What’s better than seeing a Broadway musical? Seeing a Broadway musical and reading books about the show’s stars, its inception, or even crafting a musical itself.
Sometimes, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing a live musical staged at one of the great Broadway theaters. Whether it’s a live-action version of The Lion King or any note heard from Hamilton, the connection between performer and audience member is unlike any other medium. But like theater, books can transport its readers to another time, and when the two mediums converge, entertainment is to be had for days.
Below are four books all musical theater lovers must read, and three autobiographies you ought to check out, too.
‘The Secret History of the American Musical’ by Jack Viertel
When Jack Viertel set out to write a book about musicals, he implemented certain perimeters that ensured no one would be running at him with pitchforks if he dare omit their favorite show. That being said, there are four Viertel focuses in on, Gypsy and Oklahoma largely carrying the narrative, and probably close to two dozen musicals mentioned at some point in the book.
It’s written like a musical, with the first chapter acting as an overture, introducing the themes and motifs to be revisited throughout the book, and moving deep into the history of “I Want” songs, the evolution of the Act One finale, Intermission and its affect on a show, the “fun-if-you-happen-to-catch-it” Act Two opener, the “11 o’clock” number all the way through the finale.
One of the biggest joys in reading this book was picking out mentions of shows that I have memorized. Hamilton is referenced more than a few times, and shows that despite all its groundbreaking, Broadway-stereotype shattering hype, Lin-Manuel Miranda did write a traditional musical. Defining the purpose of the songs becomes a game. “My Shot” is obviously the “I Want” song, but it’s not until Viertel reveals that “What’d I Miss” really serves little-to-no purpose to the story and harks back to the “fun-if-you-happen-to-catch-it” days.
Buy it on Amazon.
‘Hamilton: The Revolution’ by Lin-Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter
Okay, obviously this book would be on this list this year. But, beyond being a detailed, everything-you-could-want-to-know breakdown about the show, it is also a phenomenal look at all the different elements it takes to pull a show together.
The chapters alternate between essays written by Jeremy McCarter, a former New York magazine writer turned employee of the Public Theater, and the songs from the show printed across pages of photography from the show with numerous footnotes written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
With the creation of this book, Hamilton has cemented its history not just in music, but in print. Decades from now, when film is surely outdated and music is accessible via chip implant, we will still be reading like our cavemen ancestors centuries before us, like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton and America’s founders 200 years ago. This book will allow the legacy to carry on and capture the insanity that this broadway show has sparked in millions of people.
We’re pretty sure with the publication of this book, film and interpretive dance are the only two mediums left for Hamilton conquer.*
Buy it on Amazon.
*(We’re kidding, obviously.)
’Everything Was Possible’ by Ted Chapin
If the #Hamiltome is a close-up look at making a modern day hip-hop musical, Everything Was Possible is its antithesis. Its description on Amazon accurately and succinctly sums it up:
“In 1971, college student Ted Chapin found himself front row center as a production assistant at the creation of one of the greatest Broadway musicals, Follies. Needing college credit to graduate on time, he kept a journal of everything he saw and heard and thus was able to document in unprecedented detail how a musical is actually created.”
The time period the musical was created in is a painful reminder of the pre-computers era for Millennials. Xerox had just debuted a new, largely untrusted, machine and every revision, and every copy of that revision, had to be manually typed if Chapin wanted a project done correctly. As a production assistant (gofer) he was tasked with running around the city dropping off and pick up bars of music, actors, producers, costumes, and of course, coffee. Communication was a task unto itself, without the almighty cell phone in everyone’s pockets.
Even if you know nothing about Follies prior to cracking the spine on this book, you’re eased into the characters — like co-directors Hal Prince and Michael Bennett and Steven Sondheim — and their quirks. The chaos depicted during rehearsals, the rush to block, compose, write, and choreograph are all relatable feelings for anyone who’s been privy to the behind-the-scenes of a musical theater production.
Buy it on Amazon.
‘Finishing the Hat’ by Stephen Sondheim
How do you learn about the works of one of the best modern lyricists in musical theater? You read a compilation book about it. The first book, Finishing the Hat spans from 1954 to 1981, republishing the lyrics to all of the musicals during that time. The sequel, Look I Made a Hat, continues the journey, from 1981 to as recent as 2011 (when the book was published).
Lest you think this is just a book of straight lyrics, keep in mind that it is also part informative narrative, part autobiography. Sondheim annotates throughout the book with stories about the inception of his lyrics, his personal connections to the words, and what he’s learned over decades of working in the business.
Buy it on Amazon.
Then there are the autobiographies…
Every performer starts somewhere. Patti started performing as a child with her brother, before graduating into one of the first musical theater classes at Julliard, then going on tour for years with the same rag-tag group of 20-somethings, and then finally making it big. The woman pulls no punches, naming names and unapologetically telling it like it was. (Buy it on Amazon)
The Puerto Rican EGOT winner penned her memoir in 2014 at age 82. At 82, I hope I can still hold a pencil. The woman has curated a legacy in the roles she’s played, but she’s also become an inspirational woman in her own right.(Buy it on Amazon)
The Scottish performer penned Not My Father’s Son in late 2014 which details his tumultuous childhood, rise to fame, and life on the stage and on set of numerous musicals and television shows. (Buy it on Amazon)
This article is a part of Hypable’s inaugural Broadway Week in celebration of the 2016 Tony nominations. For more stories, click here!
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