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There’s much to enjoy in this lively dissection of the American musical that purports to reveal, as its subtitle claims, ‘How Broadway Shows are Built’. If you find yourself blanching at the notion that shows as different in style and substance as West Side Story, Hairspray and Hamilton can all be prised from the same creative template, The Secret Life of the American Musical may very well change your mind.

As an experienced producer of musicals and a top-table executive with New York-based Jujamcyn Theatres (owners of five Broadway theatres), Jack Viertel is a knowledgeable commentator.

Written with an agreeable fluency, his many insights are laced with an appealing wit – the book is littered with waspish asides and laugh-out-loud anecdotes – that adds to the pleasure of his step-by-step guide to how and why musicals work from overture to curtain call.

Viertel’s reach is historically and stylistically wide, ranging from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Sondheim and beyond, topical enough to include Broadway’s latest unexpected hit, the hip-hop accented Hamilton.

If there is a ghost in the machine of the American musical, he brings it to persuasive life here. Taking apart component elements of structure, musical content, narrative and character types, he demonstrates how, with a little manipulation, all can be reassembled into a coherent whole.

For all his fiddling with the nuts and bolts of the musical, The Secret Life of the American Musical is less concerned with the ‘how’ and more with the ‘why’ musicals succeed. Viertel’s thesis is well argued, his analysis of the key constituent elements – cleverly mapped on to many of Broadway’s biggest hits and some of its more eccentric curiosities – altogether convincing.

Musical theatre aficionados will find something on every page to illuminate, entertain or challenge received notions about a form that has never been more popular. There’s no jargon and nothing contrived here to prevent newcomers to the genre taking as much from a book that is wise, warm and, in its cogent dissection of the musical mould, more than welcome.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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