FROM THE 2011 TONY PLAYBILL: Original Musicals Make a Comeback in 2010-11

Special Features   FROM THE 2011 TONY PLAYBILL: Original Musicals Make a Comeback in 2010-11 Take a walking tour of the new musicals that surfaced on Broadway this past season.

Benjamin Walker
Benjamin Walker Photo by Joan Marcus

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Some say that among the most conspicuous of endangered species is the original musical — the very thing that defines, in many minds, Broadway. We may be years removed from the prolific heydays of Rodgers and his Hart and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other legendary practitioners of that art. But this year, original — meaning new, non-revival — musicals have come back with a vengeance, dwarfing musical revivals almost six to one. Eleven brand-new musicals took their Broadway bows during 2010-2011, with only How To Succeed in Business Without Trying and Anything Goes duking it out for Best Revival honors.

So, let's strike up the band and review these musical newbies that just paraded by!

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Broadway's first emo-rock musical, was the result of an off-hand remark made by Sh-K-Boom Records exec Kurt Deutsch, who, knowing writer-director Alex Timbers was into both emo music and historical figures, said to him: "Isn't Andrew Jackson the ultimate emo-President?" Right then and there, Timbers thought it a fantastic idea and, with songs by Michael Friedman, brought it to fruition and Broadway six years later. "The thing that I think is coolest about this show," he said, "is that Andrew Jackson unwittingly has grown to reflect and refract all the political leaders that we elect so this play, in some ways, is like Obama in Year Two and how difficult it is to govern. It also feels like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. It just been amazing that Jackson is this sort of great fun-house mirror for us but also draws out these different political leaders that we love. He was a very complicated guy, just as it's complicated to be an American. We are the product of Andrew Jackson. I think that's what makes the show interesting. It's not a straight hierography, but it's also not a takedown. I have very complicated feelings about Andrew Jackson." Evidently.
 


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Audacious to the end, Fred Ebb and John Kander served up a social-history horror story in the improbable and controversial form of a socially incorrect minstrel show for their 13th and final Broadway musical. The Scottsboro Boys, which was largely completed just a few days before Ebb's death, tells the true and cruel story of nine African-American teens who were railroaded into jail for rapes that never happened in Alabama of 1931. Hardly a suitable case for musical-comedy treatment, you say? Then, look at the Nazis of Cabaret and the "little" murderers of Chicago — Kander & Ebb triumphs, both! The team's latter-day book-writer, David Thompson, said their desire was "to tell a real American story, a true one," and, to that end, they researched the great trials of the last century, inevitably stumbling across the infamous Scottsboro incident. "John Kander's music is part of his soul," said Thompson. "If he needs music to sound like a ragtime step, it pours out of his fingers. If he needs it to sound like a lovely ballad, he can reach down into that well and pull up that water. He's an artist that way. Most of the score that exists right now was in place when Fred Ebb died. As the musical continues and characters were defined, there were lyrics that had to be finished or adapted or continued, and that's when John stepped in." It was a fitting fini.

So little fidelity was exhibited by the married roué who sets off Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it's nice to note that Jeffrey Lane was faithful-to-a-fault to the dizzy plot-route taken by Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar. After their Dirty Rotten Scoundrels hit, Lane and his songwriter, David Yazbek, started scouting around for another property. "We wanted to find something that scared us a little, that wasn't like anything we'd done," explained Lane, "so we started thinking about foreign films," eventually landing on the Almodovar's 1988 classic comedy about a rejected mistress who gets a voice-mail kiss-off from her boyfriend and skitters, like a pinball, from one of his exes to the next. Throughout, Yazbek stayed true to his unmistakable style, but, he added, "I've always been a lover of Spanish classical music — flamenco and gypsy music as well as a lot of Middle-Eastern types of music, which filtered up into Spain with the Moors — so I let that flavor the music come through." Almodovar admitted surprise that his film had inspired a Broadway musical "because this is the first time that this has happened to a Spanish movie — this musical is completely historical — but I was not surprised in the sense that Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has something that belongs to the states. In that way, I think that it is quite natural."

