Having shelved her career as a recording artist in favor of family life, Lily Allen recently revealed to Elle magazine that she has “nearly finished a musical.” The musical in question being the stage adaptation of 2001′s loveably painful chick flick Bridget Jones’s Diary, for which little has been said since last summer. On paper, Allen appears to have all the right reasons for this career shift—a new husband and baby on the way, and a blood line that lends itself to the stage (dad is British actor/musician Keith Allen, who’s credits include two Harold Pinter plays at the Almeida Theatre). However, the singer is hardly the first musician making the jump from the Billboard charts to Broadway.
Headlines have been monopolized in the past months by the drama surrounding U2‘s scored Spider-Man musical. After a series of setbacks including financial problems, injured cast members and scathing write ups, original director Julie Taymor threw her hands up in what we would imagine an exasperated manner and called it quits. Production was shut down for three weeks in March and given a serious face lift by new director Philip William McKinley and went on to rake in $1.7 million in its first week, qualifying it as a “hit.” While Spider-Man certainly lends itself to the powerful anthems and epic ballads found in U2′s discography, Bono was quoted as saying scoring the show was ”harder than we ever thought”.
David Albarn and Jamie Hewlett of alt hip hop/rock group Gorillaz have also lent their talents to the stage, creating a musical adaptation of the Chinese story Journey to the West in 2007 which saw several runs over the next two years under the billing Monkey: Journey to the West. After further adaptation of some characters and music for inclusion in BBC’s coverage of the 2008 Bejing Olympics was met with criticism, Hewlett went on the defense, tagging negative reviews as hypocritical.
This all begs the question, why are these perfectly successful recording artists putting themselves through the theatrics (literally) of transitioning their talent to the stage? Some could argue ego, Broadway being just another feather in the hat of self-centered stars. Or maybe its the next step on the ladder of conquering the music industry as a whole. We’re hoping it boils down to the talent part. Chances are the Bonos and Lily Allens of the world are just incredibly talented human beings always seeking new creative outlets. But while a record is a neatly packaged representation of that talent, Broadway is an entirely different beast with more than one flair for the dramatic that requires its participants have the right amount of screws loose to partake. While Allen may be writing the music for Bridget Jones, we can’t really picture the new mom as the star, sliding down a fire pole ass first. Then again, she has been known for her own moments of quirk.
Though I’ll probably never be a huge fan of the Broadway musical, occasionally, they rock. Such has been the case for Great White Way song-and-dance productions based on the music of the Who, Bee Gees, ABBA, Queen, Billy Joel, Dolly Parton, Green Day and Elton John (twice). But poor Paul Simon. He flopped hard—and embarrassingly—with The Capeman in 1998. The moral of this particular west side story? When launching expensive stage musicals, it pays creative and/or commercial dividends for rock and pop stars to fall back on their classics—or in the case of John’s Aida, a classic opera—for inspiration.
And then there’s U2. The normal rules of art and commerce have never applied to Ireland’s greatest musical export. Although Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with original music and lyrics by U2 frontman Bono and guitarist The Edge, has been dogged by bad buzz, negative reviews (for the staging, if not the music) and behind-the-scenes snafus, it’s been a box-office success since debuting in previews last November, more than six months in advance of its official June 14 opening.
Whether their Spidey show tunes will spin their web for months or years remains to be seen, but it’s hard not to wish that Bono and The Edge had adapted their band’s enduring catalog for a musical instead. If they had to take Manhattan, why not do it using songs we know and love from The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, two of its best and most successful albums, as inspiration rather than a superhero human-arachnid mutation (who’ll be returning to the big screen shortly in the form of The Social Network‘s Andrew Garfield)?
Maybe someday. In the meantime, here are some other iconic artists who ought to be waiting in the wings with their own spotlight musical. (Sorry, no Beatles—I’ve heard enough bad covers of the Fab Four’s catalog, including those from the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to last several lifetimes!)
David Bowie: Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been waiting so long for new music from Bowie. Or that my favorite Bowie song inspired the name of this very column. But more likely, it’s all about Space Oddity, a rock & roll classic which tells a story that conceivably could be stretched out into a two-hour musical format and rounded out with many other Bowie hits. His ’70s output was more or less created to be performed onstage, and his theatrical music and visual lyrics could so easily translate to the rock-opera format. Meanwhile, Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke—parts Bowie played to perfection on record and in concert—are star-making roles if ever there were four of them.
Burt Bacharach and Hal David: “Walk on By.” “Message to Michael.” “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” “I Say a Little Prayer.” “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Put these Bacharach/David compositions together—adding “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and many more—and what have you got? A Broadway miracle that’ll have more fans singing along than any musical since Mamma Mia!.
