They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway

4 Jan

Imagine this scribbled on by five very famous musicians ...

My aunt Norma used to ask me every Christmas, “What’d Santy Claus bring yoo?” 

Well Aunt Norma, Santy Claus – with the help of my beloved, enabling family – ensured I had a great selection of rocktastic gifts this year, including:

  • Johnny Cash’s Personal File, two CDs of the man and his acoustic guitar, playing and talking his way through 49 of his particular favorites
  • Sticky Fingers, because I’m still catching up on my Rolling Stones back catalogue
  • The Union, which is handing long-overdue Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Leon Russell some well-deserved cash and fame after all these years, thanks to Elton John
  • A couple of Cee Lo Green albums … geez, that guy sounds like a direct descendant of Al Green, even when he’s cussing
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, the novel by Jennifer Egan that reinforces the notion that the music business is probably a lot less fun than it looks, and last but certainly not least
  • A framed album cover from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, signed by the original band members (I guess you could say, I Got It!)

While downloading and otherwise digesting all of these rock and roll flavors during the holidays, I also got a chance to savor – and sob through – Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebration on DVD. The capper was the closing number from Sunday in the Park with George sung by over 200 current Broadway performers stationed throughout Avery Fisher Hall, flooding the audience with gorgeous 11-part harmony. (When I played the Nurse in a production of Sunday eight years ago, I wanted to buy a house and live in that song. Thrilling doesn’t begin to describe singing it.)

This all got me thinking about how rock and roll has saved Broadway’s bacon over the last decade. Once Phantom and Cats expired, jukebox musicals built around Abba (Mamma Mia!), The Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) and hair metal bands (Rock of Ages) could make money hand over fist because people walked into the theaters singing the tunes. Last year at the Tonys, Billy Elliot (with a score by Elton John) won Best Musical and Hair (probably the most famous rock musical) won Best Revival.

St. Jimmy at the St. James Theater

Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong – who said he kept West Side Story in mind as he wrote American Idiot – earned his Equity card last year in the stage production of his concept album and is back for 50 performances in 2011.  And as of this writing, we’re hanging by a thread (ahem) to see if Bono and the Edge’s Spider-Man musical will open with the cast intact … and not wearing casts.

Of course, a big reason for rock’s ascension is filthy lucre. It’s less risky to build a show around a catalogue of popular songs than to write a new score in a style that appeals to a narrow(ing) niche audience. But it’s also due to changing tastes–and where composing’s concerned, it’s better to leave rock to the professionals. If a Broadway composer writes rock music, it can be a poor imitation (did anyone really rock in Bye, Bye Birdie?) unless he or she draws from the past: Hairspray‘s 1960’s girl-group fizz and Dreamgirls’ debt to Motown.

Before George M. Cohan’s statue is replaced with one of Björn Ulvaeus, though, maybe Broadway can teach rock and rollers a thing or two. Hey, look at what happens when you pair a great R&B song with a singer who can act, for example:

See you on the flip side.


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