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Rockin’ on Broadway… but where are the original scores?

Last night saw the triumphant opening of American Idiot on Broadway - a show of galvanising energy and theatrical excitement that’s like a 3D, flesh-and-blood music video come to life, as it brings the entire album of the same name by rock trio Green Day to life, plus a few bonus tracks from their latest album 21st Century Breakdown.

It is, in the words of New York Times critic Charles Isherwood today, “a true rock opera, almost exclusively using the music of Green Day and the lyrics of its kohl-eyed frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, to tell its story.” In a sense, it picks up where The Who’s Tommy (brought to the Broadway stage in 1993) left off, giving piercing expression to tales of disaffected, disorientated youth.

Of course, neither were conceived originally for the theatre, and there is, therefore, a little shoe-horning required.

As Isherwood goes on to say, “In both plotting and its emotional palette, “American Idiot” is drawn in brash, primary-colored strokes, maybe too crudely for those looking for specifics of character rather than cultural archetypes. But operas — rock or classical — often trade in archetypes, and the actors flesh out their characters’ journeys through their heartfelt interpretations of the songs, with the help of Mr. Mayer’s poetic direction and the restless, convulsive choreography of Steven Hoggett (Black Watch), which exults in both the grace and the awkwardness of energy-generating young metabolisms. Line by line, a skeptic could fault Mr. Armstrong’s lyrics for their occasional glibness or grandiosity. That’s to be expected, too: rock music exploits heightened emotion and truisms that can fit neatly into a memorable chorus. The songs are precisely as articulate — and inarticulate — as the characters are, reflecting the moment in youth when many of us feel that pop music has more to say about us than we have to say for ourselves. (And, really, have you ever worked your way through a canonical Italian opera libretto, line by line?) In any case the music is thrilling: charged with urgency, rich in memorable melody and propulsive rhythms that sometimes evolve midsong.”

It is, as a result, probably the most compelling new musical of the Broadway season; but it also highlights a major problem, too. Where are the new scores and new writers, writing specifically for the theatre? (Perhaps Green Day, inspired by the plaudits today for American Idiot, can be persuaded to write something new for it).

Of the 15 musicals that will have opened by the end of the current season (that ends April 29, at least in terms of Tony eligibility), precisely two have full original scores: Memphis, coincidentally with music by another rocker-turned-theatre-composer David Bryan (keyboard player, songwriter and founding member of Bon Jovi) and lyhrics by Bryan and book writer Joe DiPietro, and The Addams Family (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa). Otherwise, the now-shuttered Dame Edna/Michael Feinstein showcase All About Me featured a handful of new songs, including “The Dingo Ate My Baby”, “The Koala Song” and “The Gladdy Song”. (I think those are what used to be called “novelty” numbers).

This is not quite as dire a situation as happened in 1989, when the Tony category for Best Score was entirely eliminated, and the sole contenders for Best Musical was the entire slate of three musicals that had opened that season - Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, a compilation show of songs from past Broadway glories that had been directed and choreographed by Robbins (which won the award), Black and Blue (another compilation song and dance show), and Starmites a now-forgotten science fiction musical. And in 1995, Andrew Lloyd Webber was the default winner for the award for Original Musical Score, since Sunset Bouelvard (which featured lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton) was the sole nominee in the category.

But this year, apart from that trio of Memphis, Addams Family and possibly All About Me, there has otherwise been a slew of revivals, including the Menier-originated productions of A Little Night Music and La Cage Aux Folles; and the now shuttered Bye Bye Birdie, Ragtime and Finian’s Rainbow).

But most of all there are compilation musicals of various guises and disguises, from the NT-bound Fela! (featuring the music of its late namesake, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti) and Twyla Tharp’s “dansical” Come Fly Away, set to the soundtrack of Frank Sinatra (whose voice is intriguingly accompanied by a live onstage band) to the new Sondheim revue (Sondheim on Sondheim, opening tomorrow), Million Dollar Quartet (which reunites Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to recreate a legendary recording gig they once did together in 1956, but not, mostly, featuring the songs they actually sang on that day) and Sherie Rene Scott’s “loosely autobiographical” Everyday Rapture, which features songs made famous by David Byrne, Roberta Flack, Mister Rogers, The Supremes, Tom Waits, U2, and Judy Garland.

The new musical is, as a result, once again in crisis on Broadway. One good and knowledgeable Broadway friend, director and librettist Barry Kleinbort, was commenting despairingly to me just yesterday, “No matter how you slice it, it’s a piss poor lot. The musical as we have come to know it is over. Really. And not just because I say so. Because it is. I have heard that there are roughly two dozen new jukebox musicals in the works. Whoopee. If George Gershwin were alive today, he would be compiling Porgy and Bassey for the West End. All you have to do is change the name of Sportin’ Life to Goldfinger and you’re cookin’ with Mazola, as they say. Just shoot me.”

3 Comments

I share your concern about the lack of musicals that feature new music. Don't get me wrong - I love the likes of 'Mamma Mia' and 'Priscilla', but I long for a new musical score. I wasn't a fan of 'Love Never Dies' and, with the exception of 2 or 3 excellent numbers, was disappointed by the score that I heard at the 'Kristina' concert last week, but at least they were trying to write original music. It's always thrilling to be in a theatre and hear great music for the first time, as I did when I saw my first West End musical, Chess, back in 80s. For my sins the last 'new' musical with 'new' music that I really enjoyed was the undeservedly short-lived '9-5'.

I too mourn the loss of new broadway musicals but who, if anyone , is to blame? Producers have to raise so much money for a show that they need some sort of insurance. The reason they need the insurance is because the audience was never trained to be adventurous and the reason they weren't trained to be adventurous was because producers (with few exceptions) didn't take the risks to educate them and cultivate them . And as for the writers/composers , well musical theatre isn't cool. I wish it were but Glee and High School Musical notwithstanding , musical theatre is for geeks. If a composer is really cool he wants to be at Wembley with 50,000 fans cheering him and he (or she) is King of the World, not at the Savoy where 11oo people applaud politely. The death or really lets be nicer about it , the marginilazation of musical theatre is the inevitable by product of an industry that lived ( and lives) only in the moment and not in the thinking about the future of its art form.

The lack of original scores on Broadway this season is depressing. It's been a far better year Off-Broadway where we've seen Yank!, The Scottsboro Boys, The Kid and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. Yank! says it's transferring (we'll see if they can raise the money) and rumors abound on The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. So perhaps the next season will have a more palatable slate for best score. Meantime, the various awards that include Off-Broadway will have some choice.

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