Show's book writer aims to put songs in storyline that made sense

The songbook musical is at a crossroads, and “All Shook Up” could bury the genre — or secure its reputation for good. Tuners based on vintage songs now occupy that limbo in the critical firmament once reserved for movie-based musicals, before “The Producers” and “Hairspray” made them respectable — in other words, very profitable. Tuners based on old tunes is another story. This is that story:

“All Shook Up,” which opens March 24, has set itself a more difficult task than the three other songbook tuners now playing Broadway. Unlike Abba’s “Mamma Mia!,” Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” or the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” the 26 songs of “Shook” cover the work of more than 30 lyricists and composers, and are wedded only by the man who made them famous. But what a man! In the pop pantheon, it’s impossible to top Elvis Presley since neither Marilyn Monroe nor Jackie O. had a hit album.

” ‘All Shook Up’ is a big Elvis movie onstage,” says the show’s book writer, Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). A leather-clad roustabout on a cycle brings sex, no drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to a dull Midwestern town in the year James Dean died, 1955.

In the beginning, the “Shook” creatives seemed to harbor some ambivalence about embracing the Elvis persona: Reports had headliner Cheyenne Jackson sporting a hair-splitting peroxide pompadour. Fortunately, by Chi and Gotham, the actor’s natural roots had taken control and he’d sprung jaw-wrapping sideburns as well.

Less of a problem than hair color has been securing the rights to the 26 Elvis songs, most of which were already held by the King’s company Gladys Music. Only a few numbers in “All Shook Up,” such as “Heartbreak Hotel” and the title song, are controlled by Sony and EMI, respectively, and not the Presley estate.

Like all songbook tuners, the biggest problem is the storyline. “Good Vibrations” has been lambasted for shoehorning every other Beach Boys hit into its exceedingly loose scenario. “Mamma Mia!” isn’t all that much tighter: The first few words of each Abba song further the plot about an inch before going off in the wrong direction like a newborn puppy.

“I tried to put songs in characters’ mouths that made sense,” says DiPietro. Since Presley’s biggest hits are basically love songs, he chose “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night” as his lofty template of romance.

The King’s blessing

The Presley estate bought DiPietro’s concept in fall 1999, making him one of the first to jump on the songbook bandwagon (“MM!” had recently preemed on the West End). He even uses, almost defiantly, that much-disparaging term “jukebox musical.”

“It is what it is,” DiPietro explains without apology. “I certainly would never run away from it.”

One of the show’s lead producers, Jonathan Pollard, hopes critics come with an “open mind,” and not with the attitude “we’ve got to kill this genre; it is encroaching on the art form.”

As Pollard describes it, writing the book of a jukebox musical is a little like Ginger Rogers dancing in heels with Fred Astaire. “It is one of the most difficult challenges,” he says, “because it is writing a musical backwards.”

Originality here is in the eye of the producer. “Whole plots, scenes and pieces of dialogue are taken out of movie (scripts) for most musicals these days. Is that somehow more original?” asks Pollard.

He hopes the critics will answer in the affirmative. Good reviews never hurt the box office.

In previews, “All Shook Up,” directed by Christopher Ashley, has grossed in the $350-to-$450,000 range for a seven-preview week, which is very borderline for an $11 million musical. (And every penny appears to have been spent on David Rockwell’s set design.) “Mamma Mia!” and “Good Vibrations” were capitalized much lower, at between $6.5 and $7.5 million.

“All Shook Up” has performed at a respectable 85% capacity, its numbers pumped by Broadway’s lowest average-price ticket, $41.

“Our direct-mail (price) was $60/$65, which is aggressive,” explains Pollard. “Our objective was to get bodies in the seats.” Another innovation has been the clever ticket price of $19.55 (the year of the show) for every one of the 300 seats in the Palace’s gargantuan second balcony. “Aida,” the previous tenant, sold tix up there for between $25 and $55 .

An eyeball of a recent preview revealed that “All Shook Up” might have tapped a new Broadway audience: youngish grandparents, who idolize the King, bringing their grandchildren to the theater.

Pollard rejects the Elvis-fans take, saying his show owns very broad demographics. But there have been sightings: “We did have a man in a white jumpsuit last week,” says the producer.

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