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.
I thought of that lecture last week as I was watching If/Then, the new Idina Menzel-starring musical from the writers of the Pulitzer Prize-and-Tony Award-winning Next to Normal. The show is getting a limited test run here in DC before it opens on Broadway in March. A lot of it doesn’t work, but the experience of watching a big, complicated show in draft form was fascinating. Because the character Menzel plays is an urban planner by trade, Architect magazine commissioned me to review it. You can read that piece here.