Few people know more about Broadway theater than Jack Viertel does. He comes at the form from all angles: He is the senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway theaters, and he’s the artistic director of the Encores! series at City Center. He’s been a theater critic, has worked on some of the most thrilling plays and musicals on Broadway, and has written his own musical, an adaptation of the novel “Time and Again.” He’s also been an avid theatergoer since he was a teenager.
I’ve known Jack for a very long time — he’s married to my father’s sister — and my most exciting moments in New York have been theater-related events with him. Sondheim would be there, or Patti LuPone or Nathan Lane, and these perfect New York moments have given meaning to my ongoing love and interest in theater. I’ve also audited Jack’s class in musical theater at the Tisch School of the Arts, at New York University, where I not only learned how some of the great shows were built, but also things like the importance of an eggroll in “Gypsy.” I talked to Jack about his new book, “The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built,” which comes out of that excellent class, and about the present, past and future of American theater, at his comfortable office at Jujamcyn on 44th Street, right in the center of Broadway’s pumping heart.
Jennifer Gilmore: You are an artist yourself. You began as a writer. You’ve also made a movie and a musical. And you play a mean blues guitar. Do you feel like your work in theater is an extension of your own process as an artist?
Jack Viertel: I feel like I’m re-learning everything. And I’m actually a better editor than a writer. I was a critic in Los Angeles, and then I moved back into the theater — creative producing. I felt it was where I could be most helpful, and how I could earn a living. But I might try the other again now. I’m feeling antsy. I’ve lived a long time. I have a kind of wisdom I didn’t have at 20.
Can you talk about what brought you to musical theater?
My grandfather built theaters, as a contractor. But he remodeled a theater on 50th Street and the owner couldn’t pay him, so he ended up with an actual theater. Later, my father wrote this play in college that got produced in 1937 — “So Proudly We Hail.” It was a different world then. There was no television, no movies. Lots of people had plays on Broadway. My grandmother Daisy used to take me to the theater all the time. I spent my teen years walking up and down these streets. I would buy the last row in the balcony for $3.50. That was ’62 and ’63 — I saw everything. Every flop, every hit. Everything. The great thing about theater — well, all art, really — is the way it is always in dialogue with the past.
I personally think every show up until say, “[A] Chorus Line” was about what it’s like to be a Jew in America. As you say in the book, the history of the musical is the history of short Jewish men yelling at each other.
And Cole Porter.
Yes! These are still stories of outsiders. Can you talk a little bit about looking back, about the history of this American tradition with respect to its connection to Jews and Jewishness?
So many of the people who made theater in the early years were Jewish, a gigantic preponderance of them. And most were either immigrants or children of immigrants. Most were from [Manhattan’s] Lower East Side, though some of them grew up in Yorkville. Some, like Richard Rodgers, were better off and grew up in relative comfort or more than relative comfort, but they were all Jews and they all knew each other as Jews. They all saw each other on High Holy Days and went to each other’s children’s bar mitzvahs. It was an entirely Jewish culture in which someone like Cole Porter I’m sure felt very much like an outsider, even though he was wealthy and a dandy and had plenty of success.
He was an outsider, too.
From a cultural point of view he was a different kind of outsider. He was from the Midwest. There were a few, not many; most were Jews who had formed a cultural bond with the city and with the city’s population that led to their being a very large Jewish audience in those classic years.
Lower East Side Jews or Upper East Side Jews?
Upper East Side. Even though a ticket was $5.40, that was a lot in those days. Moss Hart in “Act One” describes coming in with his aunt and sitting in the balcony, like I did, for 50 cents. So the balcony was filled with people like that, and the orchestra was filled with people like my parents, who had become relatively affluent and could afford it. But they were all Jewish. And there were Jewish comedies and Jewish musicals. Overtly Jewish. And then there were stories about America, like “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” that were written by Jews and dealt with what it meant to be assimilating. “Oklahoma!” is about what it means to become a state, what it means to become part of a population that you’re not already a part of.
What isn’t Jewish about that?
