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

The offering from The Great Courses on this topic was written by an insider for those on the outside looking to understand, with enthusiasm and compassion.  This book, in high contrast, was written by an insider for other insiders with all of the pretentious and joyless feigned superiority of a classic snob.  It’s this attitude that has kept most of the arts at arms length until I managed to find other on-ramps to enjoy them.

Viertel knows his stuff, of that there can be no doubt.  But the sad fact is that if you strip away the specific examples and commentaries, I could have written this book based solely on examples from Disney movies.  What he brings to the table is subjective, pure and simple.  To be honest, I question his authority on that front.  In his list of must-see shows, he lists It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman! in high regard, which is a steaming turd from the worst era of Superman fandom that even diehard Superman fans won’t go near.  How bad was it?  After it came out, it took Christopher Reeve to revive the character across all media because The Man of Steel had become the national joke.  ‘Nuff said?  Or to make this even more egregious, the author claims that at the age of 16 he gave his first critique to a director of The Man of La Mancha.  His critique was that “The Impossible Dream,” that single most famous and loved song from this show, should be removed… and he claims — without any defense whatsoever — that he’s right in this.  In other words, his credibility with me has been shot in the feet and the kneecaps.  I don’t pretend to be the greatest authority on this subject by far, but… c’mon!  You might as well scrap “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz at this point.

Bottom line, while I did get a few things out of it here and there (hence the second star), by and large any advantage this one had was killed by the author’s need to be smug.  I don’t recommend this one to anyone, and if you do happen to pick  it up, do yourself a favor.  Go for the written version and read it in small doses.  While the narrator did his best to tone down the attitude, binge listening on audio will only make you want to slap the writer.  Repeatedly.  With a steel gauntlet.

2 stars


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