The first several chapters in Jack Viertel’s book The Secret Life of the American Musical highlight the relatively standard course most musicals follow in terms of song order and story structure. As we get into chapter 6, 7 and 8, which Jack describes as “bushwhacking,” we can see how all musicals are not created equal.

It is at this point in the show that the real challenge begins. We have established our “normal world” (time, place, characters, and rules of said world), identified our hero, defined his/her clear “want,” and entertained the audience a little as well. Now what?

Jack states:

The show leaves the prescribed trail and begins to bushwhack its way through the unknown thicket of its own making. 1

Working off the traditional 3-act structure, this is where the second act begins.

There are a variety of courses a show can take at this point, but these are a few options that typically occur:

  • A number for the villain
  • Introducing a secondary romantic or non-romantic couple
  • A little time on the subplot
  • A song for the star

Let’s look at Jack Viertel’s explanations and examples.

Secondary Couples

Secondary couples are pretty common in the Golden Age of musicals, often balancing the mood of the show by providing comic relief in between the more serious journey of the protagonist (e.g. Ado Annie and Will Parker in Oklahoma).

They also can “hold up a reverse mirror to the main romance”2 by providing another lens through which the audience can examine the show’s underlying themes.

In creating songs for these secondary couples (and any character for that matter), composers sometimes create distinct musical styles that differentiate the couple from the primary set. Some even create complete leifmotifs to further establish and identify characters.

Actors can also set their characters apart by the way they sing their songs. He references Sweeney Todd’s first (Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett) and second (Johanna and Anthony) couples. The first couple sings with grit and intent, the second is marked by bliss and naïveté. These choices by the actors can help deepen the divide between couples 1 and 2.


A story is only as gripping as its villain.3

Since The Secret Life of the American Musical mainly deals with songs within a musical, chapter 7 focuses on villains who sing. Not every villain does, or should, sing, as in the case with The Book of Mormon. In a show with so much comical and tongue-in-cheek humor, it does good to give gravity to the villain by not letting him sing.

However, there are a few instances in which a comical villain does the trick. Mrs. Hannigan’s “Little Girls” from Annie is the classic. Her attitude is terrible and we hate what she puts the girls through, but we can’t help but savor her lack of control and enjoy a giggle or two at her, and their, expense. Similarly, Howard Ashman’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” by the evil Ursula in The Little Mermaid reveals a villain we love, and love to hate.

The best villain songs are often the ones that uncover the villain’s humanity.

Generally speaking, villains are most compelling when, however terrible they are, we’re forced to understand their point of view.4

These can become the villain’s own “I want” song. Perhaps about his struggle to change, his justifiable goal, or his miserable self-loathing. Jud Fry in Oklahoma sings of his “moral quandary.” Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd is crippled by his obsession and fantasies. The Wizard in Wicked only wants to be “wonderful.” Villains are often “deeply troubled and complicated person struggling with demons”5 and possibly have their own goal to pursue in direct opposition to the hero. Occasionally, they serve simply as a comic counter to the more serious journey of the protagonist.

The Multiplot and How It Thickens

Jack gives a brief look at the multiplot, mainly spending the 5 pages of chapter 8 on how using the convention of multiplot in a musical typically has not worked.

A multiplot is where the story follows the mostly unrelated stories of multiple characters, which on occasion cross and affect the other. Shows such as Ragtime, Sunday in the Park with George, and Titanic use this as the construction tool of choice.

Telling too many stories at once poses a high risk of confusing the audience. If there is no one character to really root for, the audience can forfeit their emotional investment. Even the best writers can’t seem to make this story structure successful. Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have produced brilliant work, but speaking of Ragtime, Viertel states:

Despite a skilled set of collaborators doing some excellent work, the train seems to have stopped once too often, and too many audience members disembarked.6

The one show that has successfully used the multiplot is the popular Avenue Q.  It has remained a favorite with audiences, but has proved is a tough act to follow when using the multiplot as a story tool.

Because the diva deserves her own article, we’ll dig into a song for the star in the next post in this series entitled: Adelaide’s Lament: Stars.


  1. The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel, page 109.
  2. The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel, page 111.
  3. The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel, page 122.
  4. The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel, page 122.
  5. The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel, page 127.
  6. The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel, page 132.