Irving Berlin made the leap with his usual elan. So did Jule Styne. Both songwriters chalked up several No. 1 hit songs before they ever wrote one note of a Broadway musical.
Since then, successful composers have been more reluctant to eschew the pop charts for the musical theater.
There have been infrequent but spectacular success on occasion (Burt Bacharach with “Promises, Promises,” Marvin Hamlisch with “A Chorus Line”), interspersed with some disasters (Paul Simon with “The Capeman”).
More recently, the crossover pace has picked up.
Last season, rocker David Yazbek scored with his first one, “The Full Monty,” while country music’s Don Schlitz tanked with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” And next month, crooner Harry Connick Jr. brings his “Thou Shalt Not” to Broadway.
Whether the Susan Stroman-helmed musical comes up a winner, several other accomplished songwriters are ready to gamble reputations with their freshman musicals. Will this fresh-to-Broadway but chart-seasoned crop revitalize the musical theater?
Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s “Spring Awakening” recently workshopped at the Roundabout under the direction of Michael Mayer, with a production planned for the following legit season.
“I was only interested in writing musicals if the music could be put on a CD and bought at Tower Records,” says Sheik, best known for his hit singles “Barely Breathing” and “She Runs Away.”
Sheik speaks witheringly of what he calls the “I’d like a glass of lemonade” song common to many of today’s tuners.
“Completely pointless singing of dialogue drives me crazy,” he says.
Sheik and Sater agreed on one major ground rule when they embarked on turning the Frank Wedekind play, about a pair of 14-year-old lovers, into a musical.
“When the kids sing, it is not always to forward the action of the story,” the composer explains. “They sing to get into the interior life of the character. Lyrically, it is no different than songs on the radio.”
Nona Hendryx, an R&B veteran who supplied the music for the Off Broadway hit “Blue,” voices a similar approach in her work on Radical Media’s new basketball musical, “Ball,” which went into workshops at Westbeth this summer; “Blue” playwright Charles Randolph-Wright directed.
“What I don’t like about many musicals is when lyrics are jammed into several bars of music just to further the story,” says the former Labelle member. “I don’t like talk-singing. The songs have to stand up as individual songs.”
“In recent musicals, story-driven songs have been the key,” says Bob Gaudio (“Walk Like a Man”), whose first musical, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” recently opened on the West End.
“It is time for standalone songs in musicals. Then again, it is a mistake to take the pop view that every song should be radio-worthy.”
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“Somewhere Out There”) also take this more middle-of-the-road approach.
“Our obligation is to the story we are telling and the characters who are telling the story,” says Weil, who with husband Mann workshopped their musical version of the 1983 Cher starrer “Mask” earlier this year, with Gabriel Barre directing.
Yet there is a certain resistance. “No matter how good a sung-through show is, I get edgy,” Mann admits.
“I’m not a great fan of sung-through, either,” agrees Weil, “but I did like ‘Rent.’ ‘Seasons of Love’ stands on its own. I love ‘The Full Monty’ so much because it was a throwback to those great shows with stand-alone songs.”
With the exception of Sheik, these four pop songwriters have long careers in the business, spanning back to the early days of Labelle, in the case of Hendryx; the Righteous Brothers, for whom Weil and Mann wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”; and the Lettermen, of which Gaudio was a founding member.
As one musical director puts it, “Hip-hop and rap have revolutionized pop music. The theater is one place songwriters of a certain age can practice their craft and continue to address their peer group, that 40-55 age group that doesn’t buy records anymore.” Those non-record buyers are, of course, the majority of the theatergoing public.
Weil chooses to see the issue from another perspective. “We thought Broadway was becoming more open to all kinds of music,” she says.
But Mann admits, “The show we are writing is a combination of pop, rock and Broadway.”
In fact, writing character-driven, if not story-driven, songs for the stage is no departure for most of these composers.
“When I wrote music for Labelle, I was writing for Patti Labelle’s voice,” Hendryx says. “Patti is very much a character who performed in a very theatrical way.”
Weil agrees. “The song that’s right for Barbra Streisand isn’t what you would write for the Righteous Brothers or Dolly Parton.”
Still, there are adjustments to be made.
Gaudio recalls recording such 1960s hits as “The Sun Ain’t Going to Shine Anymore,” “Rag Doll” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and hearing them on the radio mere weeks or even days later. Musicals function on a different time frame, he now knows.
“John Breglio, our attorney on ‘Peggy Sue,’ told us it would take five to seven years to get the musical onstage anywhere. At the time, I chuckled,” he recalls. “But Breglio was right on.”
A producer told Weil her first musical would take five years. “People must not work as hard as I do,” she remembers thinking four years ago. “But the process has nothing to do with how hard you work. It is the coordination of the elements and the collaboration of the theater.”
“Ball” may represent the ultimate collaboration in the theater. With each composer-lyricist writing for only one or two characters, Hendryx is working with three other creatives on the score: Bootsy Collins of Parliament Funkadelic, Amanda McBroome (“The Rose”) and Ahmir Thompson of the Roots, all of whom are making their musical debut with “Ball.”
“Having your music taken and reshaped, it’s no longer your domain,” Hendryx says. “That’s something I’ve had to adjust to.”
“There have been some fiery moments on ‘Spring Awakening,’ ” says Sheik, segueing back to the issue of what songs in a musical should and should not do.
“Our director (Mann) wants the songs to keep the show moving. I say they’ve got to stand on their own. Everyone has his own vision and is strong-headed. That’s when we get into our fun head-butting sessions.”
“There are times I’m watching,” Sheik says, “and I think, ‘Oh no, I’m watching a musical!’ And I don’t want anyone ever to feel that way.”