Let’s start with a simple fact – there are HUNDREDS of books that have been written about musical theater, particularly the American musical, and many of them are worth a read.  What’s more, there are THOUSANDS and probably TENS OF THOUSANDS of books about theater and the various aspects of it, its history, literature, how to direct, act, write, compose, produce, design a show, you name it.  I’ve read many of these, and they helped to shape my understanding of the art I’ve spent a lifetime involved in creating.

This page is meant to assist you in selecting what I hope are the most worthwhile books to read, regarding musicals, they’re history and how to do them.  I’ve broken it down into two large categories, STARTER books for people who just want a good overview of the subject, and EXPERT books for those of you ready to dive into to details and well-thought out essays on musical theater.  Many of these books are, very sadly, out of print!  You may have to do some hunting through library catalogs and even the Internet to locate copies.   Trust me on this, you will not be wasting your time.  These books are, I believe, the best of the best in the area of musical theater.

STARTER BOOKS

Musical Theater History and Shows

The World of Musical Comedy”
by Stanley Green
A lovely, enthusiastic, simple walk-through-time history of the most important composers and their collaborators, with enough detail to provide a fair picture of the development of the American musical.  I read my copy to shreds, and I think you will, too.

Ring Bells! Sing Songs!”
by Stanley Green
A large picture book with informed, fun articles detailing the development of the Musical through the 1930s.  Read this one after  “The World of Musical Comedy”, since it selects out one decade.

New Complete Book of the American Musical Theater”
by David Ewen
A terrific look at almost every important musical up to the late 1950s, with enough detail to be interesting to the experienced.  A big book, but you can pick and choose and skip around.  The author is a little bit of a worshiper of Richard Rodgers, take that into account.

The Musical Theater”
by Alan Jay Lerner
The brilliant lyricist/book writer of My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon, Gigi, and On A Clear Day you Can See Forever (as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay for An American In Paris, etc etc…) walks you through the history of the art form he loved so marvelously well.  A very fine read.

Show Tunes  1905-1991″
by Steven Suskin
A fine look at the most important composers and their works, with some very smart commentary by a very smart writer (who I do not always agree with, but always find compelling).  Again, feel free to skip around, as needed.

Opening Night On Broadway”
by Steven Suskin
A very interesting book reviewing the Reviewers (written by a reviewer), the critics, looking at their reviews of many, many shows, hits and flops.  How right were the critics?  Judge for yourself.   Skip around as it pleases you.

Acting

Actors Talk About Acting
by Lewis Funk and John E. Booth
Fourteen brilliant actors (almost every one of which attempted at least one musical) talk about their approaches to acting.  Surprising in the varied approaches.

EXPERT BOOKS

Musical Theater History and Shows

“Broadway Babies”
by Ethan Mordden
A brilliant breakdown of the evolution of the American musical, with terrific ideas and understanding of the history.   Not a long book, but inspired and inspiring.

Broadway Babies Say Goodnight”
by Mark Steyn
A smart, informed somewhat detailed overview of the evolving American musical, and its most important participants.  Fun, filled with interesting stories and opinions that are FLAT OUT WRONG and frustrating.  Probably works best once you know a bit about the history.

How To Produce A Musical, and a few books about Producers

From Option To Opening”
by Donald Farber
Authored by a lawyer who has enormous experience seeing musicals through from the ground up, this is THE indispensable book for producers, with sample contracts, etc.  Not a long book, but dense with legal “you musts”, and understanding of the process of getting shows up and running, and its many steps.  A little dated now (the contract samples), but this is a must read.  Follow it with “Producing Theater”, also by Farber, a longer, more detailed look at the details of producing.

Sondheim & Company”
by Craig Zadan
I wore out three copies of this one, when I was fairly new to all this, and then again later.  Broken into chapters, each one covering one area of required expertise (book writer, composer, lyricist, producer, director, etc), and interviewing masters who have worked with Stephen Sondheim (clearly himself a master) in each area, a remarkable and accessible more-than-primer to the art of making musicals.  It helps to know Sondheim’s shows before reading this one, though.

Harold Prince, from Pajama Game to Phantom of the Opera and Beyond”
by Carol Ilson
A good look at arguably the most important producer (and director) of musicals in the second half of the twentieth century, and into the twenty first.  Lots of fine ideas at play.  And yes, the title’s too long.  Don’t let the deter you, it’s a good read.

David Merrick, The Abominable Showman”
by Howard Kissel
Pure fun, but also educative about producing and the “business” of show biz.  Merrick was a monster, a terrible man, and one of the most successful producers of all time.  You will learn a lot, get lots of ideas, and perhaps be appalled from time to time.  You will not be bored, and you will be a better producer after reading it.

