This book by Jack Viertel is a New York Times bestseller, and it’s easy to see why.
For almost a century, Americans have been losing their hearts and losing their minds in an insatiable love affair with the American musical. It often begins in childhood in a darkened theater, grows into something more serious for high school actors, and reaches its passionate zenith when it comes time for love, marriage, and children, who will start the cycle all over again. Americans love musicals. Americans invented musicals. Americans perfected musicals. But what, exactly, is a musical?
In “The Secret Life of the American Musical,” Viertel takes them apart, puts them back together, sings their praises, marvels at their unflagging inventiveness, and occasionally despairs over their more embarrassing shortcomings. In the process, he invites us to fall in love all over again by showing us how musicals happen, what makes them work, how they captivate audiences, and how one landmark show leads to the next―by design or by accident, by emulation or by rebellion―from Oklahoma! to Hamilton and onward.
Structured like a musical, “The Secret Life of the American Musical” begins with an overture and concludes with a curtain call, with stops in between for “I Want” songs, “conditional” love songs, production numbers, star turns, and finales. The ultimate insider, Viertel has spent three decades on Broadway, working on dozens of shows old and new as a conceiver, producer, dramaturg, and general creative force; he has his own unique way of looking at the process and at the people who collaborate to make musicals a reality. He shows us patterns in the architecture of classic shows and charts the inevitable evolution that has taken place in musical theater as America itself has evolved socially and politically.
The “Secret Life of the American Musical” makes you feel as though you’ve been there in the rehearsal room, in the front row of the theater, and in the working offices of theater owners and producers as they pursue their own love affair with that rare and elusive beast ― the Broadway hit.
About Jack Viertel
For Jack Viertel, it all began in 1954, at the Winter Garden Theatre. “When I was six, my grandmother and my parents took me to see Mary Martin in Peter Pan. I saw this audience of more than 1,000 people, including me, have this sudden outbreak of unfettered joy. I wanted to have that experience again and again – and also help create it in any way I could.”
From that moment on, he was never interested in anything but theatre. “I went right home and promised all my friends that when I had my birthday party, I would make them fly.”
Over the last two decades, as creative director of Jujamcyn Theaters, as a dramaturg and as artistic director of the Encores! series at City Center for the last four years, Viertel has helped many a Broadway show soar to success – including M. Butterfly, Angels in America, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Hairspray and The Piano Lesson.
Viertel’s love of the stage was also inherited. A grandfather, Jack Shapiro, built the Broadway and Mark Hellinger theatres. His father, Joseph Viertel, wrote a play, So Proudly We Hail, that opened on Broadway in 1937. His older brother, Tom, is a theatrical producer. So when Jack worked on 15 plays in three years at the Pomfret School in Connecticut – and kept up his interest at Harvard – his family wasn’t surprised.
After moving to California in the early 80’s, he was hired as a theatre critic for a free weekly newspaper. Then he became the drama critic for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner. In 1985, Gordon Davidson, the head of the Mark Taper Forum in L.A, made him the theatre’s dramaturg. Two years later, Rocco Landesman, then the new president of Jujamcyn, which owns five Broadway theatres, remembered Viertel from a review he had written of Landesman’s musical Big River and decided to hire him. “It’s my job,” Viertel says, “to help figure out what should be in the theatres, and, where we’re also the producers, to work with the writer and director to help make the play or musical as strong as it can be.” His first play with Jujamcyn was David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, “which I brought with me from California in my suitcase.” It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1988.
Viertel was the dramaturg for Hairspray. “The art of dramaturgy is the art of asking questions about things you don’t understand. Sometimes it’s not clear why things happen in a certain way or whether a character is developing logically, and by asking questions you can help clarify a play or a musical or help invent new material that makes a work better.”
In 2001, Viertel was named artistic director of Encores!, which presents three vintage Broadway musicals each season. “It’s not so much finding shows we want to do – there are lots. It’s finding a season, with musicals from different eras, to combine wonderfully familiar theatre music and something that might stretch the audience, something they’re not expecting.”
Viertel has also written the book of a musical – Time and Again, a tale of time travel presented at the Manhattan Theatre Club four years ago. He’d like to be a librettist again. After all, he says, there’s always the hope of another “sudden outbreak of unfettered joy.”