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Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Musical Libretto

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The dean of Broadway musical directors examines the dynamics of how the book, music and lyrics work together to create such hits as My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Hair, Pal Joey, West Side Story, Company, South Pacific, Threepenny Opera and Porgy and Bess. Howard Kissel, chief theater critic for the New York Daily News, extends the reach of Engel's subj The dean of Broadway musical directors examines the dynamics of how the book, music and lyrics work together to create such hits as My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Hair, Pal Joey, West Side Story, Company, South Pacific, Threepenny Opera and Porgy and Bess. Howard Kissel, chief theater critic for the New York Daily News, extends the reach of Engel's subjects by bringing them up to date with commentary on such shows as A Chorus Line, Nine, Sunday in the Park with George, Rent, Working and Falsettos. Kissel offers a thoughtful history on how musical theater has evolved in the three decades since Engel wrote Words with Music (1972) and how Engel's classic work remains vital and illuminating today.


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The dean of Broadway musical directors examines the dynamics of how the book, music and lyrics work together to create such hits as My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Hair, Pal Joey, West Side Story, Company, South Pacific, Threepenny Opera and Porgy and Bess. Howard Kissel, chief theater critic for the New York Daily News, extends the reach of Engel's subj The dean of Broadway musical directors examines the dynamics of how the book, music and lyrics work together to create such hits as My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Hair, Pal Joey, West Side Story, Company, South Pacific, Threepenny Opera and Porgy and Bess. Howard Kissel, chief theater critic for the New York Daily News, extends the reach of Engel's subjects by bringing them up to date with commentary on such shows as A Chorus Line, Nine, Sunday in the Park with George, Rent, Working and Falsettos. Kissel offers a thoughtful history on how musical theater has evolved in the three decades since Engel wrote Words with Music (1972) and how Engel's classic work remains vital and illuminating today.

30 review for Words with Music: Creating the Broadway Musical Libretto

  1. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    Many many gems tucked away in obnoxiously wordy and sometimes just bad prose. Worth a read if you're interested in making your own musical libretto, not worth a read otherwise. Many many gems tucked away in obnoxiously wordy and sometimes just bad prose. Worth a read if you're interested in making your own musical libretto, not worth a read otherwise.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Peter J Casey

    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 Julie 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.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Duncan

    Wow, Mr. Engel comes off as incredibly snobby and condescending throughout this book. It was written in the early 70s, and he thoroughly trashes any musical he considers unworthy (including "Man of La Mancha", one of my favorites). This edition includes emendations from our century (2006 or thereabouts) which serve to temper the bile. Very interesting read for a writer of musical theatre, if you can stomach Engel's pronouncements and just consider him a crotchety old man. Wow, Mr. Engel comes off as incredibly snobby and condescending throughout this book. It was written in the early 70s, and he thoroughly trashes any musical he considers unworthy (including "Man of La Mancha", one of my favorites). This edition includes emendations from our century (2006 or thereabouts) which serve to temper the bile. Very interesting read for a writer of musical theatre, if you can stomach Engel's pronouncements and just consider him a crotchety old man.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Phillip

    In the mid 70’s, Lehman Engel wrote this book exploring the traits of a successful Broadway musical. His lengthy career as a composer and conductor gave him great insight into difference between those shows that are continually being produced somewhere around the world, and the ones that have some elements that shine in the memory, and those that die on the vine, seldom to be heard of again. In 2006 Howard Kissel, Chief theatre critic for the Daily news, resurrected this book by adding his own c In the mid 70’s, Lehman Engel wrote this book exploring the traits of a successful Broadway musical. His lengthy career as a composer and conductor gave him great insight into difference between those shows that are continually being produced somewhere around the world, and the ones that have some elements that shine in the memory, and those that die on the vine, seldom to be heard of again. In 2006 Howard Kissel, Chief theatre critic for the Daily news, resurrected this book by adding his own comments at the end of each chapter addressing the how the shows from Engel’s time into the new century fall in line with Engel’s observations. Admittedly some the opinions expressed seem a bit snooty, but, for me, the principles presented here are valid. A perfect book for the avid fan and a must read for any wannabe librettist.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    There are a couple of moments of wonderful clarity and insight, but this largely reads as opinionated self-righteousness, and unfortunately the updates haven't helped much. I found myself strongly disagreeing with a lot of the analysis and this made the book a very infuriating read, which somewhat negated the useful information that could be gleaned from it. There are a couple of moments of wonderful clarity and insight, but this largely reads as opinionated self-righteousness, and unfortunately the updates haven't helped much. I found myself strongly disagreeing with a lot of the analysis and this made the book a very infuriating read, which somewhat negated the useful information that could be gleaned from it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mike Shapiro

