Rock ‘n’ Roll and Broadway Theater - A Happy Marriage?
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The inspiration for this article was the news that Bruce Springsteen was heading on up to Broadway. And to be honest the high price of the tickets caused me to follow the news. I also thought that rock and roll isn’t really a fit for a Broadway theater.
I started with a historic perspective. For over half of the 20th century, a significant majority of American music originated from and could be found on a New York City street called Broadway. American musical theater had been the country’s repository for popular music. Show tunes ruled for decades, until a seemingly innocuous occurrence.
In 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets released a single, “Rock Around the Clock”. Hollywood did its part and used Haley’s song in the movie “The Blackboard Jungle” and disaffected American youth was then forever linked with rock ‘n’ roll. By 1957 every song on the Billboard Top Ten was a rock n’ roll song. And you thought UBER was a disruptive force to the economy. Rock ‘n’ Roll did its part to disrupt. Your parent’s music was pushed out of the way.
It took another group of European conquistadors, The Beatles, landing in America in 1964 to herald the dominance of American youth in all things media and entertainment (TV, Film, Radio, Music, Art, and Publishing). An occasional act of revolt occurred when parent’s music (Louie Armstrong’s Hello Dolly) unseated the Beatles at Number 1 for a brief time. After 1964 rock ‘n’ roll music dominated the Billboard Charts and the hearts and minds of American youth along with the advertisers desperate to sell products to this demographic. More importantly, the disaffected American youth was now the prize target of advertisers and Broadway producers. Broadway’s desire was to put the disaffected youth in their seats.
In the mid 1960’s Broadway realized that the demographics trended toward youth. The parents, a diminishing demographic, who coveted the Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes of the past weren’t going to fill the theaters. To survive the future Broadway needed to attract a young audience. Broadway producers at that time were searching for the magic bullet and an unlikely Broadway Producer Joseph Papp struck gold and brought a rock musical called “Hair” to Broadway. Book and lyrics by two unemployed actors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado who wrote a musical script about life among NYC flower children in the East Village. Galt MacDermot composed the music and produced an eclectic hard rock score, an amalgam of Motown, Indian ragas, ballads, folk music and gospel. A run of 1,742 performances at Broadway’s Biltmore Theater on West 47th Street ensued. The counter-culture had made a beachhead on the land of the parents. Did Hair save Broadway? Probably not, but it did get a younger audience to buy tickets. The show’s songs made it to the pop charts. Who doesn’t know Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In by The 5th Dimension?
The decades that followed had an imperfect scorecard. Rock music servicing a Broadway narrative was a hit or miss transaction. Burt Bacharach and Hal David did well with “Promises Promises” (1968) (a musical version of Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment) producing such pop (not necessarily rock) songs as “Walk on By, What the World Needs Now , The Look of Love, and This Guy’s in Love With You” Look out Austin Powers and Elvis Costello great music is indeed timeless.
Each Broadway season from the eighties up to today brought more or less the traditional Broadway musical scores. Rock’s contribution I assert, was limited to the backbeat of rock or electronic instrumentation that really amped up a conventional score. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice infused their “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1970) and “Evita” scores with a more modern rock beat, but ultimately played within the limits of the traditional Broadway musical. I am not so sure the producers were able to capture the younger audience as much as made their parents succumb to the beat and tone of rock n roll.
The late 1970’s brought a genuine rock star, Elton John to Broadway through a pair of Disney vehicles, “The Lion King” (1997) and “Aida” (1998). Choreographers created Broadway theater pieces using Billy Joel songs and other artists who through their music showed themselves to be great story tellers. Twyla Tharp brought the Billy Joel Jukebox show “Movin’ Out” (2002) to Broadway along with 30 Joel songs. With a beachhead established in the sixties and seventies, a few genuine rock and roll recording artists sought to take on Broadway and the Broadway musical score in the ensuing years. Some failed and quietly left the stage, some collapsed in spectacular fashion, a few met with modest success and I assert there was no breakout success. Some songs made the billboard charts but no recording artist in my view created a genuine success on Broadway.
I assert that the best and truest Rock and Roll Broadway show was imported from one of the top 5 rock bands, the Who. Pete Townsend had better luck than most in 1993. The Who’s “Tommy” debuted on Broadway on March 29, 1993 and the acclaim was universal. The boy who was struck deaf, dumb and blind after watching his dad murder his mother’s lover earned 11 Tony Award nominations. Authored by Pete Townsend, the story lined changed from the earlier rock opera version and drafting a more acceptable ending to accommodate traditional theater goers, Townsend cause a bit of controversy, but not enough to thwart the critics’ praise nor the audiences’ approval. The show was loved by Broadway.
