Theater ace talks Broadway at Jewish Book Fair

Jack Viertel knows his way around the theater. He is senior vice president of Jujamcym Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway theaters. His body of work includes being a theater critic, an arts editor for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, a dramaturg for the Mark Taper Forum, and a decade of teaching musical theater at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

With so many years of theatrical experience, he was destined to write a book. “The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built,” was published this year, and the 312-pager could also be called an encyclopedia. Viertel will talk about his tome 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30 at the Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive in La Jolla, as a guest of the 22nd annual Jewish Book Fair.

“I first had the idea to teach it at NYU about 12 years ago,” Viertel said. “I set up two classes for writer and director grad students. I went through this material many times. I was asked to give talks by more fans than professionals, so I wrote a book. It took about two years to write and another for editing and design.”

Viertel has a connection to San Diego. He reviewed plays of an early season of the La Jolla Playhouse that included “The Visions of Simone Machard,” “A Mad World, My Masters,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

From curtain up to curtain down, in his book Viertel details productions giving advice, opinions and comments. He addresses acting, producing, directing, set design and the music. He compares how shows worked in earlier years compared to now. “I attend almost everything on Broadway, as that’s my job,” Viertel said. “At any given time, there are probably about 40 there and about 60 regional.”

Along with tons of information about musicals, Viertel includes interesting or humorous details. One example is a reference where he compares deck chairs missing a part from Home Depot to subplots in the show. “That’s the way I talk more or less,” he said. “This book was not constructed like a T.S. Eliot poem. I think all the years of being a critic and on deadline, you get proficient at meeting deadlines and start to write that way. I didn’t take a lot of notes. I have a weirdly selective encyclopedic memory and remember most of it. I did most of the research as I was writing. I had taught the shows to students over and over again, so that does get stuck in your head after a while.”

His insights on musical theater are remarkable as this excerpt reveals: “I had begun to understand what it meant to tell a story on stage. I eventually came to understand that theater is not the written word, it’s the word made flesh. Somethings can make you cry. Sometimes an actor turning toward or away from another actor can tell you more of the story than all the words a playwright could think up.”

When asked what percentage of Tony Awards he usually agrees with, he replied, “A lot this year. I’m a big ‘Hamilton’ fan. I sometimes see shows that win awards that I can’t imagine being nominated for anything. The Tonys affect the audiences’ tastes more than the critics. Rarely are there shocking surprises. The Tonys are a way of promoting what Broadway people want to come see.”

Since his career has spanned many years and generations, one wonders if he thinks a person should see a play more than once. “Things have shifted over the years to a different kind of collaboration. The way rock ‘n’ roll bands put stuff together is different from what Rodgers and Hammerstein did on roadshows. I don’t know that one method is better than another, but there is a feeling that it’s become a slightly less rigid and formal process than it once was.”

Viertel sees many shows every year, but his favorite, which he said he could watch over and over, is “Follies.”

IF YOU GO: The San Diego Jewish Book Fair runs Oct. 29-Nov. 6 mostly at the Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive in La Jolla. For a schedule of events and speakers and to buy tickets, call (858) 362-1348 or visit sdcjc.org/sdjbf

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