Musical Theatre for Dummies

The “For Dummies” book series began thirty years ago by offering step-by-step practical and unintimidating guides to computer programming geared to intimidated novices. The first title, in 1991, was “DOS For Dummies” (as in Disk Operating System.) “Windows for Dummies” has sold some 15 million copies. The series clearly has branched out since then, because now we have “Musical Theatre for Dummies” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 395 pages),  which is written by Seth Rudetsky.

If anybody should write a Dummies book about musical theater, it’s hard to think of a better choice than Seth Rudetsky, who’s spent the past twenty years deconstructing, dishing and delivering musical theater, as a pianist, performer, producer, conductor, columnist, diarist, conductor, writer and raconteur, as well as radio host of “On Broadway” on SIRIUS XM. He is a musical theater evangelist and a natural teacher.

But should anybody write a Dummies book about musical theater?

Unlike other Dummies guides, the book that Rudetsky has put together, for all its obvious effort at being entertaining, is arguably more intimidating than its subject. After all, you don’t actually have to know anything about musical theater in order to enjoy a show; you just need a ticket. But the unavoidable takeaway from this cornucopia of cursory history, anecdote, brief analysis,  lists, tips and lore is that gaining mastery over this art form is far less straightforward or attainable than, say, learning html. 

“Musical Theatre for Dummies” starts with the basics — how musical theater is defined, what types there are (musical comedies, jukebox, rock, sung-through…) and who makes it happen (producers, designers, the crew…) — jobs that are explained in more (but not comprehensive) detail in later chapters.

“Why do some people hate musical theatre?” Rudetsky asks early on.

“Short answer: They’re idiots.”

“Longer answer” – and he gives two: They’ve formed their opinion on the basis of some bad productions or they don’t realize how many different types of musicals there are.

But I learned of another reason, told to me long ago by two then-young musical theater composers: People in their generation in general simply couldn’t buy the idea that characters in a story suddenly break into song. That was part of their motivation for creating “Avenue Q” – singing puppets made more sense to a generation that had grown up watching “Sesame Street.” 

Two pages after Rudetsky’s answer, in the first official “Tip” in the book (next to an icon of a lightbulb), Rudetsky suggests a way to convert someone who hates musicals —  take them to a jukebox musical “because they can go in humming the score.”

There is a chapter that explores the structure of a musical, from overture to 11 o’clock number to exit music. Another offers basic consumer advice for theatergoers, such as how to get tickets, how to behave, and what you call  the different kinds  of seating arrangements in a theater (complete with illustrations) – proscenium, thrust (when the audience surrounds the stage on three sides), in the round (when the audience surrounds the stage) and  alley (“the audience sits on opposite sides of the stage area, which runs down the middle, like an alley” – a term I didn’t know!)

By far the longest chapter in the book  is entitled (and subtitled) “The History of Musical Theatre (in ‘only’ 100 pages).” There are a dozen pages on everything up to World War II, then ten pages on “Broadway’s Golden Age,” roughly the late 1940s to the late 1950s. The bulk of the chapter recounts everything after that, focusing largely on what the author considers the most important individual  Broadway musicals, although with an occasional discussion about trends on Broadway, such as stage adaptations of Hollywood movies.

Woven into the history (and indeed into all the other chapters)  are a wide range of trivia and anecdotes. Many of the stories that Rudetsky recounts were told directly to him by leading lights of Broadway and other theater pals;  some of the stories involve him personally. Most are labeled with an icon of a cartoon bubble next to “Seth Speaks.”

There are two examples of this kind of colorful story in the two pages devoted to the Phantom of the Opera in the history chapter. The first: “Lin-Manuel Miranda told me that the first show he really identified with was The Phantom of the Opera. ‘It knocked me out. It was about an ugly songwriter who can’t get girls. That was me!’” The second story: “Phantom is one of the longest running gigs I ever had, playing music in that pit off and on for 15 years. It’s also the birth of one of my signature mishaps…” But he doesn’t write about the mishap at all, instead telling us “you can see me reenact if you go to see…” and then presents a URL of a YouTube video – which is of course useless in the paperback edition I was sent to review. (I suspect such links work in the Kindle edition.)

I instead did a search on YouTube and came up with this video from 2008:

The history of musicals concludes with Covid, Rudetsky describing the livestream he and James Wesley created called Stars in the House from the onset of the pandemic shutdown, and how now “Broadway is still paying the price”  with Covid closings.  That Off-Broadway might also still be paying the price, or regional theaters or theater in London, is left unmentioned,  which drives home how completely Broadway-centric this history has been.  As if to compensate, the author points out that “musical theatre is everywhere” In a later chapter, which quickly surveys that everywhere, from “world capitals of theatre” to touring productions, community theater, and school productions, with just a couple of paragraphs about Off-Broadway.  Rudetsky makes a glaring and perhaps telling error  in this chapter, when he writes: “Broadway theatres are all commercial, or for-profit ventures, meaning their primary goal is to make money.” But actually, six of the 41 Broadway theaters are owned by four non-profit companies (Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theater Company, Second Stage, and Roundabout, which owns three of them.)

Such carelessness, and the world view it may reflect, would matter less if the book had footnotes or a bibliography. There is a helpful index, and the eight-page table of contents certainly seems to promise something thorough and methodical; there are even two college theater professors listed as “contributors” to the book. But “Musical Theatre for Dummies” is not a reliable reference work, and only intermittently a practical guide.  Chapter 13, “Landing A Role (Paying Or Not)” does offer some solid advice for aspiring performers,  such as its 4 tips for auditioning (which the publisher posts online as part of what it calls Musical Theatre for Dummies Cheat Sheet, in between two other lists from the book: 7 musical theatre productions that changed Broadway and 10 off-Broadway musical recordings you should know.

“Musical Theatre for Dummies” is best appreciated for its introduction to (if you’re a novice), or immersion in (if you’re not) the culture of Broadway fandom, shot through as it is with fun lists and fun facts, as well as insider info that you don’t have to be a beginner to find surprising. The costumes that Broadway performers wear, Seth Rudetsky tells us from experience, include not just what the audience sees but also the performers’ underwear and socks,  issued by the production and cleaned by it every day after each performance – using vodka!

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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