After decades of largely ignoring pop music, the Broadway musical is finally beginning to sing a new song.
Two of this season's megamusicals boast pop scores: Disney's "The Lion King," with songs written, in part, by Elton John and Tim Rice, and Paul Simon's forthcoming "The Capeman." In addition, Randy Newman, Barry Manilow and Jimmy Buffett have all had musicals produced around the country lately.
In the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, from the Gershwins and Cole Porter through Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, Broadway show music and pop music were the same. Show tunes were played on the radio; sheet music was mass marketed; audiences arrived at the theater already humming the tunes.
But in the early 1960s, Broadway music and pop music parted company. The chief culprit: rock and roll. The pop charts blazed new ground; Broadway didn't.
There have been rock-influenced musicals on Broadway, but they have been sporadic enough to be aberrations. "Bye Bye Birdie" (1960), "Hair" (1968), "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" (both 1971), "Grease" (1972), "Dreamgirls" (1981) and, more recently, "The Who's Tommy" (1993) all had pop scores. Many of these, however, were mere imitations. For example, as Paul Simon told the Sun recently, " 'Bye Bye Birdie' was meant as a parody of rock and roll. Even 'Hair,' which was trying to be rock and roll, wasn't really."
"Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" came closer to being the genuine article, but "Dreamgirls," with its nonstop Motown sound, was one of the first to get it right.
Tuesday, a Broadway-bound revival of "Dreamgirls" opens at the Mechanic Theatre. "We were a trendsetter. We started a movement of pop music in what had been a rarified medium," says "Dreamgirls" composer Henry Krieger, admitting he isn't sure why it has taken Broadway so long to catch up.
It wasn't for lack of popularity. Directed and choreographed by "A Chorus Line" creator Michael Bennett, "Dreamgirls," which chronicles the rise of a Supremes-like singing group, ran nearly four years on Broadway. (The touring production, directed and choreographed by Tony Stevens, re-creates the late Bennett's staging, but relies more on the streamlined 1987 revival than the high-tech 1981 original.)
In terms of plot as well as score, "Dreamgirls" was one of the first musicals to deal seriously with the world of pop music. But with the exception of "Tommy," which was not conceived for the stage, the first major indication of change on Broadway didn't occur until two seasons ago, when two hip musicals, "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," began attracting younger audiences. Now with "The Lion King" and "The Capeman," that attraction shows signs of sticking.
Adapted from Disney's wildly successful 1994 animated film, "The Lion King" is the coming-of-age story of a royal lion cub named Simba. As staged by director and designer Julie Taymor, an avant garde puppeteer and MacArthur genius grant recipient (who worked at Center Stage in 1982), the Broadway production is a breathtaking display of life-sized animal puppets whose artistry stems from Asian puppetry and African masks.
The ethnic flavor of "The Lion King" score, which includes three new songs written by John and Rice, was also enhanced when it moved from screen to stage. The sound is predominantly influenced by the African feel of Disney's spin-off album, "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," and particularly by South African singer and songwriter Lebo M, who appears in the show and is one of six songwriters credited in the Broadway program after John and Rice.
The sound of "The Capeman" is similarly tailored to the material's ethnicity. The plot follows the story of Salvador Agron, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican gang leader who murdered two teen-agers in New York in 1959. At the time, he was the youngest man ever sentenced to death in New York state, but his sentence was commuted in 1962. On stage, he is portrayed by two actors -- as a youth by Marc Anthony, and as an adult by Ruben Blades.
Although "The Capeman" has delayed its opening until Jan. 29, the music can be heard on Simon's album, "Songs from the Capeman," which was released in November. The score is a rich assortment of doo-wop, salsa, Puerto Rican plena, rock, country and even gospel.
For Anthony, the hot young salsa star who put his concert career on hold for "The Capeman," Simon's mastery of the Puerto Rican pop idiom is part of the show's appeal. "It's not even a matter of sounding [authentic]. It is authentic. He went straight to the source," says Anthony. "He gave our music all the respect it deserves."
The other recent musicals by pop composers are at least as disparate as "Lion King" and "Capeman." There's Randy Newman's retelling of "Faust," which was staged in La Jolla, Calif., in 1995 and in Chicago a year later; "Don't Stop the Carnival," based on Herman Wouk's 1965 novel about a Broadway press agent who opens a Caribbean hotel, which debuted in Miami last spring with a book by Wouk and a score by Jimmy Buffett; and Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's "Harmony," which debuted in La Jolla last fall and chronicles the fate of the Comedian Harmonists, an actual Jewish-and-Gentile singing group in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.
Clearly, subject matter isn't what kept pop songwriters from turning to Broadway. Instead, there were other contributing factors, beginning with the differences between the recording industry and the musical theater industry.
"The vast majority of talented composers who came up in the rock and roll era tended to write for records and wanted to write for that media," "Lion King" lyricist Rice suggests.
