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Beauteous Musical Books


Though it may be a cliché, it is nevertheless true that writing the book for a musical is a terribly misunderstood craft. Moreover, book writers cannot win. If the show is a success, its book is rarely mentioned as a reason why. If the show is flawed or completely fails, the blame is immediately put on the book writer. Many people think the book is just the dialogue, but there is much more to it. Dramatic structure, choices of what to musicalize, and the ability to set up a song properly all factor into the job.

The books I have chosen to discuss don’t constitute a 10-best list. Indeed, I have avoided some of the most obvious choices, shows such as Gypsy, 1776, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Hello, Dolly!, Cabaret, and Oklahoma!, all of which are largely acclaimed examples of good book writing. Instead, I have chosen 10 shows that all have detractors but which I consider successful, sometimes in spite of flaws, in part because of the quality of their books.

She Loves Me
This 1963 succes d’estime was playwright Joe Masteroff’s first attempt to write the book for a musical, and he did an unusual thing: He wrote this adaptation of Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie (also the basis for the films The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime) as a complete play, then handed the script to songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They found the opportunities for singing to be so bounteous that the show ended up with far more music than usual. Nevertheless, Masteroff provided a strong dramatic spine, beautifully drawn characters, and generous story-driven momentum. This quiet, romantic show was overshadowed in its initial 301-performance engagement by bigger, noisier entertainments (Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl), but the years have proven its durability and appeal, thanks in part to two well-received Broadway revivals by Roundabout Theater Company in 1994 and 2016. It is, I think, and at long last, finally considered a classic musical.

My Fair Lady
You may think that this 1956 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe megahit is recognized as an example of a great book for a musical, and perhaps in one sense that’s true. However, I find that often its quality is ascribed to its source material, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, rather than to Lerner’s masterful adaptation of it. Indeed, in its last two major professional productions, on Broadway in 1993 and in the West End in 2001, English directors Howard Davies and Trevor Nunn were both allowed to put sections of Shaw’s text that Lerner had cut, including an entire character, Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s sister, Clara, back into the musical. Lerner removed Clara because the principal reason for her existence, a private tea party scene at the home of Higgins’ mother, had been transformed into a public journey to the horse races at Ascot in which Clara’s presence was dramatically superfluous. Putting her back elsewhere in the show, where she is little more than window dressing, just adds bloat. Lerner also did much more than just edit Shaw. His inspired decision to expand the play by musically dramatizing offstage events and his ability to write dialogue in expert Shavian style (Higgins’ speech about the beauty of the English language that provides the intro to “The Rain in Spain,” for example) were key to his book’s success. Here’s hoping director Bartlett Sher sticks with Lerner’s script for Lincoln Center’s 2018 revival.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1947 concept musical that follows a man’s life from his birth to his 35th year made money but was considered a failure because it fell short of the tremendous commercial success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel. Famously, its flawed second act, in which Dr. Joseph Taylor Jr. forsakes serving his rural hometown to work as a doctor for the wealthy in Chicago, seems to say that country life is good and city life is bad. Of course, it doesn’t actually say that; Hammerstein even goes out of the way to explicitly say the reverse in one dialogue exchange. Still, I’ve seen it leave that impression in the four full productions I’ve attended over the years. Only John Doyle’s 2014 condensed chamber version Off-Broadway managed to clearly convey Hammerstein’s message: That a good man can still lose track of himself. I don’t care, however. Hammerstein’s inventive use of a Greek chorus to both voice Joseph Jr.’s innermost thoughts and feelings and provide commentary gives the deliberately conventional story the kind of size it needs to soar emotionally, and when Joe finally wises up and heads home I never fail to be moved. Oh, the score ain’t bad either, but it’s really the wise and humane book that gets me on this one.

Anyone Can Whistle
The general wisdom on this 1964 piece of musical theatre of the absurd is that Arthur Laurents’ unwieldy, pretentious, hard-to-follow book gets in the way of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful score. Rubbish. Sondheim’s score wouldn’t even exist without Laurents’ vivid original characters and quirky story about an economically dying town and the false miracle devised to save it and its venal politicians. If Sondheim’s score is wonderful (and it is), then it is so in part because of the Laurentian creations it is dramatizing. I’ve particularly never understood the “hard-to-follow” accusations. I find it all quite clear, and if people are so confused, then why does Laurents so consistently land his abundant laughs? (I’ve seen at least six stagings and, trust me, he does.) It’s faults? It does tend to run its themes into the ground a bit before it ends; a two-act structure, not the three-act one it has, would probably have been a better idea. These days Sondheim belittles it as the smart kids in the class showing off. Personally, I think that’s part of its cheeky, subversive charm.

