STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: In Defense of Mr. Wildhorn

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: In Defense of Mr. Wildhorn So this should be the year that Frank Wildhorn wins his share of the Tony for Best Score, don't you think?

So this should be the year that Frank Wildhorn wins his share of the Tony for Best Score, don't you think?

In the last two seasons, with two musicals to his credit, Wildhorn hasn't even been nominated for the Antoinette Perry Award. In 1997, with Jekyll & Hyde, Leslie Bricusse got a nod for Best Book, but Wildhorn wasn't invited to the party. Should a man be snubbed after providing the lush melodies or such now-familiar songs as "Someone Like You," "A New Life," and, of course, "This Is The Moment"? (Some would, of course, say it's precisely because of those Pop Chart hits that Wildhorn was denied.)

Last season, The Scarlet Pimpernel was up for a Best Musical Tony, but Wildhorn's score with Nan Knighton went unacknowledged -- though many in the community felt this work was superior to Jekyll & Hyde. That included the Drama Desk, which gave him and Knighton a nomination. But no Tony nod.

But this season, here comes The Civil War, which just began its official proscenium-theatre tryout at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven. And this time, Wildhorn should be nominated along with lyricist Jack Murphy -- and should win.

True, the competition isn't keen, and the Tony committee may just drop the category. What is there from which to choose? Jason Robert Brown's Parade? All those people on Footloose? We hear about a few shows that may come in before the Tony cut-off date, but Wildhorn's show appears definite for the St. James. One reason why Wildhorn may score for his score -- the most important reason, of course -- is that the music for The Civil War is lovely and accomplished. Those who have both the Nashville Sessions and The Complete Works albums may have already come to this conclusion. Here's hoping the Tony crew will recognize that -- even though there's far less music on stage than there is on the albums.

Nine songs were absent at the New Haven opening: "The Day The Sun Stood Still," "Old Gray Coat," "With These Hands," "Regimental Drummer," "In Great Deeds, "A Nurse's Diary," "Still I Rise," "How Many Devils," and "Ain't I a Woman?"

That Wildhorn wrote so many songs brings up another reason why he should be finally appreciated by the Broadway establishment. If you have any doubts about Wildhorn's prolificacy, take a look at his program bio: "Future adventures on the stage include Havana, Alice, Dracula, Ali, Svengali, Casanova, and Blade Runner."

Seven shows! How many other composers do you know are planning so many projects? And who's going to bet against Wildhorn that he'll get them on?

For there was a time, and not that long ago, that Jekyll & Hyde, despite healthy-selling concept albums, looked as if it'd never see the light of Broadway. The 1992 workshop in which Terrence Mann starred (brilliantly, may I add) collapsed because of a producer who couldn't get the job done. Plenty of shows die after a workshop in which the necessary monies aren't raised, but Wildhorn would not, could not let it happen to the musical in which he so fervently believed. And, as we all know, such persistence is crucial to success.

So out went a lengthy road tour, which doesn't often happen to a new musical with no stars and no famous names on its creative staff. But something miraculous was happening: A popular success. How many shows have had so many repeat visitors, and a genuine sub-culture that caused a fan club to become named and famous? Most musicals that receive Broadway reviews as poisonous as Jekyll and Hyde are gone before you can say Buttrio Square. But these Jekkies kept it going, and their allegiance to their favorite composer spilled over and helped The Scarlet Pimpernel to run as well. (And some were in New Haven for The Civil War opening.)

As for The Scarlet Pimpernel, no one's saying that it's a hit. On any given night, you could probably go to the box office and get seats for every one of your friends, relatives, and enemies. But once you were seated, you would have found yourself next to a number of wild Wildhorn fans who paid for their tickets and were happy to be there. Again.

Wildhorn managed to be in the miracle-making business with this show, too. We've never -- never -- seen a show so radically transformed so late in its run as The Scarlet Pimpernel, but Wildhorn and his producers spurred enough interest in getting a benign takeover from new producers, and took their chance to do extra work. If there are any who feel the musical doesn't work better now, I haven't yet met them.

More significantly, Wildhorn's seven works-in-progress prove something else: He has made a commitment to the Broadway stage, and wants to spend his energies and ply his wares between 41st and 54th Streets. How often we've hoped for a new, young composer who'd take a vital interest in Broadway? Someone has, so shouldn't the rest of the theatrical community -- not just the legions of theatregoers who stand in line and buy the tickets -- appreciate and acknowledge the one we have?

If Frank Wildhorn isn't standing on a stage the first Sunday in June giving an acceptance speech, Broadway may very well experience a "Civil War" of its own.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com