For one thing, records are far easier to make than musicals, says Rice, who was Andrew Lloyd Webber's librettist before he hooked up with Disney. A recognized rock music authority in his native Britain, where he has co-authored a series of reference books on British pop music, Rice is currently working with John on a musical based on the plot of Verdi's opera, "Aida."
For another thing, Rice points out, records are considerably cheaper to make than musicals -- particularly when the cost of a Broadway musical has skyrocketed to an estimated $15 million plus for "The Lion King." They're also faster; a musical can take as long as a decade to get to Broadway. And, with their much wider audiences, records have a greater impact on mainstream taste.
Anthony, the 29-year-old star of "The Capeman," says before he was cast in one, the Broadway musical seemed far out of reach. "I concentrated on music concerts and movies, and even though I was born and raised in New York, [Broadway] seemed like another world."
Since becoming involved in the Broadway scene, however, Anthony has attended other shows, and it's not surprising that his favorites are "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise."
Anthony's reaction wouldn't surprise "Dreamgirls" composer Krieger. "America is a pop-interested culture," Krieger says. "People want to hear themselves sung about, or identify with the music as their music."
If Krieger is right, why didn't "Dreamgirls" transform the sound of the Broadway musical? In part, the answer may be that the show's ground-breaking staging took attention away from its ground-breaking sound.
Seeing is believing
Instead of changing what we hear on Broadway, "Dreamgirls," with its cinematic flow of scenes, changed what we see. The show's seamless structure was typical of the visually opulent special-effects musicals that came out of Europe beginning the same year -- shows such as "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon."
Even when the scores had a Euro-pop sound and used rock instrumentation, the focus shifted away from the music. "There are those that say British spectacles like 'Cats' and 'Phantom [of the Opera]' made the Broadway idiom into something more of a spectacle," says Krieger, whose latest Broadway musical, the relatively small-scale "Side Show," closed last weekend.
Another factor dividing the music on America's airwaves from the music on Broadway may have been the demise of such television variety programs as "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Kraft Music Hall." Both regularly showcased numbers from current musicals, and both went off the air in 1971.
Now, for the first time in years, Broadway musicals have found a regular network television booster in Rosie O'Donnell. A Broadway fan, O'Donnell's enthusiasm is reflected not only in the many appearances on her show of Broadway casts, but also in her role as host of the annual Tony Awards telecast, which she is expected to repeat this year.
Additional hope for the merging of Broadway and pop comes from, of all places, recordings. Granted, the last cast album ranked No. 1 by Billboard magazine was "Hair" in 1969. And the days when a musical like "My Fair Lady" could spend more than 5 1/2 years on Billboard's top 40 seem long gone. But Broadway's new pop songwriters are doing their best to nudge things along.
Following a practice once relied on by Lloyd Webber and Rice, Simon released "Songs from the Capeman" prior to the opening of the musical. Similarly, much of the music from "The Lion King" was familiar before the Broadway show opened, thanks to Disney's release of an onslaught of related music. And once again, audiences seem to be arriving at the theater humming the songs.
"The Capeman" has been in previews only a few weeks, but Anthony reports that one night when his brother was in the
audience a group of young ladies seated behind him were singing along.
Promising as such evidence may seem, it's important to keep in mind the age of the songwriters represented by the current spate of pop musicals. Described by Variety as the "post-post-rock generation," Paul Simon, Elton John, Jimmy Buffett, Barry Manilow and Randy Newman are all in their 50s. And with the exception of John, it's been awhile since these folks were major radio contenders.
It's too soon to tell whether young pop singers and songwriters will be attracted to Broadway. As Rice points out, Broadway musicals may seem too demanding to the younger generation.
"It's a totally different ballgame," acknowledges Anthony, who toured extensively for the first four years of his singing career. He doesn't expect to return to the theater for some time after "The Capeman." "It's worked wonders for my discipline," he admits, but he also feels his music comes first.
One thing is certain, however. Though they may be mostly middle-aged, plenty of pop songwriters are waiting in the wings of Broadway theaters.
Pete Townshend, who successfully transferred "Tommy" to the stage, is hoping to do the same with his other rock opera, "Quadrophenia". ABBA's Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who went this route a dozen years ago with "Chess" (in collaboration with Rice), have announced a new show with the working title, "Summer Night City." And, lowering the median age somewhat, Garth Brooks is said to be discussing a musical adaptation of the classic Western, "Shane."
So, at least for a while, it looks as if Broadway will rock on.
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
The Lion King'
Where: New Amsterdam Theatre, Broadway and 42nd St., New York
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 6: 30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays
Where: Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York
When: 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Now previewing; opens Jan. 29
Tickets: previews $55-$67.50; regular performances $50-$75
Pub Date: 1/11/98