Painters go to museums to look at Rembrandt’s work. Filmmakers pop in their Gone with the Wind DVDs. Songwriters buy the latest hip hop album from Target. Librettists, however, have to scramble to get their hands on whatever they can.
This summer I was reading the Keith Garberian book The Making of Guys and Dolls, and it brought to mind a great frustration, which is that it is difficult/impossible to get your hands on the libretti of so many musicals. If you are a producing organization, you can just request perusal copies of whatever shows you want, and if the show is available through Samuel French or is a Sondheim show, you can easily buy a copy.
Unfortunately, many of the great libretti from the past aren’t that easy to find. When it comes to finding out-of-print libretti, I’ve managed to be very scrappy, finding classics like The King and I, The Sound of Music, Camelot, 1776, and Of Thee I Sing and lesser-known older shows like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Fanny, Flower Drum Song, and Me and Juliet at used bookstores in small cities. But it is hard to find some of the best ones—Oklahoma!, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, The Music Man, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and others—and when you do find them, they tend to be very expensive.
Furthermore, even in a Broadway revival, rarely do you see the original libretto. In most of the revivals from the past decade, you are getting interpolated songs and altered books. The movies, most will agree, are not the same thing either. In the very few successful film adaptations there are, it’s a different medium and changes have had to be made if only for that sake. So, attempting to experience the libretto through the movie version is just not the same, not only for the prerequisite new songs and cut old ones, but because the stage is different altogether.
As an aspiring-to-be-produced librettist, I long for the ability to get my hands on these, to read them, re-read them, to mark them up. If you want to study the masters, you need to have access to their unabridged work. As Garebian was discussing the process of writing Guys and Dolls, I so much wanted to read the libretto to better understand its construction and use of humor. I wanted to study it and learn from the best.
Having access to libretti also allows you to experience shows in the original form. I’ll probably never get to see Me and Juliet, but by reading it, I was able to enjoy it. God only knows if and when there will ever be another production of On the Twentieth Century, but by reading the libretto, I could relive the Broadway production I never saw. There are a host of older shows that will never see production, but being able to read their libretti (like Wildcat, Allegro, Do Re Mi) gives you the chance to learn from others’ mistakes (and often, there is still a level of pleasure in reading them).
The number of recent publications, while not expansive by any means, suggests that there must be some market for them. Among the recently published libretti include Hwang’s Flower Drum Song; Urinetown; Hairspray; Caroline, or Change; and The Light in the Piazza. Some of these have been a real blessing because for those of us not in New York, this has been the only way to experience these shows when they didn’t tour. I’m particularly thankful for Willy Hausman’s collection The New American Musical in which he gathered Floyd Collins, Rent, Parade, and The Wild Party. I’m hoping he produces a sequel collection soon.
And for all the great libretti published, there are still many which would be great to have—Marie Christine, Ragtime, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Wicked, and The Color Purple, to name a few. This out leaves out the vast majority of classic musicals that aren’t available. It would be great to have easy access to the original books to Oklahoma!; Carousel; Brigadoon; Bloomer Girl; Hello, Dolly! and all those other great shows from the Golden Era.
In a June blog entry entitled “Announced for Next Season: The Second Golden Age,” I stated my belief that we are on the cusp of another golden age. One key element for that to happen is the need for strong musical book-writers, people who are not just great film writers who can be tapped for Broadway but people who know and understand and love the art form. Yes, we need great songs, but a great score can hardly rise above a mediocre book. We tend to nurture songwriters and value their contribution above the book-writers, but there needs to be educational opportunity and support for them as well.
One group that could lead the pack on this is the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization. Their shows are some of the best-known in the world, and I can’t believe there wouldn’t be interest in individual or collected publications of the Masters’ original libretti. Perhaps if they did, others would follow suit.
Speaking as a wanna-be-produced librettist, I want access to these libretti to learn and study. When I’m wondering what kind of humor Abe Burrows used in Guys and Dolls, I want to look it up and see. When I want to understand why Walter Bobby felt the need to improve on Sweet Charity, I need to read the original libretto to get it. When I want to see how Oscar Hammerstein developed Billy without getting us to hate him, I can only do that by reading the libretto.
the Broadway Mouth
October 13, 2007