Well I think there are lots of outsiders. Theater has always been a population with a lot of gay people and a lot of people who essentially ran away from home to join the circus because they couldn’t get along in their own families. Jewish or not, they were trying to solve a problem about how to form a family around a population of people rather than blood family. But a good portion of all of that drama has a Jewish identity in some way or other. Even a play like “Death of a Salesman,” which is not about Jews, has surrounding it a long-standing argument about whether there was a Jewish undertone to that play — the language of it, the rhythms of it, even the subject of it. But Miller was clearly trying to write a neutral family. I don’t think he was actively trying to escape his own Judaism, he was trying to create a universal idea of a family, as opposed to, say, “Our Town,” which has no Jewish undertones.
When, say, Brian Dennehy plays that part, it’s really different from when Dustin Hoffman plays it. But that’s the beauty of theater, right?
Right, theater is totally dynamic. It’s totally wrapped up in the performance
And there’s no stage direction that says “Must be played as a Jew.”
No, but the last monologue of “Salesman” sounds so Jewish to people in terms of the cadences.
Can you talk about your role in making musicals?
I do whatever is required. In some cases I’ve just been tasked with delivering notes from producers to the director. On something like “Hairspray,” where I was in the trenches while it was being written, I was there early on with the writers and then when there were drafts for the producer, and we tried to figure out the best way to tell a story and where it’s gone off track and what will bring it back on track. My relationships with artists have been pretty good over all, in part because I came to understand that it takes a long time to gain the trust of an artist and you have to invest in that process. There’s no reason why someone who wrote the show should be listening to you unless you eventually make him realize that what you have to say has some value. It’s their show. They know what they meant, so why would you have any particular wisdom about it?
In another affecting segment of the book, you discuss your work on “M. Butterfly” and how one small element can unlock an entire production. Can you tell that story?
The second to last scene was a very complicated argument between the characters. It takes a little setting up. The story of “M. Butterfly” is the story of a French diplomat living in China who falls in love with a Peking opera star who turns out not only to be a spy, but a man. And the question hanging over this whole play is how could this man be in love with a man without realizing he was a man. He doesn’t just fall in love with her, he spends years sleeping in the same bed with her/him. It’s a very big metaphor about how the West misunderstands the East, but it’s also a play with a story, and I think the audience was having a very hard time hearing the metaphor clearly, because they didn’t quite believe the story. And these second-to-last scenes, which are very important scenes in plays and musicals, where you confront the whole nub of the problem of the play, really wasn’t playing, because the characters were arguing about the metaphor and the audience was wondering how the hell did this happen. I suggested this to David Hwang, maybe they just want to know how this guy would have fallen in love with a man and not known it. He said, “I can solve that problem.” He wrote one line, which was marvelous, something like, “I fell in love with a woman who was created by a man, and anything else falls short.” In the world of the play it just let the air out.
One of the most beautiful parts in your book was when you wrote about “Gypsy.” Can you talk about how the song “Let Me Entertain You” works here? “
Gypsy” is just about a perfect show. “Let Me Entertain You,” in particular, is sung by two little girls who have a kid act and they sing this dopey song “May We Entertain You” and they do some tricks and it’s a very carefully laid time bomb. You hear the song all through the show. And then at the end, when Gypsy Rose Lee goes out onstage, it’s an emergency, a classic “42nd Street” understudy becomes a star, but she has no music, so her mother gives the conductor “Let Me Entertain You.” She has to use it as a strip number. And you’ve started with these two little girls in tap shoes and white tights and ended up with this really sort of “seductive” promise of the delights of sex and nudity using the same music. And so it functions in a way that you wrap back through the whole show and the way the music has been used. Even if you don’t know your brain is doing it, it’s doing it and it makes it much more powerful than if it had been a new song.
How has the science of creating a musical changed? The 11:00 number, for example. The audience experiences the world so differently now.
A lot of it falls at the feet of the culture becoming so loosely defined. There used to be a relatively rigid and defined well-made play in the ’30s and ’40s and a reasonably well-made musical that emerged at the same time. And then the world changed. Rock ’n’ roll arrived, and doubt about the United States’ place in the world arrived in a larger sense. The idea that there was one way to tell a story began to break down. But the fact is that there are certain verities in storytelling, like the echoes we were discussing, that are helpful, and they’re helpful to human beings to understand how a story is told, and they tend to survive all of that. The Disney shows are for the most part classic shapes, just being told in a different voice by someone like Alan Menken, who writes a quasi-pop rock ’n’ roll sound. But they haven’t gone away.
