Seth Rudetsky's new book is FABulous
A warm "Brava!" for "Musical Theatre for Dummies"
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The Broadway Maven’s classes are on hiatus.
• This Weekly Blast looks at books about Broadway (among other things):
A) a REVIEW of Seth Rudetsky’s new book Musical Theatre for Dummies;
B) PETER FILICHIA on West Side Story: Peter talks about which man is most responsible for the “soul” of the show;
C) a REVIEW of Breaking Into Song, a book for people who hate musicals;
D) a YouTube GEM that suggests several possible instances of plagiarism in Andrew Lloyd Webber scores;
E) a SURVEY on Broadway-related books; and
F) LAST BLASTs about The Band’s Visit and Parade.
NOTE: Peter Filichia’s Broadway is a new feature of the Weekly Blast. These brief show-specific videos will be available on YouTube for subscribers only (except the first issue of the month, of course). Last Blasts are free every week; just scroll to the bottom.
Musical Theatre for Dummies has flown under the radar (you’re reading its first real review), but it’s one of the most important Broadway-related books of the past decade. In bookstores and at Amazon since March, it’s written by one of Broadway’s most engaging personalities, Sirius radio host Seth Rudetsky. This broad introduction to all things musical theater matters because it collects in one place information that’s hard to access otherwise — and does it in a way that’s engaging for novices and mavens alike.
I recently got a chance to talk to Seth, and I asked him who his ideal reader is:
It really is for everybody. I do feel it’s for “Dummies” to really learn what musical theater is… these are the terms you need to know, here are the famous people you need to know. But I did purposely write it that, even if you kind of know everything about musical theater, there’s no way you know every story.
Indeed, Seth includes a rich treasury of tales from his many years as “Mayor of Broadway.” They’re all in here: Betty Buckley, Alan Cumming, Sutton Foster, Priscilla Lopez, Audra McDonald, Jessie Mueller; Billy Porter, Chita Rivera.
Just a sampling of what readers will learn:
• the history of Broadway in “only” 100 pages;
• the fascinating “origin story” of Avenue Q;
• the meaning of an “in one” song (and why they’ve become rare);
• the 20 different types of lyrics you might find in a Broadway song;
• how nowadays even many male performers wear wigs onstage; and
• backstage gossip galore.
Seth’s various gigs (a Broadway cruise; his musical Disaster!, “Deconstructing Broadway” talks and videos; orchestra and music directing jobs; and of course his radio show) have given him an expertise in the field that is rare yet essential in this kind of project.
Another treat: the book is written in Rudetsky’s unique voice, which is passionate, over-the-top, and hilarious. He told me his editors did not ask him to hold himself back, and in fact encouraged him to let his personality shine through.
One annoying aspect of the book is the Web addresses written out as lengthy URLs, which I don’t expect anyone to type in. Seth told me he’s equally annoyed, and promises to put the links at SethRudetsky.com (though I checked that site and couldn’t find any reference to the book at all yet).
A more serious problem is that the book is poorly edited. I say poorly edited instead of poorly written because Seth Rudetsky certainly knows that the title of Annie Get Your Gun does not have a comma; or how to spell Peter Allen and Trevor Nunn. Every few pages, there’s a factual error, a reference to a section that doesn’t exist, a story repeated almost verbatim, or a grammar mistake any proofreader should have caught. The next edition needs a more careful editor, or even just a devoted fan (call me!).
Seth told me the audiobook will be out soon.
Peter Filichia’s Broadway: In this video, Peter discusses West Side Story:
• which one man Peter most credits for being the "soul" of the show
• the strengths and weaknesses of Arthur Laurents's book
• the genius of the lyric "make this endless day endless night"
REVIEW: Breaking into Song: Why You Shouldn’t Hate Musicals is an introduction to musical theater that takes a very different approach from Seth Rudetsky’s (see above): it’s almost entirely theoretical. Now, that won’t be for everyone. If you’re looking for frequent references to specific Broadway shows and their strengths, you won’t get that here. Most of the book (by British dramaturg Adam Lenson) references no specific shows at all, but instead serves as an extended discussion of what exactly musical theater is — and why it deserves a better reputation than it gets.
Many of his analogies are insightful — for example, he compares musicals to comic books and video games. He argues that the cultural disdain for each relates to the fact they combine disparate elements (images and text for comic books, for example, and words and songs for musicals). He insists, in fact, that musical theater itself is a not a genre (like romantic comedies) but not yet a medium (like sculpture or knitting). He explains why he considers musicals to have “superpowers” — like exploring the internal and the external at the same time — that other kinds of art simply cannot do as well.
Other analogies are pedestrian; some (“poopy babies”) are rather unpleasant. And I’m not sure that a book with virtually no specific references to Broadway will actually change the mind (or even grab the attention) of general readers who don’t already love the theater. But for people like me — and most readers of the Weekly Blast, I suspect — a guide to rethinking musical theater in an open, creative way is totally worth reading.
YouTube GEM: How original is Andrew Lloyd Webber? You decide. Here are nine times Lord Lloyd Webber has been accused of plagiarism:
SURVEY: Which of these Broadway-related books are you most interested in reading?
• The Season by William Goldman (rare but highly regarded 1969 book)
• Putting it Together by James Lapine (the making of Sunday in the Park with George)
• Breaking into Song by Adam Lenson (see above)
• Musical Theatre for Dummies by Seth Rudetsky (see above)
• Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondhem (collected lyrics and thoughts)
NOTE OF THE WEEK: Substack Notes are short-form content (like a tweet) that I’m using several times a week to provide commentary on musical theater in the news. Here’s a Note from last week as an example:
HOW TO JOIN: Head to substack.com/notes or find the “Notes” tab in the Substack app. As a subscriber to The Broadway Maven's Weekly Blast, you’ll automatically see my notes (don’t worry, they won’t fill your email box). Feel free to like, reply, or share them around!
LAST BLAST: In The Band's Visit, Papi explains his dating difficulties in "Papi Hears the Ocean," the verses of which manage to be both musically interesting and stagnant. Writer David Yazbek said that one lyric sparked the entire melody, "sinking down, down, down like a schmuck"; that's exactly what the melody does. Every phrase in the verses is simply a descending chromatic scale. That is, it starts on a G and then goes down one piano key at a time, using every white and black key in order until we reach the next G, an octave lower. Thirteen notes in total, and then we do it all over again for the next phrase. Taking the smallest steps possible between notes simultaneously gives us the sense of sinking down and being frozen in fear because we ultimately end up back where we started. Just like Papi. -Karina Carr
LAST BLAST: At the start of Parade, a Confederate soldier off to war sings to his beloved, “Farewell, my Lila, I'll write every evening.“ As songwriter Jason Robert Brown surely knows, “Leila” is the Hebrew word for night, so Brown starts with a subtle but ominous note for a show about the lynching of a Jew.
The Broadway Maven, David Benkof, helps students further their appreciation of musical theater through his classes, his YouTube Channel, and his Weekly Blast. Contact him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.