On ‘Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Libretto’ – Lehman Engel

I don’t usually post reviews on goodreads, because I’m tired. I don’t usually provide reading reports here, either, because everyone’s read the same books, and I don’t have anything interesting to add.

But for this book, I think the two predominant responses (“Engel had some good ideas, but we’ve moved on” or “Yes, if only shows could be what they once were”) both miss the point. And so …

If you’re seeking a How-To manual for creating a musical libretto, this ain’t that book. Engel’s approach is a How-It-Was-Done manual, and he clearly wishes it were still done that way.

Engel examines classic musicals (‘Fiddler’, ‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘My Fair Lady’) in order to lay out what he believes are the principles of good musical theatre construction. He urges you to do consider these models when making your own shows. Some useful sections include a side-by-side scene comparison of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with ‘West Side Story’, and an analysis of how well contrast is used in the opening scenes of ‘South Pacific’.

Engel’s principles are worth your attention. You will have to put up with a great deal of shaky generalising and straw-man erecting before you get to them. This edition contains comments after each chapter (Engel’s original was published in 1972) written by the critic Howard Kissel in 2006. Kissel points out where Engel’s opinions have not always dated well, and provides his own opinions, which haven’t always dated well either.

Many readers will be turned off by the fact the Engel loathed ‘Hair’, and ‘Man of La Mancha’. Heck, he didn’t even like ‘Cabaret’ much (he calls it a “success-failure”), but if we indulge in rage-blindness over our favourite shows, we’ll miss the troubling and interesting questions Engel raises about what’s possible and what’s not possible in a musical.

For example, Engel says all musical theatre is essentially lyrical, and so a purely intellectual exercise cannot succeed on the musical stage, as it can on the non-musical stage. Is he right? If he’s wrong, where are the counter-examples?

Because of the time necessarily given over to song, Engel also argues, the principal characters’ storyline in a musical cannot be too complex, and will therefore be too thin to occupy the entire evening. A subplot will almost always be necessary. Now, sure, we can all think of exceptions – Engel provides some himself – but we have to admit the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly on his side.

These considerations are the most valuable parts of the book, but they’re not the noisiest, and they don’t occupy the most pages. Engel rails against rock throughout; Kissel gently points out rock’s endurance, then commits the same sin by dismissing hip-hop. These are the silliest parts of the book, and should remind us all of how silly we too could sound in ten or forty years.

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