How has New York City’s Times Square changed?
I have seen two transformations of Times Square because when I started coming in the early ’50s and ’60s it was still the sort of latter stage that had thrived in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s. Each business was an individual business. There were no chain stores. But there were none in America really. It had glamour to it. An old-fashioned, well-lit quality to it. All signs were bulb signs and then they became neon signs. Gradually the place fell apart. I actually spent a lot of time wondering when that deterioration began.
When I got here in the ’80s, it had really fallen into complete disrepair. It had become beyond the pale. What had once been strip clubs had become horrifying places like Peep Land, and you could go in and do God knows what for a dollar. Lots of drug dealers and prostitutes on the corner, trying to pick off the few people who were actually in Times Square. But the theaters all stayed in the same place because they were buildings. And then when Disney came in and redid the New Amsterdam Theatre after years of trying to clean it up without demonstrative success, that really started a renaissance.
Deal with the devil.
Yes. And so what’s here now is a very mall-like existence. And business has become very successful because it’s a tourist business. All the successful shows run much longer. The audience is much broader. And much less Jewish.
I don’t want to ask something as broad as how do you in fact write a great musical or how do you know it’s great. But what takes your breath away? What was the most groundbreaking?
You never know what’s going to be great. I think what I look for is something that has real drama to it. A really great protagonist with a really hard task in front of him or her; the forces lined up against him or her are significant. And great music. But you could be wrong. They tried to throw “Over the Rainbow” out of “The Wizard of Oz.” The other element in it, which is one of the reasons I think “Hamilton” has hit as hard as it has — not to take anything away from the show, simply as a piece of art — is when something interacts with the world that we live in in ways that we’re already thinking about. It’s very powerful. It’s one of the things that made “Angels in America” so powerful. One of the things that made “Death of a Salesman” so powerful. The death of the American dream. If this is what we’re arguing about anyhow, and someone has a really enlightened, entertaining and challenging way of looking at it, then that confluence of the world and the piece is explosive.
Are you saying, then, that “Hamilton” is the most groundbreaking musical?
Well, it’s the most groundbreaking in the most recent years. And groundbreaking is different than great. There have been a bunch of great shows, like “[The] Book of Mormon” or…
Yes, “Rent,” groundbreaking in a sense in that it really knocked down the last barrier of pop music on Broadway. There’s none now. It’s hard to believe when “Rent” came along there was still some resistance, but it was a long time ago! “Showboat” was a show that broke ground that no one trod on for years to come, because of its subject matter and its unified idea — that the journey on the Mississippi traced a period of American social history and musical history. It also was one of the first — if not the first — musical to feature a black chorus and a white chorus and not to use blacks as minstrels but as actual characters whose lives mattered as much as their white counterparts. “Oklahoma!” was a much simpler, clearer story about much realer people, and the score really was integrated and each character sang songs that only he or she could have sung. It was the most important event in modernizing musical theater. Of all.
This book was an expansion of your class at Tisch. What do you see your students doing now? What do they want?
The students want to be successful writers, and I would say that many of them end up in the business one way or another in which they can express their creativity, but relatively few end up as actually composers, lyricists, librettists. They end up as music directors, orchestrators, arrangers. They end up in some facet of the business. I think that’s true everywhere. When I look at the fiction classes I was in at Harvard, few of those people ended up writing fiction.
That was undergrad, though. In graduate school you really think you are going to be “that thing.”
Yes. There are very few actual creators. The people who are actual creators are actual creators. And there are lots of people who help that creation happen who aren’t actual creators. I think the successes of my career in the Broadway theater have been, with the exceptions of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “After Midnight,” which I actually did conceive, the successes of an editor, producer, a person with some brains and taste, but not a creator. And I think that’s okay. It’s not the best job.
Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the novels “Golden Country” (Scribner, 2006), “Something Red” (Scribner, 2010),“The Mothers” (Scribner, 2013) and the forthcoming “We Were Never Here.” Contact her on Twitter, @jenwgilmore