The Top Ten Musical Books - Bookwriters: The Unsung Heroes
The bookwriter of a musical is probably the greatest unsung hero of Broadway. He or she gets very little recognition when a show works, but when a show fails, the book writer is often the first to be blamed. It is perhaps a thankless task, but their work is essential to designing the framework of the story for the composer and lyricist to hang their score on. Indeed, some of the book writer's best writing is often transformed into musical moments, stealing the best of their thunder. Many books of a Broadway musical are amazingly strong and today's top-ten list is an examination of some of the best. I made my choices by the criteria of originality, intelligently designed character voice, and the book needs to follow strong storytelling structure. I know I will be maligned for leaving certain titles out and I'm glad to justify why I left them off the list. Start the debate and maybe I'll agree. Or...maybe not.
Top Ten Books of a Broadway Music
Urinetown - Book by Greg Kotis
How I loved the freshness and originality of Urinetown. So many Broadway musicals depend on a source material as the basis for the storyline. In a time where movies and books are being exhausted and we think there are very few new ideas, Urinetown emerged as a kick-in-the-gutt of humor, irony, and original satire that was sorely needed and breathed some life into the Broadway musical. Urinetown imagines a dystopia of the future where big business regulates toilet use, charging people for the "privilege to pee." An uprising of the poor, who cannot afford the luxury of this bodily function, fails despite the passionate leadership of the revolutionary Bobby Strong. It's a terrific cautionary tale that presciently pointed out the direction our government is headed, allowing big business to make all of our decisions for us.
City of Angels - Book by Larry Gelbart
The Film Noir genre of cinema seems like an unlikely world for a musical to unfold, yet Larry Gelrbart was able to create one of the wittiest books a musical has ever graced the stage. In fact, Gelbart creates two stories: one of a crime novelist named Stein who is brought to Hollywood to turn one of his books into a screenplay. The other is that of the screenplay that Stein is writing, a murder mystery about a tough flatfoot named Stone trying to solve a seemingly impossible crime under the lights of Tinsel Town. The complexity of the dual stories, as well as the parallels between the two, make this one of the most tightly planned-out musical theatre books. Designed for performers to play congruous roles in both stories, it is a feat unto itself that Gelbart managed to juggle the story so adeptly that costume changes could happen.
Fiddler on the Roof - Book by Joseph Stein
I've never been the biggest fan of Fiddler on the Roof. I attribute this to the number of badly done high school and community productions I have sat through. That being said, I admire Joseph Stein's skill at adapting the source material of Sholom Aleichem's Tevye's Daughters to have such a rich sense of time and place, and character development that is thoroughly realized through one trial and tribulation after another. In fact, Fiddler on the Roof is one of those musicals where the chorus gets to shine in one-liners that pop up and establish the whole town of Anatevka as a living, breathing entity. It is Stein's attention to these minor characters that heightens the impact of the town's demise at the end of the show.
A Little Night Music - Book by Hugh Wheeler
Hugh Wheeler took Ingmar Bergman's screenplay for the film Smiles of s Summer Night and evolved it into one of wittiest, deft interpretations of a love triangle that has ever been told. In fact, A Little Night Music is full of love triangles that complicate and twist the plot. It is, however, in Wheeler's use of dry wit that he best captures the melancholy and folly of amorous dealings. He is especially knowing in his understanding of the bitter Countess Charlotte Malcolm, the depressed wife of military man whore, and of Madame Armfeldt, the retired courtesan who sees romance and sex as a game of practical investments. These characters shine under Wheeler's guidance. The whole book is really sharp, and one of the few books that is on par with the Stephen Sondheim score that accompanies it.
1776 - Book by Peter Stone
Without a doubt the ONLY musical book that could stand entirely on its own without the score, 1776 is a brilliant and intriguing examination of the days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is not to disregard the score, which is in itself quite wonderful, but to point out that the book writing is so dramatic and character developed that the score icing on the cake. What Peter Stone does best is take a well-known historical event, one that we know the outcome of, and makes us believe that maybe things might not work out the way we know they do. This is no easy feat, but even right up to the eleventh hour, it is impossible to know how John Adams and the gang are going to get congress to vote on a unanimous declaration.
