We've Got Magic To Do

Staff PicksWest End Library

We've Got Magic To Do

American musical theater inside and out

Here in Washington, we’re starting to get into the summer: the 90 degree weather, the building humidity and the drawing call to the beach. The transition from spring to summer, however, reminds me of my favorite awards show of the season: the annual Tony Award ceremony. As you take your last opportunity to review the season’s cast recordings, catch up on show highlights online and make your award predictions, why not pick up a book about this incredible art form?

Something Wonderful:  Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum
Let’s start at the very beginning. After all, the beginning is always a very good place to start. Rodger and Hammerstein’s musicals form the bedrock of the modern American musical, and Todd Purdum’s exploration of these shows and the men who created them are a fantastic way to rediscover their importance. Even more pertinent with the acclaimed revival of Oklahoma! currently running on the Great White Way right now, Something Wonderful is a joy to read in its historical and intellectually rigorous examination of this influential partnership -- with an approachable, affable text. Music and theater historians mark Oklahoma!’s 1943 opening as the beginning of a new era on the musical theater stage. By fully integrating the spoken word, song and dance into a show designed to explore the human experience in its beautiful shades of grey, Rodgers and Hammerstein changed what the American public thought a musical comedy could be. This was a fantastic read!

The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built by Jack Viertel
Looking back on theater history, Broadway producer Jack Viertel dissects the form of the American musical. Viertel posits that nearly every modern musical is built on a form created by Rodgers and Hammerstein: almost archetypal structures created both musically and dramatically. After devouring this book, I found Viertel extremely convincing in his argument. From the big expository number to your lead’s “I Want” song and the comical interlude of “Couple B’s” problems, Viertel runs through musical theater history -- proving this winning formula and the ways creators are beginning to innovate and redefine this structure. If anything, this book is a lovingly written romp through the history of the musical stage that inspired me to re-listen to many classic shows with new ears.

Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden age of Industrial Musicals by Steve Young and Sport Murphy
If you’re looking for something completely different, crack open Steve Young and Sport Murphy’s history of industrial musicals. A theater phenomenon I had no idea existed until discovering this book on our shelves at West End, Everything’s Coming Up Profits is a journey into industrial musicals: shows peaking in the 1950s to 1980s designed for employees’ eyes only. Corporations turned to lavishly produced Broadway-esque musicals looking to educate and motivate their employees. A book twenty years in the making, Young’s exploration of the musical’s detour from New York is a fascinating, eye-opening look into American corporate culture. It’s a treat to both read cover to cover, and as a flipped through coffee table experience.

Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History by Glen Berger
Reading this book brought me right back to my days as an undergrad, sitting with my fellow musical theater nerds and wondering what in the world was happening with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as press coverage detailed budgets spiraling out of control, the reported constant reworking of the show and catastrophic accidents. With visionary director Julie Taymor at the helm, who broke all the rules to great acclaim with her (still running on Broadway!) production of The Lion King, Spider-Man was supposed to be both a critical and commercial success. In this book, however, Glen Berger details the controversy and problems that happened behind the scenes as he developed the musical’s book with Ms. Taymor. An unflinching memoir of a show with the greatest of intentions going horribly awry, this is the retelling of a behind the scenes story I had wanted to hear for years and years.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes and Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Wafflings, Diversions and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim
With this list starting with Rodgers and Hammerstein, it feels appropriate to end this list with another luminary of the stage: Stephen Sondheim. These two volumes, which collect the lyrics of all of Mr. Sondheim’s shows from 1954-2011 are an incredible, personal view into the mind of one of theater’s greats. It’s hard to appreciate the intricacies of a Sondheim song as its sung -- the wordplay happens too fast, the music is just too complex, and production surrounding it too fantastic. However, when written down with annotations and thoughts from Sondheim himself, one gets a new appreciation of his craft and art. These books work on so many levels -- to look up a favorite song or two, to examine the arc of a single show, to think of Sondheim’s career cover to cover. I’ve returned to these two volumes over and over again.