.

I imagine this book will likely only appeal to those who are already interested in writing musicals, but honestly — I think this book would be helpful for writers of all stripes (and if you’re just a die-hard fan of musicals, now’s your chance at the ultimate backstage pass, allowing you to hop into the minds of writers and composers).

The world needs more musicals — do you have one in you? If so, this is a fine place to start …