Mainstream embracing musicals

Tuners invading films, TV, Internet

What is it with musicals lately?

One week on “The Sopranos,” someone dies of a stroke after seeing “Jersey Boys.” The next week, Meadow’s boyfriend has front-row mezzanine tickets for “Grey Gardens.” On “Brothers & Sisters,” a character is about to ship out to Iraq, planning to spend his last night in town seeing “Wicked.”

Throughout the season, “Ugly Betty” has featured homages to “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray” and “West Side Story,” while “Scrubs” aired a tuner episode with original songs by the Tony-winning “Avenue Q” team.

Musicals are once again becoming part of the pop-culture consciousness, exerting an influence on advertising, chart-topping songs and, of course, movies.

“There’s a new chic to the concept of the musical that wasn’t there before,” says Michael Mayer, director of Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” and the Atlantic Theater Company’s “10 Million Miles,” a road romance that uses songs by Patty Griffin.

After regularly yielding chart hits through the first half of the 20th century, tuners slipped out of vogue from the late ’60s onward, exiled into nerd-dom. Yes, a few blockbusters had cultural impact beyond Broadway, such as “A Chorus Line” in the 1970s or the British megamusical invasion of the ’80s. But otherwise, tuners have barely registered on the hipness radar for decades.

“Musicals are thought of as mainstream culture again, as they used to be,” says David Stone, lead producer of “Wicked” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

In advertising, Claire Danes and Patrick Wilson danced for Gap khakis to Ethel Merman singing “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.”

In pop music, Gwen Stefani has been lacing her hits with showtune samples, from “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” while Beyonce’s video for “Get Me Bodied” appropriated Bob Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug” moves from “Sweet Charity,” also throwing in a nod to “Funny Face.”

Mayer credits the flamboyant, realism-flouting aesthetic of Baz Luhrmann films like “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” for helping to open the minds of a new generation to the language of musicals. “There was a kitschiness to them that I think a lot of young people responded to,” he suggests.

Pop shows like “Wicked,” “Legally Blonde” and “Hairspray” have helped shake the dust off the image of the old-fashioned Broadway musical. Those and similar

shows haven’t always earned a unanimous critical em-

brace but have broadened the traditional tuner audience to a new generation, particularly — but not exclusively — teen and tweener girls.

“‘Wicked’ now is part of the vernacular,” observes Stone.

Mayer agrees that the “Wizard of Oz” backstory tuner helped alter perceptions of the potential for musicals to achieve massive commercial popularity. “‘Wicked’ is kind of the model for a real shift in the paradigm,” he says.

The age of irony also has been good for the Broadway demographic, with self-satirizing shows like “The Producers” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” or irreverent comedies like “Avenue Q” contributing to make musicals more guy-friendly. It’s far easier to imagine frat boys singing along to “The Internet Is for Porn” than to “I Feel Pretty.”

Shows that poke affectionate fun at the musical form, such as “Curtains” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” have the double benefit of appealing to die-hard tunerphiles while making other folks feel they are in on the joke.

The audience expansion into new demographics has contributed to the steady climb in Broadway figures for the past few years, hitting $938.5 million during the just-concluded 2006-07 season. As always, musicals represent the lion’s share of grosses, with 90% of box office.

Many pundits point to pop-culture phenomena like YouTube, with its saturation of music clips, for helping to consolidate the resurgence of interest in tuners. One of the year’s most popular entries on the video-sharing site (and winner of one of the inaugural YouTube Awards) was groover-geek ensemble OK Go doing a precision-choreographed routine on treadmills to “Here It Goes Again,” which would be right at home in any contempo pop musical (and could serve as a companion piece to the jump-rope workout number that opens the second act of “Legally Blonde”).

An entire generation has grown up on musicvideos that pair song and narrative.

“There’s a real story there in a lot of videos,” offers Mayer. “They have a claim on the imagination of young people who didn’t really have a connection to the old MGM movie-musicals.”

A rock musical that marries timeless teen angst and sexual confusion to songs by Duncan Sheik, “Spring Awakening” in particular has benefited from a direct connection to youth culture, getting marketing leverage from its use of YouTube, iTunes and other Web music sources.

“We’re on people’s iPods, and not just theater people,” says Mayer.

No one underestimates the influence of “American Idol.” That behemoth and its many imitators have repopularized vocal performances, which had been virtually absent from the primetime TV landscape since the passing of the network variety show. Then there are “Dancing With the Stars” and its terpsichorean brethren, making hoofers hot again.

And let’s not forget the surprise success of Disney Channel’s 2006 telepic “High School Musical.”

“People gave ‘High School Musical’ a chance because it was on basic cable, so it was essentially free,” says Mark Kaufman, exec VP of production and theater at New Line, the studio behind the ’88 John Waters film “Hairspray,” the stage tuner and the bigscreen version with John Travolta. “That helped open the door, because people thought, ‘Wait a minute, musicals are OK.'”

Aside from “Hairspray,” upcoming bigscreen tuners include “Sweeney Todd” and “Mamma Mia!” as well as Julie Taymor’s long-delayed “Across the Universe,” woven around songs by the Beatles.

Deals also seem inevitable for film adaptations of “Jersey Boys,” “Spring Awakening” and, further down the track, “Wicked.”

And “American Idol” can reflect some of the spotlight onto Broadway. “The Color Purple” and “Hairspray” are among the Rialto tuners to reap box office benefits from casting “Idol” alums.

“People want to see them,” New Line’s Kaufman says. “To take them and plug them into shows is a no-brainer.”

“I think the obsession with talent, like with ‘American Idol,’ all contributes back and forth between Broadway and television,” says Stone. “We don’t realize it now, but we’re living in — if not another golden age — another explosion of activity on Broadway.”

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