"Musicals—the great ones—are rarely about ordinary life plodding by. They’re about the outsize romance that can’t be controlled, the special world we’d love to live in for a while, the faraway time and place we’re waiting to be seduced by, the larger-than-life force of nature we so rarely encounter in real life."
I love a good musical. In fact, I love a few bad ones too. This sentiment pretty much sums up the why and, truth be told, there were many lines like this in "The Secret Life of the American Musical" that was a zing right to my heart - things I understood or agreed with immediately having lived in the process of production in some years or just being a loyal patron in others. I've always been a fan and I always will be.
So why didn't I love a book that was clearly written for the likes of me? Well, the first thing I can tell you is that this book is a lesson in why you can't judge a book by it's title. How disappointed was I that I hardly got any 'secrets' out of Secret Life? This title really leads you to believe that you're going to get the details of behind the scenes production. How creators collaborate, how they work with choreographers and composers, how staging decisions are made, what influences are carried in stagecraft and costuming...the list could go on. How fun that book would of been?
Unfortunately, this book is primarily about the evolution of the musical pieces that string along the narrative and how there might be a formula that makes a show work. Even though this topic still has merit, I was disappointed to find that though this 'secret' formula is true for some shows, it certainly is more of a guideline than a rule.
For example, a very well known musical, "Guys and Dolls", does not adhere to his proposed formula. In fact, two of the major production numbers in this show are 'noise makers' - they don't offer transition, revelation or decision to the story itself. They are just flashy, fun numbers - "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", and "Luck Be a Lady".
So, not only was I duped by what the 'secret' actually was, but I'm not even sure if it's that worthy of a secret to begin with!
To further injury, Jack Viertel peppers his thoughts of formula with ideas that sound like wisdom but are really just common sense:
"To make it work, the audience had to get attached at the beginning. You have to get on the ride when the ride starts."
You don't say?
"Musicals depend on these rhythmic energy shifts. Quiet thoughtfulness must be followed by noisy energy, and vice versa. In theatrical nourishment, timing is everything. If an idea overstays its welcome, the audience gets bored. If a new idea intrudes before the last one has been fully digested, the audience will be denied the proper introduction of a new pleasure and become confused or frustrated."
This is common knowledge across all entertainment mediums, it's just prettily stated here to sound smart. Think about how they put together a music album or even how a book is written. Nothing new here.
And here lies the crux of the matter, I had a hard time listening to Jack talk and am not sure if I was ever convinced he was an authority. He repeats himself so frequently that it becomes evident that he's just trying to fill out 336 pages with material that could be presented in half that. Here's a link that provides the most of the same information as this book, with the exception of a few points, and on ONE web page here.
Overall, I found this book to be boring and not just a little pretentious in voice. Not very enjoyable. "The Secret Life of the American Musical" is like an over produced show, lots of glitter, little substance.