Mark Jacoby and Sebastian Arcelus in Elf.
photo by Joan Marcus

Elf popped into existence this season, hopefully an instant holiday tradition to fill the nine-week void left by past years' seasonal charmers like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Carol. It asked the musical question, "Can a guy who stowed away on Santa's sled as an infant and spent his next 30 years toiling in the toy factory at the North Pole find happiness as a Macy's elf on 34th Street?" Will Ferrell posed the question first in his 2003 film, and that was re-crafted for the stage by a couple of expert musical-book writers — Annie's Thomas Meehan and The Drowsy Chaperone's Bob Martin — and a couple of young old-soul tunesmiths, The Wedding Singer's Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, who trimmed the tree with songs of the season ("Christmastime," "Nobody Cares about Santa," "There Is a Santa Claus" and their take-away hit, "A Christmas Song"). The musical mellowed the story considerably, giving it more heart and humanity, blurring the cinematic broad strokes so that a big, action confrontation involving Central Park Rangers and the Christmas believers was averted in favor of a more human, less physical crisis. "We went through a lot of different things in Act Two because the Act Two in the movie was so filled with cinematic action it was un-doable on stage," recalled director Casey Nicholaw, who had spent the three previous Christmases around Meehan's Christmas tree working on the show with its creators. "It was about making up a second act, so I'm really proud of how it worked out. It has been an absolute joy. It's been like a Christmas party for all of us."

Nick Adams in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
photo by Joan Marcus

Now reigning at the Palace is Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a pink bus so christened by the three drag artists it is transporting into Australia's dusty Outback. From certain angles, the bus could pass for an oblong jukebox on wheels — a not-inappropriate allusion since the vehicle is fueled with three decades of pop and disco sounds, from The Village People and Dionne Warwick to Cyndi Lauper and Pat Benatar. Director Simon Phillips reveals there've been massive changes in the show since he first workshopped it Down Under five years ago — not the least of which is the new play list he supplied stateside. "Madonna's taken the place of Kylie Minogue, who's popular in London and Australia but not really known in this country," admits Phillips, who keeps those colored lights going when the past musically spins by. Designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won an Oscar for outfitting the 1994 film with all the wit and imagination that $15,000 can buy. For the Broadway version, their budget has jumped a hundred-fold, spread over 500 zany costumes.

Which came first — the age-old question goes — the music or the lyrics or, lest we forget, the book? In the case of The Book of Mormon, the answer is all of the above, and they came simultaneously in a creative musical mash-up among two guys from TV's "South Park" (Matt Stone and Trey Parker) and one of the kids from Avenue Q (Robert Lopez). "That's kinda the way musical comedies need to be written," avers Lopez. "You need to have people in the room so the comedy can happen. It wasn't always thunderbolts. There were a lot of just sitting around and staring at each other and surfing the web, but, when we would make each other laugh, it was a lot of fun." They decided to collaborate on a musical about Joseph Smith and the creation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when they discovered that all three were working on that same idea. "They said, 'This is too much of a coincidence,'" Lopez reports. "'We love Avenue Q. We love this guy, and he loves Mormons, and we love Mormons, and we love musicals, and he writes musicals. Let's do it together.'" And so, as they say, it was written.

Aaron Tveit in Catch Me If You Can.
photo by Joan Marcus

Backstage at the Tony Awards, the night of their Hairspray triumph, was the first time Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman actually verbalized that they were working on a Broadway musicalization of Steven Spielberg's 2002 caper comedy about a con-teen bouncing bad checks around the globe, Catch Me If You Can. That was June of 2003; this is June of 2011. "When people hear we've been working on this show for eight years now, I fear they're going to think it's like 'The Ring Cycle,'" cracks Shaiman. The sound is '60s again, he notes, "a few years down the road from Hairspray. It's more adult and sexy. Hairspray was completely innocent and more girlie. This is more masculine and a bit more adult. It's a very male-driven kind of score because the principals are men. If Hairspray was Sixteen magazine, Catch Me If You Can is Playboy." Songs were cued either by specific lines and phrases from Jeff Nathanson's script, or by scenes supplied by their book-writer, Terrence McNally. "I write a full scene and hope Mark and Scott are going to find a song suggested by my dialogue that inspires them to write a song that will render anywhere from 15 to 80 percent of my dialogue unnecessary," explains McNally. "A playwriting life is a very different art form. The main job a librettist does is structure a musical."

Janet Dacal in Wonderland.
photo by Paul Kolnik

One of Broadway's most prolific modern composers is Frank Wildhorn, steady and holding at six musicals over the past 16 years. "People forget that Victor/Victoria was my first Broadway experience," he pointed out. "When Henry Mancini passed away, Julie Andrews asked me to finish the score. And what's cool is that show was in the Marquis Theatre, and that's where Wonderland is so I feel like I'm coming back to where it all started." Wonderland is his modern-day musicalization of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" — and the first show he specifically wrote for his children. "When you go to Wonderland — when you go to that fantasmagorical place — you have the freedom to go musically anywhere you want. The Mad Hatter, who's played by Kate Shindle — you can make her a jazz artist. You can take El Gato, the Cheshire Cat, and make him Santana. You can take The White Knight and make him Justin Timberlake, the leader of a boy band. The fact we have a Cuban-American girl, Janet Dacal, playing Alice with her curly red hair, again, is just trying to break down stereotypes and barriers. You can give all these iconic figures their own musical leitmotif, and this particular show is wonderful in the sense that you can do that. It gives you the freedom. In most shows, you write the time and place that you're in, or a version of that — you have to be pretty consistent with that — but this show let me have enormous freedom as a composer, and that was so much fun."

