The first one is The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel, which was, literally, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Publication date: 03/01/2016). Viertel has been involved with helping create Broadway shows for something like 30 years, so he has some credibility, and his approach to taking shows apart to demonstrate what the common features are and how shows tend to fit together I found to be quite intriguing.
In the course of creating this “deconstruction” Viertel considers overtures, “I Want” songs, “conditional” love songs, “the Noise,” production numbers, secondary romantic couples, star turns, “11 o’clock” numbers, finales, curtain calls and more, discussing not only what these are, but how they have been (and continue to be) used even in very recent productions which most folks don’t think fit the “classic” model.
I found the basic idea fascinating and the wealth of examples is enjoyable, even with shows I don’t know really well. But, the vast majority of the examples are selected from shows which anyone at all versed in American musical theatre probably knows, at least to some extent. Of course, as the title suggests, the focus here is on “American,” “Broadway” musicals. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does tend to leave out the whole genre of “non-Broadway” shows, to say nothing of shows from foreign sources. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. The subject is so wide that it only makes sense to trim it down to stuff which the author knows best, but I do wish that non-Broadway musicals (off-and off-off-Broadway) had been at least represented. Certainly The Fantasticks has to be considered an American musical of some importance, and there are others of some note which never transferred to Broadway, although shows which made this transfer were included.
I confess that I also found that what I interpreted as the author’s idea that there was something profound about his deconstructions and the cute titles he used for the various song elements seemed a bit overdone. As Aristotle pointed out in The Poetics quite a while ago, there are certain characteristics of all plots and, while there IS a good deal of room for variation, since musical numbers are often tied to major plot points and fulfill certain needs, it only makes sense that certain types of numbers tend to come at certain, more or less, established points. Hence, while I found Viertel’s “deconstruction” of the musical form quite interesting, it did not strike me as terribly profound. That’s not to suggest, however, that I don’t recommend this book to anyone with an interest in musicals. I did find it enjoyable and it did provide some insight into how various people have dealt with the problems of making a musical “work.” All in all, I found it a pleasant read, if not life changing, but maybe I’ve just done too many musicals….
The other book I read recently which I found of some real interest is The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer, published by Penguin Publishing Group (Publication date: 04/29/2014). Okay, I’m a bit (maybe more than a bit) of a Shakespeare nut, so almost anything which might provide some insight into his plays, is of at least some interest to me. While this book does get a bit dry at times, I found that it seems to be a pretty well researched study of the daily life of Elizabethan England, with chapters on The Landscape: cities, towns, villages, manors, etc.; The People: what they did for a living, how they functioned, etc.; Religion: this was a time of major change in acceptable religious beliefs which had a real impact on people; Character: racism, sense of history, superstition, etc.; Basic Essentials: language, forms of address, money, science, foreigners, etc.; What to Wear: even clothing was controlled by tradition and law; Traveling: how people got around; Where to Stay: the options available and how one coped with them; What to Eat and Drink: a subject of more concern than one might expect; Hygiene, Illness and Medicine: vital information in time of less than certain knowledge and serious illnesses; Law and Disorder: Elizabethan law didn’t work quite like modern law as we think we know it; Entertainment: while theatre people tend to focus on theatre, there were a lot of other options available. In short, as the title suggests, if one had thoroughly assimilated the information in the book, one MIGHT be able to survive while living in the Elizabethan era after traveling through time.
I do think this book provides some valuable insight into the general times, attitudes and life style of the era which gave us Shakespeare’s play (and those of Jonson, Marlowe, etc.). It’s really quite interesting, but it isn’t really exciting, unless, perhaps, you know very little about this period and feel the need for some information about the time. I did enjoy it, but it is, perhaps best taken in smallish doses. It’s just a bit dry to be considered “light” reading. On the other hand, it does seem to be well researched and documented. It is NOT, of course, primarily about Shakespeare and it does NOT have references as to how all of this shows up in Shakespeare’s plays. I think it’s useful in terms of helping one understand something of the life and times which produced these plays and so it could be of considerable assistance in terms of understanding some of them, but that was the idea behind this, I think: it’s not an attempt to make specific points in relation to the individual plays. I’d say it was a worthwhile book, but not the easiest read.
I understand that Mortimer has also written The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. This could also be of some interest (I understand that it’s written in much the same manner) as there is a lot of Medieval influence on the Elizabethan era, although I think I’ll probably wait a while before I take it on. I need a break from this sort of thing, so I’ll probably see what I can find in the library in the way of a nice, murder mystery.