Music icons leave the stadium for the stage
Looks like the theater geeks have finally discovered the music the cool kids have on their iPods.
A Broadway-bound tuner version of “Spring Awakening,” featuring music by alternative singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, is just one of a number of stage projects to add a jolt of youthful cred to musical theater, a genre that hip twentysomethings generally perceive as staid and old-fashioned at best — and dorky and obsolete at worst.
Such indie-spirited legit offerings can inject a dose of new energy into the musical form, and, to judge from the Atlantic Theater’s Off Broadway success this summer with “Spring Awakening,” can pull in new and younger-skewing auds.
The productions also give the musicians a chance to expand their work in ways the music world doesn’t.
Besides “Spring Awakening,” recent and upcoming projects from pop and rock creatives include:
- an untitled Patty Griffin musical project, produced Off Broadway by the Atlantic and helmed by the director of “Spring,” Michael Mayer. Scribe Keith Bunin is using new and pre-existing songs by Griffin, whose alt-country tunes have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks and Bette Midler, among others, in a story about a road trip in a beat-up Chevy;
- a new tuner based on the album “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” by hipster band the Flaming Lips, being developed in collaboration with Des McAnuff, the helmer of Broadway rock music successes “The Who’s Tommy” and “Jersey Boys”;
- a gestating opera by Rufus Wainwright, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in Gotham;
- “People Are Wrong,” a 2004 musical at the Vineyard that starred John Flansburg of Brooklyn duo They Might Be Giants; and
- “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” a tuner by the Brit troupe Anonymous Society using the songs of the Smiths, performed in London in 2005.
A theatrical offering from a rocker can attract not only the artist’s fan base, but also a younger demo that responds to the contempo edge in the music.
“The audience for ‘Spring Awakening’ was certainly the youngest and most diverse audience we’ve had in a long time,” says Atlantic a.d. Neil Pepe.
“The thought that this theater music is plugged into what people are actually listening to is quite exciting,” says helmer Mayer. “It’s been 50 years since that was true on Broadway.”
Even when the legit world has attempted to inject its musicals — from “Rent” to “Brooklyn” — with hip, less mainstream sonic elements, the indie-rock crowd has in the past largely eschewed the stage.
At least until later in life — think Paul Simon and Randy Newman — when their fan base had aged upward into the more traditional Broadway-going demo.
And a popular musician on the creative team doesn’t ensure Rialto success: 1998 Simon tuner “The Capeman” is considered one of Broadway’s costliest fiascos. “Spring Awakening,” although it did strong biz at the Atlantic’s small venue, remains a risky Broadway bet with no toplining stars.
Sheik — the singer-songwriter behind the 1996 hit “Barely Breathing,” who subsequently got the theater bug after working on a 2001 CD with dramatist-poet Steve Sater, the book writer and lyricist of “Spring” — had even erased his legit ties from his memory.
“As a kid I had done a lot of theater and a lot of musicals, but I sort of blocked it out,” Sheik says, recalling a stint playing in an orchestra pit at Brown U. with fellow future indie rocker Lisa Loeb.
But he says that the routines of touring and recording have left him, and his peers, seeking an alternate outlet for their music.
“People like myself have been touring for however many years, and that’s the extent of what you do,” he says. “So the desire to do more becomes very intense.”
“Rufus (Wainwright) is tiptoeing into this world, and so is Ben Folds,” says Sheik. (Folds provided five songs for the “Over the Hedge” soundtrack.)
For artists like Sheik, Griffin and the Flaming Lips, perhaps one welcoming aspect of the stage is that the market for their music has been shrinking as labels increasingly aim to attract teen auds, and the legit world needs sophisticated material for adults.
Another development that’s likely sending more rock acts into theater is the return of the concept album.
Largely viewed in the 1990s as a sign of self-indulgence on “Spinal Tap” levels, albums with common themes running through them have blossomed again in the 2000s.
CDs from Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” to Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” (the second of a proposed 50-album tribute to the 50 states) to Green Day’s “American Idiot” have used political themes to craft commonality between songs.
“It shocks me that there isn’t a stage version of ‘American Idiot’ yet,” Mayer says. “It’s an opera. It’s ready to go.”
Avant-garde rockers the Flaming Lips, which began as an unlikely Oklahoma City punk collective, seem uniquely qualified to bring their show to the stage. The Lips have in recent years, with growing popularity, crafted their live shows into De La Guarda-like spectacles involving fake blood, bunny suits and front man Wayne Coyne walking on top of the audience in a clear bubble.
The “Yoshimi” album is a collection of songs loosely based on sci-fi themes and stories that artfully mix bubblegum and “Blade Runner.” (“Her name is Yoshimi/she’s a black belt in karate/working for the city/she has to discipline her body,” sings Coyne in the album’s title track, setting up the character.)
“There is a great potential for a visual tapestry there,” McAnuff says of the album. “It’ll be adventurous.”
As Pepe points out, when musicians not hailing from legit realms try their hands at theater, the attempts push the boundaries of the stage musical. “It challenges all of us to think in new ways,” he says.
Unlike most traditional musicals, “Spring Awakening” plays up the juxtapositions and contrasts between song and story. The contempo tunes develop emotional textures more than they do narrative.
“The goal wasn’t to reinvent the wheel, but I feel like we’re onto something that could kick the form into a new realm,” Mayer says. “Which is really groovy.”