This past holiday season I was gifted the book The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built by Jack Viertel. It was a fascinating look at musicals, and I could go on about the fascinating information and behind the scenes looks in this book. However, I will be looking at one thing Mr. Viertel brought up and made very clear early in the book. And it can be considered “a key to success” of sorts for a musical. That’s not to say that as long as a show does this it will be successful, rather it’s just often one component to a successful show. It’s not the only component, however, it’s a pretty darn important one.
Full disclosure: All credit for this idea goes to Mr. Viertel. It’s because of him I’m writing this article. I got the idea from his book, and it is by no means my original idea. However, I’m going to discuss this idea and flush it out. I highly recommend this book and if you want to purchase a copy for yourself you can find it here.
Now I imagine when I said I have a key to success for a musical some of you automatically thought this is some Buzzfeed clickbait BS. Afterall, musicals are such finicky beasts, how can there possibly be a one size fits all perfect solution that a musical must have? And frankly, if I were you, I’d agree with you. Musicals are so different from each other, how can there be something that fits almost every single musical?
Honestly, you’d be surprised how simple the answer is. The answer is change. Again, this isn’t the one stop fix all for a musical, but it is almost essential. Now you might be thinking this is obvious. All musicals have change, that’s the whole point of a plot. I’m not necessarily referring to this. Yes, a changing plot is important, however what I’m referring to and what Mr. Viertel talks about is a far bigger change. A very large number of successful musicals are set either directly in, or against the backdrop of the dawning of a new era, a major change in the world that will greatly affect their life, or the changing times.
Let me first explain this point using two of the examples Mr. Viertel uses in his book and then I’ll expand on it myself. Think of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s about a simple farmer, in a simple Jewish village which is very set in their ways. However, the future of this village is unsteady as a “fiddler on the roof”. Not only do Tevye’s daughters flip Jewish customs on their head by choosing who to date and eventually marry, but Tevye himself slowly comes around and lets it happen. However, not only are Tevye’s daughters breaking the mold, but the future of the village and their lifestyle is on the edge. Throughout the entire musical we see the Russian presence in this small Jewish village. Police officers and guards who live there are a constant reminder as to how precarious the existence of this village is. And as you all know at the end, Tevye, his family, and the rest of the cast are forced to leave.
What this setting does is it sets up a family, and an entire community stuck in how things have always been. However, both within the community with Tevye’s daughters, and outside of it with the Russians their existence is extremely tumultuous. The audience is on a hook wondering on a personal level what will become of the daughters who want to be independent and go their own way. But also, they are wondering what will become of the town and its people. From a historical perspective we know. But Fiddler on the Roof humanizes this, and makes us feel for them.
Another example of this that Mr. Viertel gives is The Music Man. However, this is a different type of change. In “Rock Island” we see the salesmen discussing and debating credit and the new way to sell products. As you hear many times in the song a lot of the salesmen think cash is the only way to go. What Music Man does here is really interesting. Everyone knows that Harold Hill and his antics are the main piece of this show. However, even before Hill is introduced, we see these men being faced with change. What this does is it shows that these men are struggle with new things, and don’t totally know how to handle them; in turn this makes Hill’s hijinks having a heavier hinderance to the people of this town who already don’t like change and now have to deal with a Music Man.
There are many other shows that fit this template as well. For example, Hamilton. Not only is it set in a constantly shifting political environment but Lin Manuel Miranda also drew parallel’s today’s world and political environment.
The Sound of Music is set against the backdrop of World War II and Miss Saigon is set against the Vietnam War. While the plots of these two musicals are very different from each other the concept is the same. You get to witness the characters stories and the plot in light of turmoil and war which directly affects them and their actions.
Les Misérables is set right in the midst of change. Shortly after the French Revolution and in a very constantly changing landscape in France. Again, everything the characters do, and how a lot of events go down are dependent on what is happening in their world.
Disney’s smash hit Newsies is all about change. The newspaper boys go and cause the change. Once again, almost all of what the characters do is about enacting a massive change in their world and fighting for justice. The only difference is rather than being amidst the change, in this musical the newsies CAUSE the change.
For what I hope is obvious reasons Come from Away also fits this billing. 9/11 is an event that forever changed world history and this musical observes the characters who were directly involved.
This begs the question are there any musicals that aren’t set against a massive change in their world? The answer is definitely. Once, Next to Normal, Waitress, Dear Evan Hansen Sweeney Todd, among many others are all shows where there isn’t a major change in the outside world, or where there is a major change threatening the characters lives as they know it. So, you might be wondering what do these shows do well that they don’t necessarily need that challenge?
If a show doesn’t have a massive change, or something that threatens a part of the characters existence from the outside, then there needs to be a really good story happening internally. In Next to Normal it’s the death of Gabe and Diana’s mental illness, in Once it’s the relationship of Guy and Girl and the heartbreak. Characters need to be threatened in a musical. A story of any sort, never mind just a musical where the characters are comfortable, really isn’t much of a story. So, by adding a massive challenge like a war, an constantly changing political landscape, or just something that’s threatening day to day life in the characters time gives the author something else for the characters to react to other than the story.
However, in the absence of that challenge an author can choose to make the characters own struggles and character arc the main story. This can work extremely well, however, it is a bit of a risk. If the characters own struggles aren’t interesting enough, or are fairly minor the audience is going to grow bored very quickly. So while it’s definitely possible, adding minimal outside confrontations or challenges is generally there to help aid both the story and the character arcs.