On June 8, 2016, Center Theatre Group donors at the Fan level and above were treated to an Up Close Dialogue between Producing Director Douglas C. Baker and Broadway theatre veteran and The Secret Life of the American Musical author Jack Viertel. Viertel, whose recent New York Times bestseller is subtitled “How Broadway Shows Are Built,” is currently the senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates five playhouses on Broadway. He got his professional start in the business in 1985, when he was hired to be the dramaturg for the Mark Taper Forum.
Viertel delighted the crowd gathered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Rehearsal Room with his in-depth knowledge of the musical theatre genre, an art form he believes should be not only enjoyed for its content, but also studied and appreciated for its unique form. He told the crowd that while he doesn’t believe there is one formula for success in a musical, there are patterns to this “very peculiar structural animal.” They include the opening number, the "I want song" (which gets audience members on the ride of the show), the “conditional love song” (like “If I Loved You” from Carousel) and even the “I hate you conditional love song,” (best exemplified by “I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls).
So why does the first song of the second act—think: “It’s Too Damn Hot” in Kiss Me Kate—often feel so peripheral to the rest of the play? The Broadway crowd of old had a bad habit of leaving the theatre at intermission and not making it back in time for the beginning of Act II. Viertel also shared the history behind the narrator’s “To be continued” line at the completion of Act I of Into the Woods. It was a late but necessary addition to a play that broke musical theatre conventions by creating such a total sense of closure at the end of the first act that audience members often left during intermission.
After spending about an hour in dialogue with Baker and discussing audio clips of famous numbers, Viertel took questions from the crowd on topics such as the recent trend of turning popular Hollywood films into musicals and the jukebox musical sub-genre. All the while, he peppered his responses with references to musicals as chronologically and thematically diverse as Oklahoma!, Finian’s Rainbow, Gypsy, Ragtime, and Hamilton.
Afterward, Viertel signed books and chatted with donors in the lobby—an appropriate ending and homecoming of sorts for a theatre-lover who fell for the art at age 6, when he got Mary Martin’s autograph on board the Super Chief train as it carried the star from Los Angeles to New York. After seeing Martin perform in Peter Pan soon after, Viertel told the group, “I didn’t want to do anything else ever again as long as I lived except find some kind of life in the theatre.”