I’m about to blog about theater again, which I know I do an awful lot for a rank amateur fan of the medium, writing in a completely different field. Part of that is that I’m practiced enough at analyzing and learning from literary fiction that I don’t always need to puzzle the process out in writing anymore. The more divergent a work is formally from what I’ve studied, the more I tend to need to blog my way through my reactions to it. I also think that analyzing such a markedly different storytelling medium from the one I use helps me step back, consider writing from a larger perspective and hopefully attain some cross-pollination of ideas. And, hey, I'm relatively new to New York and thus still discovering just how much and how diversely I love theater.
Last week I read Jack Viertel’s new book The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Classic Broadway Shows are Built. I’ve encountered many books on the forms and formulae of prose fiction, both in classes and out, but never one on any type of theater. I’m sure much of what Viertel’s text describes would, to a playwright or librettist, seem either self-evident or second nature. But for me it was like finding a Rosetta Stone to decode much of why I love the musicals I do, and why those that don’t work for me don’t. For every “industry” phrase I’d heard before—the “I Want” song, the “11 o’clock Number”—there were many more terms and rules I hadn’t. Reading Viertel’s book was like learning a genre-specific Freytag’s pyramid, and my brain split open the same way I’m sure it must have the first time a teacher drew that iconic triangle on a chalkboard.
Just as I was tearing through The Secret Life of the American Musical, I happened to catch two excellent performances that both stretched the applications of Viertel’s model—one in the direction of postmodern experimentalism, the other towards Old World tradition. (This is probably the place to note that Viertel openly, almost joyfully acknowledges that his formula applies to not even close to all musicals, and is as interesting to see frustrated as followed. I always find this caveat intensely admirable, especially when it comes from a gifted scholar.)
First, I caught the last performance of Clare Barron’s “chamber piece” I’ll Never Love Again at the Bushwick Starr. This was an amazing production based on Barron’s teenage diary, featuring in its first half an entire cast of actors all playing “Clare” simultaneously, in a collage of many ages, races, and genders. The show is sometimes musical, especially in its first half, and for my money there’s a clear opening number/“I Want” song very early in the show. In this case it’s extremely evocative of mood but not plot-bearing—the “sophomore choir” (an embarrassing designation, one of the Clares explains, because they have to wear robes rather than tuxedos and gowns like the senior choir) composed entirely of Clares sings “The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond,” while walking the audience through the early psychosexual thrills and traumas of a budding crush on a member of the senior choir, in spoken breaks between the verses.
Viertel has this to say about the role of the “I Want” song, usually the second number in a traditional musical: “The stage may be full of people singing and dancing, but the I Want song tells the audience, ‘Watch this one. This is the important one. This is the one with the superhuman passion.’” It’s usually easy, and fun, to identify this song in a standard musical. But how (if at all) does the formula apply when everyone on stage is singing with once voice but speaking with disparate ones, representing the same person—and all of that person’s countless, sometimes contradictory selves?
The performance of “Loch Lomand” is also effectively the opening number, of which Viertel identifies two most common forms—in the first, “we get to meet and hear from everyone,” with all or most of the company on stage at once. In the second, “we are left in the hands of one protagonist, who sets the scene with no help from the rest of the cast.” Obviously I’ll Never Love Again pushes this category as well. Is there a crowd on stage, or is this a solo? Barron hints at the answer by calling her work “a chamber piece.” We’re hearing from everyone, and simultaneously in the hands of one person. Maybe, to some extent, that’s always the case in a well-told story.
(It also may not be particularly productive or in the spirit of Barron’s work to view it through this overtly structural formula—as Ben Brantley noted in his review, the production asks that you “go with your intuition instead of your intellect,” which certainly isn’t what I’m doing here. But I loved the piece on stage, and I’m fairly confident I “went with my intuition” in doing so, so hopefully I’m allowed to examine it a little in a different light now.)
A few days after my trip to The Bushwick Starr, I saw The Marriage of Figaro for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera. (As little as I know about theater in general, I know much less about opera—but let me say here for the record that I do know that there is a difference between opera and the Broadway musical. A while ago on this blog I tried to draw a straight line between Steven Universe and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories; I just like to compare things, okay?)
Obviously Figaro would be, if anything, an ancestor/inspiration for the rules Viertel outlines in his book, not a conscious adherent to them. And it could hardly have been more different, in form or staging, from Barron’s piece in Bushwick. But seeing it with Viertel’s book on the brain, it seemed to have the same mix of structure and surprise, including in its opening. In this production the overture amounted to a kind of quotidian ballet—the huge set rotating on a turntable, showing the characters one by one at work (or at rest) in each chamber of Count Almaviva’s castle. “We get to meet everyone,” as Viertel would have it—but not hear from them; the first song is the duet “Cinque, dieci, venti” (Five, ten, twenty) between the principle couple of Figaro and Susanna—again, close to one of Viertel’s common types of opening number (opera buffs, please don’t strike me down for using the phrase in this context), as the couple “sets the scene with no help from the rest of the cast”—but it’s a duet, not a solo.
I know that Viertel’s formula was a freshly acquired hammer for me, and so I almost certainly took my seats at the Starr and the Met eager to see as many nails as possible. Both I’ll Never Love Again and The Marriage of Figaro were lovely and virtuosic in many ways that defy analysis, or at least this frame of analysis. But I did find it fascinating to see two works of theater, one new and experimental, the other intensely traditional, both using the apparently timeless “rules” of musical storytelling mindfully—and yet with no preoccupation with adhering to them. And if any opera experts out there want to try to retroactively map the 11 o'clock number in The Marriage of Figaro, I would love to hear about it.