I saw this 1977 Thomas Meehan (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Martin Charnin (lyrics and direction) hit from standing room shortly after it opened, but I wasn’t persuaded, mostly because of my jejune disdain for musical comedy at the tender age of 23. However, in the summer of 1981 I went on tour with it to L.A. and D.C. for three months total, selling souvenirs, LPs etc. in the lobby. As a result, I got to see it many, many times (again, from standing room), and what I got was an education in good structure and proper pacing. In particular Meehan makes damn sure to have the right laugh at the right time to keep the audience consistently engaged. I still find the score rather uneven, though all the best numbers are in the right places, for which, again, Meehan is at least partially responsible. His book is a Swiss watch of comedy.

Sunday in the Park With George
Back in 1984, the naysayers for this Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical about the French painter Georges Seurat, and they were legion, whined that Act 1 was complete as a show and Act 2 was superfluous. You still hear the complaint, but not as much. It’s nonsense, of course. What the authors wanted to say about the difficulty and costs of creating art was at the heart of the second act, which is set 100 years later. The structure is theme and variations, and Lapine employs it to maximum effect. The connections among the characters in each act are meticulously planned and elegantly rendered. Is there a more cathartic moment in musical theatre than the second act climax, “Move On”? Yes, it’s a great song, but it has also been spectacularly prepared for by Lapine’s rock-solid construction.

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Terrence McNally learned a lesson in storytelling on this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel about Molina, an effeminate gay window dresser, sharing a jail cell with Valentin, a macho straight revolutionary, in an unnamed South American country. Originally, to escape into fantasy, Molina narrated to Valentin the story of one musical movie that starred his beloved Aurora, also known as the Spider Woman. The audience couldn’t keep that story in its head for the whole show while also following the Molina-Valentin plot, John Kander and Fred Ebb couldn’t successfully unify their twin scores (one for the movie and one for the characters), and the result was chaos. It took McNally realizing that Molina should instead narrate individual scenes from many movies, relieving the audience of the need to follow twin dramatic threads, to turn the show into a success. Happily for Kander and Ebb, they didn’t have to rewrite quite as much as he did. It’s been 24 years since Spider Woman debuted on Broadway in 1993. It’s time for a revival!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart based their ingenious book for this bawdy 1962 musical on the Roman comedies of Plautus, which means that it inevitably traffics in extremely low, sometimes even vulgar humor. Stephen Sondheim’s score doesn’t dramatize the heavily plotted shenanigans; instead, it serves as a respite, giving the show moments in which to breathe but never derailing the farcical momentum. It’s also written in a more refined, almost intellectual humorous style, but the tonal mismatch isn’t a problem; instead, one complements the other. Still, at the end of the day it’s the book that makes this show work like gangbusters. The score is ornamentation, though of a very high order.

Fun Home
Playwright-performer Lisa Kron made an extremely assured debut as a book writer with this 2015 adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s popular autobiographical lesbian-coming-of-age graphic novel. Kron made an audacious choice to split the leading role in three: “Small Allison,” “Medium Allison,” and “Allison,” the last in the process of writing her book. She also told the story in nonlinear fashion, mixing up events from different time periods with stunning effect. These choices gave the material richness and depth and more fully explored the maturation of her central character. Yet Kron always kept the action clear and engaging. The story is ultimately heartbreaking, but the telling of it in Kron’s inspired construction proves purgative, not depressing, just as it was for Bechdel in real life. Composer Jeanine Tesori’s score, to Kron’s lyrics, is a vital component, but in this case I think what makes the show is the way the story is told.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think that John Weidman’s book for this musical about a very dark strain in the American psyche, seen by exploring the lives of the various people who assassinated (or tried to) a succession of American presidents, may be the best book ever written for a musical. Allowing the various assassins to interact with each other, the inspired metatheatricality of setting it in a cosmic shooting gallery, the compact but detailed character writing are all assets, as is using a musical revue structure rather than a more conventional plot-oriented one. Stephen Sondheim’s coruscating score works with Weidman’s book hand in glove, and the result is ferocious. The climactic scene of the assassins materializing in the Texas Book Depository to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with killing John F. Kennedy is so shattering that they recorded it for both the original 1990 off-Broadway cast recording and the 2004 Broadway revival one. How often does an entire book scene get that treatment?

Bonus: The Golden Apple
Well, I was going to stop at 10, but seeing the extraordinary Encores! presentation of this 1954 John Latouche–Jerome Moross masterpiece this past weekend changed my mind. Just because it is through-sung doesn’t mean it hasn’t got a book. Resetting the story of the Greek myths of The Iliad and The Odyssey in turn-of-the-20th-century Washington state, Latouche finds consistently amusing character parallels while also managing to put the story of Ulysses and Penelope’s troubled marriage front and center with affecting clarity. The Golden Apple is a unique show told exactly as its authors wanted without bowing to any established rules, and it is never going to be embraced by everyone (as the mixed reception from critics and on chat boards showed). Still, its glorious mixture of show biz, sentiment, psychological exploration, and cultural dialectics, all told in brilliantly rhymed lyrics set to Moross’ giddy and gorgeous Americana score, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, at least for some of us.

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