Monday, July 9, 2007

Rock 'n Roll on Broadway

Rock ‘n Roll! Is the multi-Tony Award winning musical, “Spring Awakening,” with its high energy, rock-infused score, the wave of the future on Broadway? Or, to put it another way, is The Great White Way, possibly, a fertile breeding ground for rockers looking to stretch their artistic muscles? This was one of the themes in a June 24, 2007 column by Charles Isherwood in The New York Times (“On This Rock, Build a Future For Musicals”). The success of “Spring Awakening” could, according to Isherwood, “encourage more refugees from the rock and pop worlds to venture into theater.” This may occur but, historically speaking, Broadway has never attracted a considerable number of pop or rock composers to the musical stage even when the next influential rock musical opened to critical and popular success. This has been the pattern when the three seminal rock musicals—“Hair,” in 1968; “Rent,” in 1996; and now “Spring Awakening”—have opened. (I am not counting jukebox musicals or The Who’s “Tommy” and the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” since these are not what I would term ‘defining rock productions.’) The years following the openings of the three aforementioned shows has seen musicals more in the Tin Pan Alley tradition than in the rock ‘n roll vein.

There have been some notable forays by pop and rock artists on Broadway—the 1968 Burt Bacharach-Hal David smash, “Promises, Promises;” Roger Miller’s acclaimed 1985 score for “Big River;” Paul Simon’s 1996 Broadway flop, “The Capeman;” Phil Collins’ “Tarzan;” as well as Elton John’s incursion into legitimate theater with four shows to his credit—hits with “The Lion King,” “Aida,” and “Billy Elliott,” and a bomb with the recent “Lestat.”

What is intriguing about Isherwood’s argument is how the Internet may begin to finally change how pop and rock artists view the Broadway landscape. As with anything related to music today, selective downloading of songs could be the catalyst. People, like myself, visit iTunes to purchase, primarily, individual songs as opposed to whole albums. “If albums are soon to become all but obsolete,” Isherwood writes, “what are the ambitious artists to do with the more expansively conceived statements once known as concept albums?” One answer could be the Broadway musical stage.

Who do I think would have the ability, fortitude and gumption to carry out such an assignment? Well, considering my tastes and knowledge base are woefully stuck in the late 1970’s and 1980’s I would nominate:

  • Paul Simon. His score was the best part of the skewered, “The Capeman.” He should dust himself off, surround him with theater veterans and have a go at it one more time.

  • Paul McCartney. He’s already written one musical—the failed 1984 movie, “Give My Regards to Broad Street.” The former Beatle is so versatile, why not set out to conquer Broadway?

  • Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of the English rock group “Squeeze.” In their heyday the twosome were known as the Lennon-McCartney of New Wave.

  • Andy Partridge of the English group, “XTC.” Prolific songwriter who could almost certainly translate his artistic prowess to the musical stage.

  • Elvis Costello. Superior talent who could easily extend his intelligence and flair to Broadway.

  • Billy Joel. The piano man, in another era, would have been the toast of Broadway. Hey, he’s already won a Tony Award for Best Orchestration. Why stop there?

  • Elton John. Keep it up. Still batting .750!

The future of rock’s encroachment onto Broadway may not be too far off. The just announced stage musical of “Spider-Man” will have a score by Bono and The Edge of the supergroup, “U2.” Who’ll be next to step up to the plate?

No comments: