In 2009 I attended a lecture by Jack Viertel, a theatre-critic-turned-producer, elucidating the structure of Broadway musicals. Actually, “lecture” doesn’t really reflect what an intimate affair this was. It was more like a musical-appreciation lesson, held in the home of Sasha Anawalt as part of the NEA Institute fellowship for arts journalists writing about theatre that she oversaw. Anyway, Viertel broke down the way these shows work the way screenwriting guru Robert McKee deconstructs commercial movies. He even had musical theatre performers on hand to sing samples of each type of song he described as he detailed its emotional and/or narrative function within the show.
I’d seen only a handful of musicals at that time. I was fascinated to learn what a complicated and tradition-encumbered form it is, and how many different moving parts must to cohere just so to make something that, done right, looks and sounds effortless.