Guys & Dolls - Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
There is a reason why Guys & Dolls is done in every church basement, high school auditorium, and continues to make its way back to Broadway. This show is almost idiot proof. It is so well constructed and the characters so delightful that it is hard to screw this show up. Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling have concocted a cartoon world of gamblers, showgirls, missionaries, and the other colorful denizens of Times Square in the 1950s. Having adapted the story from a series of popular tales by Damon Runyon, they managed to do what few other musicals do well: they created two sets of romantic leads. One is more comic: the showgirl who has been engaged to her crap game running boyfriend for over a decade. The second, with its own humorous scenario, that of a missionary girl being wooed by a high stakes gambler who has taken a bet that he can get her to fall in love with him. There is a genius in how both stories get equal time, happen simultaneously in this musical world, and occasionally weave in and out of each other.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Book by Hugh Wheeler
Mr. Hugh Wheeler does it again, crafting the book for a horror musical that is complete with deeply realized characters, a truly frightening plot that is deepened by a tragic finale, and that revels in its gory themes. Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is best known as the character who haunted Penny Dreadfuls of nineteenth-century London. Wheeler took the story of the murderous barber and, not only found ways to justify his crimes as a wrongly imprisoned man, but also justified the motives of his accomplice, the meat pie shop owner who made the bodies disappear in her wares. This all sounds macabre, and it is, but by the end of the musical, we are so caught up in Sweeney's revenge that we are practically cheering for him. The twists and turns of Wheeler's book are what keep us on the edge of our chairs.
The Music Man - Book by Meredith Willson
I have made no bones about my deep appreciation for what Meredith Willson accomplished in creating the audience favorite The Music Man. He created the score and the book for one of the most endeared family musicals of all time and basically accomplished this on his first time out. Calling upon memories of growing up in a town in Iowa in the early twentieth century, he introduced us to the stubborn citizen of River City and made them come to life before our eyes. When a fast-talking salesman named Harold Hill come to town to swindle parents into enrolling their boys into a marching band (collecting money for instruments, instruction books, and uniforms), he plans to skip town before making good. Fortunately for him, he falls in love with the local librarian who helps him see how he brought the town together. He decides to stay and make good on his promises. The story reels us in and we find ourselves rooting for Harold, investing ourselves in the hope that he will turn out to be the good guy.
Carousel - Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein created many wonderful books for musicals, but it was adaption of Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom, transporting it from Budapest to a New England fishing village, that stands out above the rest. Carousel is a challenging musical about flawed characters. They are human, capable of screwing up. Hammerstein is not afraid to look at the darker side of love. When an egocentric carousel barker and local factory girl fall in love at first site, what follows is a relationship filled with spousal abuse, unexpected pregnancy, the stresses of unemployment, and eventually death. Despite these maudlin themes, Carousel also manages to find hope for these characters. Hammerstein maintains a perfect balance between the darkness and the brightness of life through these characters' struggles. When it opened in 1945, Carousel challenged musical theatre audiences like no other show had up until that point.
Bye, Bye, Birdie - Book by Michael Stewart
It works. There is no arguing that Bye, Bye, Birdie works and it certainly has delighted audiences for years. Michael Stewart created an entirely original story about a rock star named Conrad Birdie (like Elvis) who is drafted into the military. His managers decide to have him go out in a blaze of moneymaking glory and create a final, going away song that he will perform on the Ed Sullivan Show to one of his adoring fans. When he and his entourage arrive in the small town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, chaos ensues. The managers, a romantic couple in the story, just want to get out of show business and get married, so they are desperate to make Conrad's final hurrah a success. What makes Bye, Bye, Birdie even more special is it is the musical that opened the doors for rock & roll to be a choice in musical theatre storytelling. It was Stewart's story that argued what a phenomenon the genre had become and it was taking over the world. For 1960, this was a new way of thinking. By the end of the decade, Hair would take it to the next level, but it was Stewart's foresight that made the case.
Artwork by Trevor List.