Thursday, June 27, 2019

"The Secret Life of the American Musical" by Jack Viertel - How Broadway Shows Are Built

Author Jack Viertel made a wise choice when he cast himself as the person to write this book on "How Broadway Shows Are Built."  He has served as a Broadway producer, an executive with the Jujamcyn Theaters in NYC, and has taught at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. The format for this book, "The Secret Life of the American Musical" comes from the curriculum he developed for one of the courses he taught at Tisch.

Appropriately enough, the author has ordered the chapters of the book to mirror the way in which a Broadway musical is built, from Overture to Curtain Call. Within each chapter, he discusses the choices that the creative team must make at each stage of the show in engaging the audience and telling the story. In each case, he cites the American  musicals he feels have done the best job of writing songs or dialogue that address the issue at hand.

Curtain Up discusses opening numbers. Here is an excellent example of the format the author uses with great effect throughout the book:

"Opening numbers can make or break a show. They have turned flops into hits (A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum), and their conception can be a cause for completely rethinking and reworking everything that comes after them (Fiddler on the Roof). They can be fabulously elaborate (A Chorus Line, Ragtime) or breathtakingly simple (Oklahoma), but whatever they are, they launch the enterprise. If they do what they're supposed to do, they hand . . .  any capable director the tools to do the job." (p. 19)

Along the way, Mr. Viertel offers anecdotes from an insider's perspective that add fascinating texture to this behind the scenes look at the artistic process. Among those stories is the recounting of the night when veteran Broadway actor, John Raitt, star of "Oklahoma," walked on stage before a performance of "The Who's Tommy." He was well known to  the Broadway patrons of a certain age, but not to most of the members of this young audience. "This promised a dangerous disconnect. 'Hello, everybody. . . I'm Bonnie Raitt's dad!'" (p. 150) What a wonderful example of the passing of the Broadway torch from generation to generation.

The author discusses his personal definition of the Golden Age of Broadway: "The architecture of musicals dates back to Broadway's Golden Age., the dates of which can be agreed upon by no one. My opinion is that it begins on the opening night of "Oklahoma"(March 31, 1943) and ends on the opening night of "A Chorus Line" (July 25, 1975. During those decades, musicals found a form that was so rock solid and so satisfying to audiences that the components of that form served as a road map for creators who revised and refined but never abandoned it.." (p. 4)

In virtually every chapter, these questions are addressed: "At this point in the show, what does the audience need in order to understand what is happening, in order to care about the characters, and in order to have the energy and the desire to keep paying attention?"

I am more than just a casual fan of Broadway. Like many others, my love for musicals began with listening to cheap cast albums that my parents had bought as premiums for shopping at the First National supermarket in our home town. This book not only reminded me of things I had seen and heard and loved over the decades, but offered insights into processes and dynamics I had only been vaguely familiar with. The book is a generous gift to lovers of musical theater.



Wednesday, June 05, 2019

"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje- The Master of Metaphor Is at The Height of His Powers

Like many readers, I first became aware of the incredible genius of Michael Ondaatje when I saw the film "The English Patient," and immediately ordered the novel upon which the film had been based. I was struck by the author's ability to make history seem relevant and current. His gift of using detailed place descriptions transported me as the reader to the site of the action of the narrative. Finally, his rich application of metaphor frequently dove beneath the surface of the action to address larger philosophical and psychological issues. These same gifts are ones he brings in spades to "Warlight."

Nataniel and Rachel are two young siblings, living in post-WWII England. Their parents announce that work requires the adults to move temporarily to Singapore, leaving the children in the dubious care of a character the kids dub "The Moth." During the ensuing months, The Moth is joined by a parade of peculiar individuals who visit and sometimes inhabit the family domicile. Are they all involved in a life of crime, do they all know the parents, when will Mom and Dad return? This uncertainty plays out as Nathaniel and Rachel build relationships with this strange cast of characters.

The mystery deepens when the children discover that the steamer trunk that their mother had dramatically packed over several days of preparation for her trip to Singapore was hidden in a remote corner of the basement. When the mother finally does return, she comes without the father, and brings no explanation of why she was gone.

I mentioned that Ondaatje is a master of metaphor. The meticulous packing of the steamer trunk and its subsequent discovery and unpacking is a fine metaphor for how he reveals the truth about the lives of Nathaniel, Rachel, their mother, the Moth, et al. It is only later in life when the adult Nathaniel has an opportunity to review dusty government documents from WWII that he is able to "unpack" some of the mystery surrounding his mother and what she did during the war and in the opening salvos of the Cold War.

The narrative is richly peppered with metaphors giving meaning at many levels. Nathaniel and his short-term girlfriend Agnes spend time on the Thames with the Darter, who works at illegally importing racing greyhounds from France. In the course of their plying the many sections of the Thames, they often explore canals, cuts, and small streams that are unknown to most Londoners. We learn later in the narrative that these forgotten tributaries have purposes that are not immediately apparent. The same can be true of some of the detours and excursions that the author offers as the story unfolds. We meet characters who seem to be making only a cameo appearance, but whose significance grows are the threads of the narrative are woven together.

Another metaphorical theme is that of maps and charts. They play a significant role in the lives of Nathaniel, his mother Rose, the Darter, Mr. and Mrs. Malakite. There is special mention made of contour lines, and the author is a genius at painting characters whose contour lines provide the reader with a trek up and down literary escarpments and defilades that often astonish. Nathaniel's exploration of the contours of Rose's life and career expose him to an awareness of the danger that she and her family and coterie faced during the war years and in the tumultuous era that followed.

Another wonderful metaphor is that of a fishing lure. A young crippled boy is a master at crafting fishing flies. He teaches the art to Rachel, showing her how to construct the lure and how to use it in subtle ways to gather in the fish. And then he disappears for quite a while from the narrative. He reappear as a man who has morphed into an intelligence recruiter of some renown, who is known as "The Gatherer."

The resulting work of art is a satisfying and fascinating historical and psychological profile of a handful of indelibly limned individuals, all seen in the dim and fog shrouded light of war and its aftermath. If you have an appreciation for literary storytelling at the highest level, then you will not want to miss reading this book.