Theater Journal for Mar. 1, 2003

When Showtunes Aren't

by John Kenrick

There was a time when showtunes were a key part of American popular music. But after hard rock conquered the airwaves and record charts in the mid-1960's, Broadway found itself singing essentially for its own enjoyment. Millions of ticket buyers have hummed along in the ensuing decades, but theatre producers periodically wonder how to lure in the millions more who sought their entertainment elsewhere.

Appealing to these new generations has been an elusive goal. Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar pulled it off, but most early rock musicals have been mercifully (and justifiably) forgotten. Got Tu Go Disco came and went in a rather loud heartbeat. Rent connected with the music of the 1990's, but no other show has managed to follow in its footsteps. And none of the songs in Rent have ever appeared on the pop charts.

In recent years, an increasing number of musicals have relied on proven pop tunes. Revues like Leader of the Pack and Smokey Joe's Cafe have had a certain appeal, but they didn't pretend to be book shows. All that has changed. The songwriters behind the pop group ABBA have achieved almost shocking international success by building the musical comedy Mamma Mia around a dozen or so of their old pop hits. Choreographer Twyla Tharpe fulfilled long-frustrated hopes of staging a Broadway smash by cobbling Billy Joel's vintage tunes into the warmly received dance musical Movin' Out. At least these shows use live singers and musicians – Susan Stroman's Contact won the Tony for Best Musical by having a sexy cast dance to a few old records. All of these shows are certainly inventive, but none of them contain songs written for stage performance in a book musical or revue. In other words, in all these hit musicals, there is not a single showtune in the house.

Now comes the musical adaptation of the film Urban Cowboy, which is augmenting new songs by theatrical composer Jason Robert Brown with a slew of pop-county bestsellers by everyone from Willie Nelson and Clint Black to the Dixie Chicks. If you're going to set a show in a honky-tonk, I suppose its easier and cheaper to use existing songs, but mixing old and new in a mish-mosh sounds downright tacky.

It is fascinating to see how trends can change over the years. Now, instead of the world coming to Broadway in search of hit songs, Broadway is getting its hit songs from the rest of the world. Has Broadway given up all hope of creating a hit song of its own? Possibly. Consider the current crop of theatre composers. Jason Robert Brown has never written a hit show, let alone a hit showtune. Because he disregards the public's clear disinterest and keeps plugging away at it, he has developed a following among critics and theatre lovers. Since Brown's producers know he can't write a bona fide hit song, they are letting him provide some plot-related numbers while relying on pre-proven hits – and a lead actor with a well-muscled torso – to keep audiences awake. (They are also throwing in some songs by Jeff Blumenkrantz, an actor whose songs have not been heard on Broadway before now.) Urban Cowboy may turn out to be a winner, and I may wind up enjoying it, but it amazes me that so many re-hashed films with re-hashed pop songs rate as stage-worthy Broadway projects today. At this rate, musicals will soon have to be labeled like those paper products that boast how much recycled content consumers are getting.

You think I'm being cynical? Not at all – I'm just pointing out how cynical the folks behind these pseudo-musicals are. $100 a seat for rehashed pop songs? Now that's what I call cynical! But if ticket buyers are willing to fork over $100 a seat for this stuff, it's hard to blame those who are willing to fleece them. Theatrical diarrhea like the Broadway versions of Saturday Night Live and Footloose proved that it has become almost impossible to underestimate the taste of the American public. When Bob Fosse tried to offer up some old songs in Big Deal (borrowing his plot from a movie) back in 1986, audiences stayed away. Now, old films with old hit songs sell tickets. While making a profit matters, this dependence on used pop is getting a little sad and scary. Stephen Sondheim was only too right when he said –

"It has nothing to do with theatre at all. It has to do with seeing what is familiar. We live in a recycled culture." (NY Times Magazine, Mar. 12, 2000, p. 40)

What's next? Damned if I know. I'll just keep hoping that enough creative people and open minded producers will remain on the scene to give us truly original works – and that quality revivals of the classics will remind audiences what a genuine Broadway musical looks, sounds and feels like. The giddily fresh and funny score of Hairspray is an all-too isolated note of hope in the current sea of Broadway re-vamps. If I want to listen to blasts from the pop past, I know a diner in Queens that has a jukebox jammed with golden oldies, 25 cents a pop. When I go to Broadway, and pay Broadway ticket prices, I'd still prefer to hear a showtune.

Silly me.

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