Loretta Lynn: It’s a mystery why no one has thought to revive Coal Miner’s Daughter on Broadway. The 1980 film has got the music, the story and the Oscar pedigree. But why stop with Loretta Lynn when you can add the music of Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline and stage Honky Tonk Angels, all about lives and loves in a ten-cent town?
Johnny Cash: No need to revisit Walk the Line just yet. The hero of Ring of Fire (which I always thought would have been a better title for the film since it was co-written by June Carter Cash about her and Johnny, while Cash’s first wife inspired him to write “I Walk the Line”) could be a man in black by another name. Lyrically, the best of Johnny Cash already hits on all the stages of an extraordinary life, from outcast (“A Boy Named Sue,” which was actually written by Shel Silverstein and not Cash) to outlaw (“Folsom Prison Blues”) to would-be saint (“Walk the Line”) to corpse (“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”).
The Eagles: Picture this: Hotel California, featuring the Eagles signature title song plus “Desperado,” “Lying Eyes,” “Take It to the Limit,” “New Kid in Town” and all of those other ’70s country-rock classics. If there’s gonna be a heartache tonight (or any other night), I can’t think of a better musical cure.
Eminem: Speaking of outlaws, it’s probably just a matter of time before the ’80s musical outlaw movement known as rap invades Broadway just as it did Middle America in the ’90s. I can’t think of a rapping storyteller whose songs are more deserving of the full-on stage treatment than the guy who brought us “Stan,” “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” and “Love the Way You Lie.” If 8 Mile could win an Oscar, its Tony Award possibilities as a Broadway musical are probably close to endless.
Whose music would you like to experience on Broadway?
Despite signs that the revolution is under way, cultural elitists scoff audibly at the mention of hip hop vis-à-vis theater, musical theater and opera. In fact, the revolution began long ago—some say with the Greeks and surely with Shakespeare—and long before New York Times critic Bruce Weber’s 2002 declaration that “the force of a culture ever more influenced by youth and diversity is beginning to turn the battleship of American mainstream theater.”
When The Seven, Harlem-born rap actor and playwright Will Power’s hip hop version of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes premiered on the West Coast two years ago, one critic—a self-proclaimed “old, middle-class white guy”—argued that hip hop is too vernacular a style to have any connection to the theater. Another critic said it was audacious and inventive and called it “…part theatrical graffiti-tagging…that blows potent life into the ancient story.”
Successful examples of revered classic theatre influencing modern American theater are evident in Puccini’s La Bohème, which provided story line for Jonathan Larson’s 1994 Lower East Side rock opera, Rent; and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet setting the stage for West Side Story—which has been infused with more current Spanish vernacular by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stephen Sondheim for its current revival. The potent Broadway success of Miranda’s 2008 musical, In the Heights, further heightened interest in musicals that either incorporate hip hop or utilize the genre as it’s vehicle for story-telling. Just recently Londoner’s met up with a West End phenom, hip hop dance troupe ZooNation’s Sondheim take, titled Into the Hoods –An Urban Fairy Tale with music by Gorillaz, Massive Attack, Basement Jaxx, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre and Black Eyed Peas, among many others. Just two weeks ago an a cappella musical, In Transit, opened at 59 E59 Street Theatres. The only accompaniment is a beat box.
The revolution is everywhere. In the past decade left coast audiences entered the hip hop woods with pieces like Will Power’s The Seven, self (the remix), written and performed by Robert Farid Karimi with live soundscapes by DJ D Double; and, still playing before slack-jawed audiences at the staid Old Globe in San Diego, known mostly for Broadway transfers and the classics, is Kristoffer Diaz’ Lower East Side play, Welcome to Arroyo’s, which employs two onstage DJs, hip hop, graffiti and a whole lot of uncommon “language.” Thousands of San Diego kids will see Arroyo’s before it closes in November thanks to a three-year James Irvine Foundation grant that supports a three-year Globe residence project in Southeast San Diego. Last year’s production was Aaron Jafferis and Ian Williams’ hip hop/rock musical, Kingdom, which incorporated true stories of young men caught up in a cycle of violence.
Regional theaters, play- and musical-development festivals and producers nationwide are jostling for discovery and development of the Next Big Thing, and hip hop is right there, contending for dominance, even though grand opera lags behind. Perhaps a young composer will be inspired by MTV’s ground-breaking 2001 telecast of Carmen: A Hip Hopera, based on Bizet’s opera, set in Philly and LA, with Beyoncé Knowles and Mekhi Phifer.
Founded in 2000, the Hip-Hop Theater Festival is dedicated to igniting dialogue and social change throughout the performing arts. Not every show needs to include the four basic elements of hip hop—a DJ, graffiti-based visual art, break-dancing and an MC or rapper. The festival emphasizes the importance of language, story, vibe and relevance to today’s world. In a 2005 essay titled “Towards a Hip-Hop Aesthetic,” festival co-founder Danny Hoch asked, “What happens to hip hop’s aesthetics when they are mixed with the aesthetics of recognized art or when the venue moves from street to stage?”