    Despite reaching to us across decades, an invaluable resource for writers of musical theatre today. The book's core premise is that, if we agree that the mark of a great musical is the ability to transcend the time and location of its creation, then storytelling through sympathetic characters is key to making a show work. It's hard to argue with that, but Engel's numerous examples and overlapping views of the subject from different angles make his premise clear and convincing. There are tremendo Despite reaching to us across decades, an invaluable resource for writers of musical theatre today. The book's core premise is that, if we agree that the mark of a great musical is the ability to transcend the time and location of its creation, then storytelling through sympathetic characters is key to making a show work. It's hard to argue with that, but Engel's numerous examples and overlapping views of the subject from different angles make his premise clear and convincing. There are tremendous insights in every chapter, some of which I found surprising - such as the idea that Shakespeare's non-musical plays serve as a role model for musical librettos. The downside of the book is Engel's writing style, which is a touch archaic and sometimes grammatically burdensome. He's also prone to long rambles, which reveal an impressive knowledge both theatre and music history, but can tax the attention in the context of a "how to" manual. The annotations by Howard Kissel provide a more recent perspective that helps show how many of Engel's principles still apply, and also shed light on a few points that seem odd to contemporary sensibilities. (Engel's "every good musical has a subplot" axiom seems questionable in light of shows like Legally Blonde, which focus relentlessly on a single protagonist.) This book is work. You have to think your way through it, endure the rambles, and root out the truffles of wisdom. It probably requires more than one reading for full benefit. But it's worth the effort; Engel's background in the theatre (not to mention dazzling learnedness) gave him tremendous insight on what makes a show "workable". Smart theatre authors will learn from his perspective.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Greg Kerestan

    Before Sondheim wrote his two-volume memoir, collected works and study of the craft, Lehman Engel was the greatest authority in the field to ever write a how-to guide for musical theatre writers. This book, with its ties to the greatest workshop and development facility in New York, is indispensable as a guide to making musicals happen, with significant amounts of detail, anecdote and example. If you're going to write a show, you need to read this book. Before Sondheim wrote his two-volume memoir, collected works and study of the craft, Lehman Engel was the greatest authority in the field to ever write a how-to guide for musical theatre writers. This book, with its ties to the greatest workshop and development facility in New York, is indispensable as a guide to making musicals happen, with significant amounts of detail, anecdote and example. If you're going to write a show, you need to read this book.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tommy

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mel Atkey

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kaivan Mayelzadeh

  11. 5 out of 5

    Michael Gilboe

  12. 5 out of 5

    Scott Fuchs

    My edition is original hard cover

  13. 4 out of 5

    Brian O'Connor

  14. 4 out of 5

    hwq

  15. 5 out of 5

    Blaire Townshend

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany Barclay

  17. 5 out of 5

    Doni

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gregory

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sonia Kozlova

  20. 5 out of 5

    Despanish

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mickey Anthony

  22. 4 out of 5

    Brittany Petruzzi

  23. 4 out of 5

    Amy Lambert

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ben Draper

  25. 5 out of 5

    Christina Blomquist Nichols

  26. 5 out of 5

    Harrison White

  27. 4 out of 5

    Eileen

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  29. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Morris

  30. 4 out of 5

    Duncan

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