The American musical has been called the outstanding theatrical export of a nation that dominates the world with its popular culture. It was at the turn of 20th century that writers of opera and operettas began to incorporate songs into their plots in order to move the story forward. Called the book musical; these songs were written in the popular style of the day and many would move from the Broadway stage onto the radio charts. Songs like “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Never Walk Alone” and “My Favorite Things” were written for musical theatre but ended up on the pop charts. Not only did the songs cross over, but the lyricists became household names. George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, Frederick Lowe and Alan Lerner — their names above a title could sell a show just as well as a famed actor or a great review.
Perhaps not surprisingly after World War II, writers of the integrated book musical began to take more risks with form. This lead to Hair, A Chorus Line and Company — all shows that follow a group of characters rather than a single protagonist, and use adult language and situations in the storytelling. These post-modern musicals feel grown up. While hit songs (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In,” “What I Did For Love”) were still transferring to the radio, it was Stephen Sondheim, who with Company, integrated character and song so completely that often songs could no longer be detached from the drama. So, as producers looked for ways to generate large audiences for their expensive Broadway musicals, they began to reverse the formula and start with popular music and then create a show around the already known music.
Known as jukebox musicals, many have seen success in the last fifteen years; however, it is actually thought that the very first American musical was created using popular music of the day. The Black Crook debuted in 1866. (It should be noted here that the title refers to black magic as elements of the plot were derivative of Dr. Faustus). Most of the music was adapted for The Black Crook from existing popular songs. This meant that the show could be performed by actors with pleasant voices, but not . . . trained operetta performers. But many theatre historians no longer consider The Black Crook the first musical because the songs were not written specifically for the play and weren’t fully integrated. In fact it is thought the songs were added to an existing script to help with ticket sales and popularity, and seeing how the show ran for 474 performances and then toured the U.S. obviously the producers were on to something.
While there were other jukebox style musicals before Mamma Mia! – predominantly those that used a subject’s own music to tell a biographical story like Always, Patsy Cline or Buddy Holly: the Musical, — the modern use of pop music in musical theatre storytelling explored with the success of the ABBA inspired musical. However, it may have been world events that helped to turn Mamma Mia! into the hit it now is. Most of the critics felt like Roma Torre from NY1 who wrote, “Mamma Mia [sic] defies scrutiny. If you attempt to analyze this mega hit from London, it’ll fall apart. It’s hokey, implausible and silly. The Abba music, despite its popularity, is mediocre and many are likely to think: What’s the big deal?” In fact if the show hadn’t opened one month after 9/11 on October 18, 2001, its fate might have been different and the subsequent jukebox musical fad that we are now living in might not have come to pass. With audiences dancing in the aisles, the zeitgeist was obviously right for this type of show: not one where composers and lyricists craft songs to move the plot and character development forward but one that recycles the private memories that a favorite song invokes and wraps that in a slim plot line for audiences.
In late 2002, Celia Wren examined as she called it this “pop-music-theatre fad” in an article for Commonweal magazine. Looking at the Billy Joel inspired dance show Movin’ Out alongside Mamma Mia! she wondered what the rationale for this theatrical trend could be. She offered two theories. The first is that we gravitate towards the familiar with our entertainment – not only on the Broadway stage but also in movies (with franchises and sequels dominating our screens) and on TV which continues to air “formulaic dramas and sitcoms.” Of course with the 1980s reboots currently being green-lit (Girl Meets World, Fuller House) we could argue that in 2015 we are looking for entertainment comfort food now more than ever. Wren also feels that recycling pop music for the stage “may reflect the short attention spans of a public accustomed to sound bytes, the frenetic cinematography of music videos, and the instant gratification of Web surfing.” However, when the creative team barely bothers with a plot, Wren argues that “one might as well be sitting next to one’s personal CD player.”
