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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: confrontation between art and technology

McNeely, Jerry
[Book reviews: a view from the pit],   pp. [244]-248 PDF (4.7 MB)

Page 246

failed because authors have not observed
these principles: ". . . out of thousands
of writers and composers only a very
few have ever imagined for a single second
that there is such a thing as a
precise skill involved in the creation
of a fine show."
Unhappily, this distillation of "basic
principles" is the weakest part
of an interesting and valuable book.
The problem is one of obviousness. For
example, is it really an important
insight to conclude that the librettist of a
good musical will introduce his principal
characters early, indicate some
difference which separates them and set
up a need in the audience to see the
resolution of their difference? There is
nothing peculiar to the musical form
here, except perhaps that it must
be accomplished more quickly and concisely.
(Any playwright who does not
understand that a musical book must be
more concise than a straight play should
never expect to see his name on
a cast album in the first place.)
A section on "Scene and Act Endings"
246     produces little more than the suggestion
that each dramatic unit will come
to some sort of climax which also propels
the story forward - hardly a
startling dramaturgical principle.
"The Place of the Lyric" summarizes
that the lyric, because of its "unreality,"
should expand the essence of the
dramatic moment. Can it really be true
that lyricists exist who do not know this?
Mr. Engel is sensitive to this obviousness;
and he anticipates criticism by
insisting that hundreds of inept
manuscripts, passing across his desk, have
proved that the "principles" are not
obvious at all. Actually, all it proves is
that a lot of people are writing
musicals who don't know their clefs from
their coat-hangers; and I doubt that a
listing of "principles" is going
to thrust them much closer to
professionalism, let alone art. (I also
wonder about the many dreadful shows
which have followed the principles -
copying successful predecessors to the
point of structural plagiarism.)
In the end, perhaps the quarrel is with the
assumption that the only proper route
for the new writer is to study the successes
of the past, as Mr. Engel apparently
believes. The basic grain for his distillation
of principles is a list of eleven shows:
Pal Joey; Oklahoma!; Carousel; Annie Get Your
Gun; Brigadoon; Kiss Me, Kate; South
Pacific; Guys and Dolls; The King and l;
My Fair Lady; and West Side Story.
A footnote explains that he has not included
Fiddler on the Roof because its newness
prevents proper perspective. One
wonders if a subconscious motive might be
that it does not fit the neat mold
of the others, all of which (with the
qualified exception of The King and 1) are
basically romantic love stories.
Joseph Stein, the librettist of Fiddler on
the Roof, was reluctant to discuss
that project while it was being written.
He has said, "When someone asked what I
was working on, how could I tell
them it was a musical about some old
Russian Jews?" According to
Brooks Atkinson, the best plays are
written by authors who buffet their way
into the theater and make it over to
suit themselves. One wonders what would
have been the result if the authors of
Fiddler had studied the list too
carefully, or if the wondrously vital
shock-waves emitted by Hair would have still
reverberated if its authors had told
each other: "Let's look at eleven
great shows to see how it's done."
Enough of this. A manual of principles
charting the way to better librettos (and,
therefore, better musicals) - this
book is not. It is many other
pleasant things.
First, it is a handsome and
imaginatively mounted volume with an
interesting art layout and an
abundance of fascinating photographs.
There is a concise and readable summary of
the American musical's history, a
bibliography of published librettos and
vocal scores and a highly
valuable discography which includes not
only original cast albums, but
"excerpt" albums of music from shows
which were never recorded with original cast.
Most interestingly, there is Lehman
Engel talking about the things he
knows best and most authoritatively.
Anyone who has ever strained to catch

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