Hoch’s fear is that hip hop art at not-for-profit venues will become highbrow and distant from its intended audience and that theaters will hoard the grant money without really serving the community. “What happens when hip hop moves into the opera house, and we still don’t own the opera house?” he further asks. Just as gentrification changes the hoods that birthed hip hop, it’s inevitable that the assimilation of hip hop into mainstream theater will change hip-hop. Nothing will stem the tide of revolution and cultural elitists might stop denigrating hip hop, which will become an accepted art form, sadly in a slightly different form.
Charlene Baldridge is a theatre and music critic based in San Diego. She boasts numerous national credits include Playbill, Stage Bill, American Theatre and Opera News. Charlene is a registered lyricist, and member of BMI.
The second day of The Future of Music Coalition’s Policy Summit covered a ton of topics for musicians and music entrepreneurs alike. On paper, some of the sessions may have seemed unrelated, but it was great to see how it all wove together by the end.
Rocco Landesman, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a powerhouse Broadway producer—who pleased many in the art world when he took on the new role—gave a terrific keynote speech about the value of arts in both the cultural and economic communities.
Landesman’s talk was followed by a closer look at the spread of broadband to rural communities, housing for artists and opportunities for musicians to perform overseas as part of cultural programs organized by the US Department of State. The session featured presentations from Jonathan Adelstein (Administrator, Rural Utility Service, US Department of Agriculture), Maura Pally (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Professional and Cultural Exchanges, US Department of State, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs) and Ron Sims (Deputy Secretary, US Department of Housing and Urban Development) and a subsequent conversation with attendees at the summit. The session helped explain why the current administration’s support of broadband expansion into rural areas matters to musicians (more online reach, more potential fans), cultural exchange programs (reaching new audiences while traveling the world and representing the US as peaceful musical representatives) and affordable housing (recognizing that not all musicians or artists can afford fair market prices—even if neighborhoods often like to tout their artistic population). The session helped connect the dots about why we, as citizens, need to be support public servants and representatives who understand the value of the arts in our greater culture. Subsequent conversation featured some fascinating stories (that would make any musician jealous) from Amy Blackman, the manager of Ozomatli, about the joys and challenges of their trips overseas to Asia and Africa.
The FMC is all about creating a “middle class of musicians” that is more sustainable. In continuing the thread of “musicians running themselves as a small business,” sessions covered subjects like managing and understanding all the data available now for anyone who has a web site or manages their presence on third party sites. This particular panel included Danah Boyd, the Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research; Eric Garland, Founder/CEO at BigChampagne Media Measurement (a new media and data measurement site) and musicians Erin McKeown and Tim Quirk.
In “Who’s Your Ticket Master Now? The Magical Mashup Between Live Music and Social Networks,” attendees learned how quickly Ticket Master—and its service fees—is being out-maneuvered by web ticket start-ups like Ticketweb, Ticketfly and Tickets.com. There was also talk of an interesting idea from Australia called Posse, where musicians and venues can utilize fans to help sell tickets and receive a commission. The session included Ian Hogarth, co-founder and CEO of Songkick, a free service where you can track bands who are coming to your town. One of the most interesting comments came from Donna Westmoreland, the COO of Washington, DC’s 9:30 club about how many of their concerts are selling out simply by being announced to their email subscribers, reducing their need for additional advertising or marketing.
The latter part of the day included two interviews and conversations. First was Kara Swisher of All Things Digital speaking with Tim Westergren, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Pandora about his company’s strategy and where people will likely be using the service in the near future—from desktops to laptops, iPhones and Android, to iPad and tablets to cars and seemingly everywhere in between. Westergren laid out the company’s plans more as an advertiser-funded model than any other source, and acknowledged that the platform’s success. According to a third-party study, the site simply helps sell more recorded music—43% of users bought more music after they used Pandora while only 1% bought less music, which is a great stat for those who assume online music is cannibalizing other music revenue sources.
The second conversation was a great reality check amid all of this digital change. Greg Kot, music critic at The Chicago Tribune and co-host of Sound Opinions interviewed T. Bone Burnett, the musician, composer and producer who has worked with Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Sam Phillips, John Mellencamp and many more. Burnett, as a consummate audio producer, is weary about how online delivery of music has greatly degraded the quality and experience of the music we consume and provided a great reminder that the most important thing in being a musician is to make great music‚ to aim there first and let the marketing be secondary as you make great art. You can read more about the interview from Kot’s page in The Chicago Tribune.
Learn more about the Future of Music Coalition’s 2010 Policy Summit speakers. Find more links and follow us live at The Future of Music Coalition’s Summit 2010. Search the hashtag #fmc10 to read up on this and more.