The blueprint behind some of Broadway's biggest hits

Studio 360
book cover

The book cover for Jack Viertel's "The Secret Life of the American Musical - How Broadway Shows Are Built."

What do “Oklahoma,” “Gypsy,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Book of Mormon” have in common?  They’ve got all the right technical elements to make them hits.

If you look past the cowboys, stage mothers and evangelists, you'll see musicals with remarkably similar DNA. Even contemporary blockbusters like “Hamilton” follow a traditional map. That’s according to producer Jack Viertel, and when it comes to musical theater, he’s a sort of human encyclopedia.

His book “The Secret Life of the American Musical — How Broadway Shows are Built,” reveals the blueprint that has been crucial to the most successful shows. 

“I never really wanted to do anything but participate in a theater in some way or other," says Viertel who is the artistic director of Encores, a New York series that resurrects vintage musicals. Though Viertel is a theater veteran, having worked in the business since the 1970s, he’s been a fan for much longer. His first musical theater experience was seeing “Peter Pan.”

“I was 5 years old and my grandmother Daisy and my parents took me to see Peter Pan at the Winter Garden,” Viertel says. “The end of the first act of that show where they all fly out the window in Neverland and the curtain falls on the last note of music is one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me.”

Viertel has trained as an actor, and is an incredibly prolific producer of Broadway shows like “Hairspray,” “Kinky Boots,” and “The Producers.” In all his hit shows, and, he would argue, in all successful musicals, there are a few key elements. The first is a good opening number.

“The minute the curtain goes up, the audience is in trouble,” Viertel says. “You don't really know where to look or what you're looking at and of course scenery helps tell you where we are, but a great opening number, I think, typically doesn't delve into the plot of the show quite yet, but sets a tone, introduces you to what the world of the piece is, when the piece is happening. And it should do all of that work, you know in an unexpected way that makes you want to get on the ride and and find out where it's going.”

Another must for a musical, according to Viertel, is the “I want song,” which is the main character explicitly saying (or singing) what his or her goal is. 

“Musicals are very different than most other forms of storytelling in that they keep stopping and starting their songs and dances and costume changes and scenery changes,” Viertel says. “If you don't have someone driving the story forward in a very specific way, it’s hard to succeed. And so one of the things that tends to work really well in a musical is a character stepping up and saying, ‘This is what i want. It's hard to get. I'm going to get it. I'm going to die trying if I don't get it. Watch me. Let's go.' And musicalising that moment is a challenge that we all call the ‘I want song.’”

Viertel says he’s seen musicals change a lot over his lifetime, but there’s something in the first decade of this century that has happened to allow musical comedies to become huge hits again. 

“Somehow in the last 10 years or whatever we've found new and different ways of making merry in a serious way,” Viertel says. “You know, it's a seriously good thing, I think. But those new and different ways do involve a fair amount of cynicism a fair amount of, you know, a gimlet-eyed view of the world.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.