How to Write a Musical

Finishing The Hat” and “Look, I Made A Hat”
by Stephen Sondheim
One of the very best (if not the) and most influential composer/lyricists of all time explains exactly why he wrote as he did, show by show, in two generous, fascinating books.  A must read!  He also shares his reaction to other lyricists and some composers, all of which should be taken as opinion, and with a grain of salt.  But when he talks about writing lyrics and music and putting them together, no one knows (or ever did know) more.  best read after you know most (if not all) of Mr. Sondheim’s scores, at least conversationally.

“Art Isn’t Easy”
by Joanne Gordon
And as you’re listening to those Sondheim scores, here’s a book that will help you understand their structure, the purpose behind much that has been written.  A detailed analysis of the shows, and again, thought-provoking and useful.

Lyrics”
by Oscar Hammerstein II
And who taught Mr. Sondheim (and most of the world) to write lyrics and books, to structure them and to provide them with something to say?  Oscar Hammerstein II, of course, and who better?  Hammerstein learned from the best, Otto Harbach, when he was young, and stretched a massive and fantastically influential career well over five decades.  There are few people who changed the musical theater more.  Sadly, he focuses here only on lyric writing, which I would argue was not his greatest skill, but boy is it worth a read!

“Musical Stages”
by Richard Rodgers
Yes, Hammerstein’s famed partner.  An autobiography covering the three stages of his career (Rodgers &Hart; Rodgers & Hammerstein; Rodgers alone and with occasional lyricists), Rodgers parades us through his mighty career, and offers excellent ideas about how the musical should be written.  No one wrote more Broadway shows or bigger hits, no one was more influential.  He mercifully glosses over his life rather quickly and mostly talks about the work, saying very nice things about his collaborators when, in life, he was said to be highly critical and a bit of an s.o.b.  Just focus on what he says about musicals, it’s valuable.

“Kurt Weill On Stage”
by Foster Hirsch
A sometimes profound look at Weill’s work as a composer for theater, starting in Germany with masterworks like The Threepenny Opera, and extending through his great American works.  The book aptly debunks the nonsensical idea that there were two Weills, the arch atonal German and the sell-out American composer.  No composer gave the theater more consistently beautiful and challenging music than Weill, and this book looks into the works themselves.  Really not useful if you don’t familiarize yourself with his operas and musicals first.

“The Days Grow Short”
by Ronald Sanders
A biography of Weill that also investigates his works.  Very fine and useful, a good read.

“The Street Where I Live”
by Alan Jay Lerner
An autobiography focused on the prime years of Lerner’s creativity, during the writing of My Fair Lady, Gigi and Camelot.  Many insights, a valuable read by an erudite, clever writer.

“Lyrics On Several Occasions”
by Ira Gershwin
And George’s legendary songwriting partner chimes in with a remarkable, fairly long investigation into what makes a good lyric and how to write one, breaking apart many of his own classics.    Again, a very valuable read if you’re planning on writing either lyrics or music for a musical.

“A Hymn To Him – The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner”
by Benny Green
A fine collection and dissection of some of the finest lyrics ever written for a musical.

“The Musical Comedy Book”
by Peter Stone
The author of numerous successful books for musical, most notably the book for 1776, wrote a lengthy article (not really a book) about the history and how to of book writing for musical theater.  Fantastic, probably can be found on the Internet.

“Playwrights On Playwriting”
by Toby Cole
Many great playwrights talk about how to write great plays.  Hey, musicals are plays that have a lot of music, folks.

“Tragedy & Comedy”
by Walter Kerr
The best book (easily) ever written by a critic, it breaks down 2,500 years of theatrical trends and ideas with fantastic expertise and depth.  One of the most valuable books I’ve ever read about theater.

Directing & Designing Musicals

“The Stage In Action”
by Samuel Seldon
Unlikely to be in print, a remarkable investigation into the staging of a play (or musical), with tons of ideas to get the creative muscles working.  Lots of talk about dance, as well.  Invaluable!”

“The Empty Space”
by Peter Brook
Probably the world’s finest and most interesting director in the second half of the 20th century talks about creative, unusual ways to create a play.  Eye-opening in every way.

“Backstage Handbook”
by Paul Carter
Utterly invaluable, literally an encyclopedia with thousands of detailed drawings illustrating all the technical tools (and how to use them) of design, lighting, and stage craft.

“Cecil Beaton’s Fair Lady”
by Cecil Beaton
The designer of perhaps the greatest Broadway musical ever discusses in detail the film version’s design.  Hard to find, worth the search.

“Stage Design”
by Howard Bay
A wonderful and practiced set and lighting designer covers in detail how to expertly do these parts of theater.  Generously filled with photos and illustrations.