The natural progression from creating a musical around an already popular album is to have established pop songwriters join established musical theatre artists and create original work with songs written in their distinctive style that already has a fan base. However, this current wave of pop singers clammering to work in musical theatre may have been jump started with Duncan Shiek’s success with Spring Awakening. Every generation has a rock musical that Broadway pundits swear is going to change the sound of the Great White Way (Hair 1967, Rent 1996). But when Spring Awakening opened in 2006, Jeremy McCarter wrote in the December 25 edition of New York Magazine the creators by showing “more disrespect for current Broadway practice” created something truly innovative. McCarter wrote, “Improbably, a pop songwriter and a bunch of teenagers have made the Broadway musical seem grown-up again. … Be prepared to say – and to hope that a hundred young composers are saying with you – ‘Oh, I didn’t know musicals could do that.’”
The landscape of the Broadway musical was certainly changing so perhaps it made sense to bring one of the most innovative theatrical directors, Julie Taymor of The Lion King fame, together with one of the most successful rock bands of all time, U2, and try to create a theatrical version of Spiderman geared for the millennial generation. It felt like the right time for this kind of project. “Gordon Cox was reporting in Variety how ‘musicals are once again becoming part of the pop-culture consciousness,’ with musicals referenced in everything from The Sopranos to Gap Khaki advertisements and the music videos of Beyonce. Broadway musicals took in a recorded $850 million in the 2006-07 season alone.” However, nothing for this Spiderman was smooth sailing. Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark’s mishaps have been well chronicled, as the producers didn’t seem to understand the process of creating a new musical and instead expected that multiple strong personalities could come together in a room and something coherent would emerge. Bono had his reputation to consider; he didn’t want to be the architect of a schmaltzy musical theatre ballad. In the discussion about the song “Rise Above”, book writer Glen Berger who would go on to write a tell-all about his experience called Song of Spiderman: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History quotes Bono as saying, “’If I’m gonna actually plop something like that onto a fucking page, it better be something that people will sing in football finals in ten years and make everyone cry. I just mean it has to be a classic. In the “rising-above-it”-type genre if, you follow me.’” But what blew Berger’s mind was what happened next. Bono referenced “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as his touch-stone calling it “one of the greatest songs ever written” – the song that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote in 1945 for the musical Carousel. Here was Bono realizing that in the American musicals’ heyday great songs lived on beyond the theatre’s walls. Yet surprisingly, none of the songs from Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark have lived beyond the cacophony of bad press and trouble that the show couldn’t seem to live down during its three year run in New York City.
Will the public failure of Spiderman shift the focus back on jukebox musicals and discourage pop songwriters from taking a risk and working on a musical? If the new show, Waitress, is any indication the answer is: no. While, like Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, the show is based on previously known material: the 2007 independent film starring Kerri Russell as a pregnant waitress at a diner who expresses her emotions, creativity, and longings by baking pies. The fact that this little film was beloved but not a blockbuster with a fan base where everyone has an opinion probably worked in its favor. Also, the fact that it was developed at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA opposed to opening in New York without an out-of-town tryout helped to ensure that critics weren’t aware of every moment of the creative process. Lastly, the producers went back to the Duncan Sheik model of composer – an independent pop singer in contrast to the mega star power of Bono and Edge and hired Sara Bareilles to write the lyrics and music. Bareilles wrote in a composer’s note in the playbill for the Massachusetts’ production that her role “as composer has been such a gift. I found a piece of myself in each of these characters and learned so much from trying to tell their stories. It has helped me rediscover a purity and a playfulness in my own songwriting that I haven’t felt in years. I felt liberated to find new ways to express my ideas, and energized by the giant puzzle we were all trying to put together.”
Yet, Bareilles is taking a lesson out of the playbook of the American musical songbook and has already released the Act II ballad “She Used to Be Mine” as a single while the entire album of Waitress songs was released on November 6th. This isn’t a cast album. Sara Bareilles will be singing the songs she wrote for this musical. Could this cross-over single the start of something new in American musical theatre? A singer/songwriter who writes integrated songs for a show but then co-opts them as an album for the pop charts.