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Archive for the ‘Jack Viertel’ Category

broadwayJack Viertel has spent his life working in musical theater,  writing, developing, producing, wrangling–and always, simply loving the music. He has written an extremely knowledgeable book about that world, wry and humorous and filled with amusing incident. One of the Amazon commentators mentioned that it took him a long time to read this book because he had to sing every song–yes indeedy! When my vocals didn’t inspire, I asked YouTube to sing them for me–such a treat! And thanks to Mr. Viertel, I have even listened to shows I had avoided, such as Book of Mormon and Hamilton, and was entertained despite myself.

He has organized the book into what he considers the building blocks of every successful show, beginning with  1) The Overture, and progressing on to :

2) The Opening Number–“Curtain Up, Light the Lights!”
3) The “I want” song, in which we are introduced to the main character(s)
And so on.

Each chapter is illustrated with some wonderful song which people my age have loved since childhood–like the opening number Comedy Tonight! which starts Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with such joy, such verve! Apparently, the  show originally began with a lovely song which while charming had nothing to do with the rude, coarse and IRRESISTIBLE  slapstick farce which followed. Mr. Robbins pleaded for a baggy pants number, and Sondheim obliged:

forum9“Pantaloons and tunics! Courtesans and eunuchs! Funerals and chases! Baritones and basses! Panderers! Philanderers!  …..

….No royal curse, no Trojan horse,
And a happy ending, of course!
Goodness and badness,
Panic is madness–
This time it all turns out all right!
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

and we’re off, already laughing, already loving it. That’s what the opening number HAS to do, say Mr. Viertel–it has to win the hearts of the audience. And then there is the all-important Number Before the Intermission–it MUST grab the audience so that they will want to return to their seats after having downed that delightful cocktail they have been so longing for. AND, the second act must hold their attention, with the actors all on high alert for the following terrifying signs of audience boredom:

Program rustling
Coughing
Yawning
Sneezing (rare)
Snoring (not so rare as you might hope)

Viertel’s fine stories are the fruit of much experience: his company owns and operates 5 Broadway theaters and he has been involved with many many productions, and has worked in all stages of producing a show.  As a young man, he wrote scripts, not always successfully:

“This is awful,” he said, though he may have used a stronger word. “If you want to understand how to write the first encounter between two future mates, there’s a book that will tell you everything you need to know.”
This was intriguing. These scenes are damned hard to write. What was this secret book, the key that would unlock one of the mysteries of screenwriting?
“It’s called The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe,” he said. We were, unsurprisingly, deflated. A dryly written ornithological monograph was hardly what we had hoped for. But it was only eighty pages long, so we read it. It told us everything we needed to know.

And it actually does, in a way: he explains about the ungainly, awkward mating dance of the grebes, sometimes aggressive, sometimes not–and suddenly, they’re building a nest together. A charming metaphor!

The wonder and joy of a good show, the amazing vitality and imagination on display, the sheer fun–all has to be carefully built, arranged, organized. And paid for, of course. Mr. Viertel has done a grand job of explaining some part of the process, and has been very entertaining while doing so.

And now, Curtain up, light the lights! We have nothing to hit but the heights!

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