Baby It's You! is a sentimental journey back to the pop and doo-wop days of the '60s, with a deep bow to before-its-time feminism. It's the musical saga of the woman behind the women, Florence Greenberg, a fortyish Jewish woman who discovered The Shirelles, established Scepter Records and jump-started the career of Lesley Gore, The Isley Brothers, Chuck Jackson, among others. All these people come with hits to be replayed. An old hand at creating original musicals out of established songs (Blues in the Night, Play On!), Sheldon Epps co-directed this show with Floyd Mutrux, who wrote the musical book with Colin Escott as he did for their last slice of American musical history, Million Dollar Quartet. "Their whole esthetic philosophy about these shows," explained Epps, "is to find these interesting characters or incidents behind the lives of the people that we've heard a lot about and to use the well-known music that the people created to explore that incident or somebody behind the scenes in their lives." Hence, we have an original musical that twists and shouts with "Louie, Louie," "It's My Party," et al. In Epps' view, this is a win-win: "One thing you know is you're going to get a very pleasing score because the songs are so great. The other thing is that I find with music like this — especially pop music — that these are really the songs of people's lives, the songs that they dated to and fell in love to and met their husbands, so they strike a very particular emotional chord in people. As soon as people hear a song like "Soldier Boy" or "Dedicated to the One I Love," it takes 'em right back to the period."

Patina Miller in Sister Act.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The original musical, in the view of Alan Menken who has collected a shelf-full of Oscars and a few Tony nominations for composing them, "is the most creative medium for songwriters. Your songs are attached to a story. They're driving something that's dramatic. You get to pick musical styles and have them comment on an era. You get to work in so many forms and shapes. And you have an audience." All that — and he still had trepidation about taking on Sister Act, a Whoopi Goldberg flick about a lounge singer hiding out as a convent choir director. "I didn't want to work in R&B again," he explained. "I'd already done my R&B musical [Little Shop of Horrors], and I was working at the time on a gospel musical [Leap of Faith]. Then, it occurred to me the story would work just as well if told through disco and funk and all those '70s musical styles — y'know, Donna Summer and The Bee Gees. Once I came up with that palette, it became exciting to me." Resetting the story 20 years earlier than it was in the film also jump-started his lyricist: "Very quickly the main tent-poles of the score appeared to us," recalled Glenn Slater. "Almost immediately, which sound went with which character — and how they came together into a full score — sprung in our minds. We laid it out very quickly. I think we did the first draft of the show in about four months. That's pretty fast work — about a song a week. We rewrote the end of those songs for the London production, and we have several new ones for Broadway. Having Victoria Clark play Mother Superior — a voice like that in such a key role — made it almost inevitable that we would add something new for her to sing. Those are the kinds of adjustments you make as you help the show find itself."

It was Iris Rainer Dart's love of the strong melodic line that led her where no woman (or man) had gone before — to the doorstep of Mike Stoller to write the music to her lyrics and book for The People in the Picture, a Holocaust-haunted saga spanning three generations of women. Stoller had never written for the Broadway theatre before, but a jukebox replay of the Greatest Hits he wrote with lyricist Jerry Leiber during their 60-year collaboration — called Smokey Joe's Café — became the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. "I wanted somebody who wrote a great tune that was singable," says Dart, whose standards were pretty much set at age 14 by Ethel Merman in Gypsy. When somebody suggested I speak to Mike, I said, 'Oh, my God! Mike Stoller! Even I, with my bad singing, can sing every song he wrote.' So melody is back, in this show, for sure!" Seconding that motion by augmenting Stoller's music is Artie Butler, who arranged most of the Stoller-Leiber output and wrote "Here's To Life." "We don't have an 11 o'clock number," quips Butler. "We have a 10:45 song."

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Harry Haun is a longtime staff writer for Playbill, and writes the Playbill On Opening Night column for Playbill.com.

This article appears in the Playbill for the 65th annual Tony Awards, June 12, 2011, at the Beacon Theatre on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Alexander Gemignani, Chip Zien, Donna Murphy, Joyce Van Patten and Lewis J. Stadlen
Alexander Gemignani, Chip Zien, Donna Murphy, Joyce Van Patten and Lewis J. Stadlen Joan Marcus
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