Best of the Broadway Book Writers
Writing the book for a Broadway musical is a craft that is fraught with landmines. It is the delicate art of creating the framework for musical storytelling, a house of cards on which to hang the songs and characters that will hopefully yield a fascinating depth and a compelling purpose. When a musical fails, the blame is often put squarely on the musical's book, yet if a show succeeds, the book writer is rarely given the credit they are due. Despite the challenges a book writer faces, there has been a handful of craftsmen who have successfully delivered first-rate books that continue to be as potent and perfect as the days these shows opened. Help me celebrate the unsung heroes of musical theatre, the most enduring of Broadway musical book writers, who have produced quality books in quantity.
Where all-out musical comedy is concerned, very few book writers top the talents of Michael Stewart. He fashioned an entirely original musical comedy of (then) contemporary brilliance with Bye Bye Birdie, capitalizing on the Rock & Roll phenomenon that was sweeping the country, not to mention the generation gap it was broadening. Of course, Stewart also took Thornton Wilder’s blissfully humorous comedy The Matchmaker and transformed it into the Broadway sensation Hello, Dolly! Both musicals continue to be mainstays of the Broadway pantheon of classics that are done in just about every high school, community theatre, summer stock, and regional theatre in America. Stewart had an aplomb for creating a building energy in his books, taking each scene to the next level, finding humor and farce in the everyday world of humanity. His busy career also featured books for (among others) Carnival!, Mack & Mabel, I Love My Wife, Barnum, and 42nd Street.
Oscar Hammerstein II
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Musicals continue to be some of the most-beloved (and produced) musicals of our theatre history, and Hammerstein wrote the books for some of them. Often accused of being sentimental and hokey, one forgets how courageously dark and complicated Hammerstein was in adapting Ferenc Molnar's Liliom into the musical Carousel, a daunting exploration of imperfect people. Previously, he carved fascinating character profiles in his adaptation of Lynn Rigg's play Green Grow the Lilacs, transforming it into the groundbreaking Oklahoma! Even his book for the experimental Allegro, although not a critical hit, smacks with a cynicism that betrays his reputation for unyielding optimism. These musicals endure because they are nuanced and textured with real human experiences that remain relatable and challenge us with their compelling themes.
Alan Jay Lerner
When the source material was literate, poetic, and just a touch magical, Alan Jay Lerner was at the top of his game. He expertly adapted George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into My Fair Lady when many experts in the field wouldn’t go near it. Most people thought it simply could not be done. He faithfully retained the playwright’s intellectual exploration of phonetics as the defining measure in how class systems are established and gave it a voice that could weave in and out of song (this was helped by the fact that he also provided the lyrics). His books for Brigadoon and Camelot are just as intriguing, full of fanciful magic and a lyrical elegance. Though Camelot was a troubled a musical throughout its gestation and run, Lerner miraculously winnowed down T.H. White’s epic novel The Once and Future King into a manageable (if still long) story of King Arthur. Complain about the length all that you want, each scene is a breathtaking display of humor and building dramatic tension. One can always spot a Lerner scene by the fact that it as poetic as his lyrics are clever.
If only for his faithful and effective adaption of the plot-rich, E.L. Doctorow novel Ragtime for the musical stage, I will forever be in awe of the talents of Terrence McNally. It was a near impossible task, and yet he managed to keep the tone of the novel while sacrificing very little of its epic plot. Fortunately, his work didn’t start or end there. His libretto for Kiss of the Spider Woman is a harrowing tale, with moments of hope and humor standing out like candles in the darkness, guiding our way through the maze-like tale of a friendship kindled amidst the horrors of prison in a third-world country. His heartfelt libretto for the stage adaptation of The Full Monty proves that musical comedy in the classic vein can still be achieved to great effect in the world of musical theatre. Even his work on the adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit for the musical stage augmented an already compelling play into a shadowy vessel for exploring love and revenge.
Peter Stone has a long and varied career in the musical theatre as a book writer, but he certainly enjoyed his share of success. Easily his finest book is the one he wrote for the musical 1776. It may well be the only case where the book of a musical could stand entirely on its own without the score. Sure, it is made all-the-better by Sherman Edward’s glorious music, but Stone somehow manages to take a bunch of American forefathers, revered in dusty library shelves and celebrated in rigid statues, and makes them human. That is no small feat. Eclectic in his style and interests, Stone also wrote librettos for musicals such as The Will Rogers Follies, Sugar, My One and Only, Woman of the Year, and Titanic. He also enjoyed a healthy career writing for film and television, but it was for the Broadway stage that he continued to be the go-to book writer for musical theatre.
I’ve always been particularly transported by two librettos in-particular by the great Hugh Wheeler. His masterpiece, of course, is the macabre tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, adapted from the Christopher Bond play, complete with a horrific twist-ending that is achingly tragic and socially poignant. If that is not your cup of tea, then perhaps his treatment of Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay Smiles of the Summer Night will be more your style. Renamed A Little Night Music, a comedic unraveling of love triangles becomes a commentary on the pin pricks that add up to the melancholic, but ultimately glorious, condition of love in its many forms. Both plays bleed with dark humor and sharp wit, delivered by Wheeler on an elegant tray of sophistication. Wheeler also provided a revised book for a revival of Candide that solved many of the original production's problems.
Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Falsettos, Passion, and A New Brain are among the clever books of musicals written by James Lapine. His work with composer Stephen Sondheim yielded some of the most intricate and cleverly assembled storylines, from the interlocking themes of fairy tales in Into the Woods, to the animation of the characters in a famous painting in Sunday in the Park with George, Lapine takes us on multifaceted journeys into the human heart and mind. What is always particularly fascinating about his work are the cause/effect relationships between the characters’ choices and the story that unfolds as a result. The director in Lapine helped to shape the structure and fluidity of the William Finn musicals he was involved with, giving the works a dramatic thrust that equaled the kinetic nature of Finn’s scores.