Tommy was praised by The New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich, which I excerpt below:
When the time comes for the entire company to advance on the audience to sing the soaring final incantation -- "Listening to you I get the music/ Gazing at you I get the heat" -- "Tommy" has done what rock-and-roll can do but almost never does in the theater: reawaken an audience's adolescent feelings of rebellion and allow them open-throated release. But reflecting the passage of time and Mr. Townshend's own mature age of 47, this version takes a brave step further, concluding with a powerful tableau of reconciliation that lifts an audience of the 1990's out of its seats.
"Hope I die before I get old," sang the Who in "My Generation," its early hit single. A quarter-century or so later, Mr. Townshend hasn't got old so much as grown up, into a deeper view of humanity unthinkable in the late 1960's. Far from being another of Broadway's excursions into nostalgia, "Tommy" is the first musical in years to feel completely alive in its own moment. No wonder that for two hours it makes the world seem young.
That’s the Good, now here’s the Bad and the Ugly.
One of biggest failures was Paul Simon’s “The Capeman” (1998). The subject matter was a real-life NYC Puerto Rican teenager who murdered two people while wearing a cape. Simon composed a mix of doo-wop, gospel and Latin beats. Simon defiled convention and released the album prior to the cast album.
The Rolling Stone’s review is worth reviewing.
Songs from 'The Capeman' is a mongrel project. It isn't the score for the Broadway musical written by Paul Simon and novelist/poet Derek Walcott, but 13 songs (out of 30-odd) selected from the show. Simon himself, not the cast members, sings most, but not all, of these tunes — which makes it an odd preview of a musical that won't open until January.
That said, the album is terrifically satisfying. Simon has found a surprisingly effective musical voice — intermingling doo-wop, traditional Latin styles and art-song sophistication — in which to tell the story of Salvador Agron, the Puerto Rican teenager who inflamed New York's ever-simmering ethnic tensions when he killed two young white boys in 1959. Agron, whose gang was called the Vampires, wore a black cape, and the city's tabloids dubbed him the Capeman.
The sociopolitical aspects of the case occasionally lead Simon and Walcott to overreach in their lyrics, especially given the musical setting — "The politics of prison are a mirror of the street/The poor endure oppression, the police control the State" is a far cry from "I just met a girl named Maria." But for the most part, the two men explore the tragedy of young lives swept up in circumstances far beyond their control with eloquence and a bracing lack of sentimentality. This work's ultimate question is, what are the possibilities of redemption? Can even the Capeman find his way to Graceland?
Now juxtapose a favorable review with what the theater critics said about the play – they savaged it. The New York Times opined: “It is like watching a mortally wounded animal. Your only worry is that it has to suffer and that there’s nothing you can do about it” Ouch! The show closed after 68 performances and lost $11,000,000. Ouch again!
Other Broadway shows that attempted to marry rock music to theatre were Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark which featured music by Bono and The Edge of U2 and The Last Ship with a score by Sting.
There remain a handful of Broadway musicals that evoke rock and roll - - “Rent” (1996); “Spring Awaking” (2006); “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (1998) (Never officially made it to Broadway); and “Hamilton” (2015 ) a Rap Opera which continues to welcome full houses and perhaps is the most successful and acclaimed rock and roll (well Rap) musical ever.
Those concerned Broadway producers need not fear that their audiences are on life support – with revivals of “Hello Dolly” and the openings of shows like “Hamilton” Broadway has learned to safely keep the kids and the parents in the seats. Rock of Ages seems to be doing alright. Youth is well served and the show goes on.
Broadway after all is at least 50% musicals and it is no surprise that Popular music, Hip Hop, Rock, and Country can find a home on Broadway. Springsteen opened to rave revenues and I took a look at who’s on deck.
With a book by Kyle Jarrow Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical opens in December 2017. Music by quite a roster: Steven Tyler, Cyndi Lauper, They Might Be Giants, Jonathan Coulton, Dirty Projectors, The Flaming Lips, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, Lady Antebellum, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T's, T.I. and David Bowie. Bikini Bottom meets the giants of pop.
It’s five o’clock somewhere and opening March 15, 2018 is Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaretville. Which will satisfy his fans with a trip of nostalgia.
And if Springsteen fills the seats on Broadway, can Van Zandt be far behind? Piece of My Heart, an off-Broadway musical about a rock pioneer will be produced on Broadway in late 2017 – 2018. The story traces the career of Bert Berns a 1960’s composer of some of Rocks most widely recognized songs” Brown Eyed Girl, Cry Baby, Under the Boardwalk. Broadway is always looking for the next Chicago or Dreamgirls. Who knows, the next Broadway smash may be based on music by your favorite artist. Let us know who you think deserves to have a show on Broadway.