The core ingredients of a hit musical

Terry Teachout has discovered the secrets of the surefire Hammerstein formula in a new book by Jack Viertel.

He lays them out point by point in an essay in Commentary magazine.

Most striking is his opening par:

Thirty-eight shows ran on Broadway during the first week of 2016, the best-attended week in the history of American theater. Twenty-six of them, including 19 of the 20 top-grossing productions, were musicals. Even though the musical is currently weathering a creative crisis of the first order, no other type of show is more central to the fiscal health of big-budget theater.

Read on here.

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  • For a show to become a classic and worthy of revival there is another ingredient: it must be able to be performed by amateurs. Good community groups, high schools, colleges can, and do, put on Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Brigadoon, The Music Man, and others regularly. And while performances may not be Broadway-worthy, they are respectable, fun, and worthwhile. Amateurs cannot muster the technical and musical challenged of a lot of the more recent shows like Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King and do them to an acceptable standard. You want a shot at an enduring classic? Make sure that less-than-professionals can mount a production.

  • Sorry I do not agree with Cubs Fan. Yes, by making it approachable for presentation by amateurs a musical may gain a greater public and perhaps a longer life-span. The implication, however, that shows like Phantom and Lion King are not classics and will not endure is simply not true. What makes the big blockbuster shows enduring is their very popularity. The older generation want their children to see them and so revivals will continue to be mounted – as we are now seeing with CATS, Les Miserables and others. How many of the younger generation have even heard of Brigadoon?

    My question for Mr. Viertel, should I meet him, would be: where does an iconoclast like Stephen Sondheim fit into the mix? There is no question he is one of the greatest writers of musicals and has achieved that status largely by breaking the mould. Few will have recovered their productions costs on first outing. Yet, they continue to be revived – and by many, revered.

    • but Stephen Sondheim transcends the simple “musical”. None of his work sticks to any sort of guideline for writing a “hit show”. They do, however, go out of their way to be great music, great art, and great theatre. What other composer of musicals would think of incorporating cell theory and 12-tone principles into a Broadway show? (other than Bernstein who did it once).

    • But consider a smash-hit musical like Miss Saigon. It did excellent business in theatres, yet lies outside the bounds of what an amateur production can cope with.

      It’s part of a different trend. Theatres (and opera houses too) have to find ways to lure in audiences who are already sated with multi-million-dollar special effects in cinemas. Audiences expect spectaculars. They even expect spectaculars in bog-standard operatic repertoire.

      • You realize that productions like Miss Saigon are outside the realm of possibility for amateur theatre BECAUSE of their multi-million dollar budgets, right? So comparing that to multi-million dollar cinema is hardly a fair comparison.

        • You need English lessons.

          [[yet lies outside the bounds of what an amateur production can cope with]]

          What part of that can’t you understand???

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