Tuner noms could feature shows with pre-existing songs

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History could be made when the Tony Award nominations are announced May 4. It’s just possible that in the best musical category, all four nominated tuners will be what’s affectionately or disparagingly called a jukeboxer — that is, a show built around pre-existing songs.

Of the prospective nominees, five are songbook shows that have received reviews ranging from respectable to very upbeat — “American Idiot,” “Come Fly Away,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Fela!” and the soon-to-open Off Broadway transfer “Everyday Rapture,” with the originally scored “Memphis” falling into the same critical range. Only “The Addams Family,” appears to fall off the Tony cliff with its near-universal pans, including the critics’ ho-hum response to David Lippa’s original score.

Crix, obviously, have come around on songbook shows. No longer do they automatically beat up such musicals for a perceived lack of creativity.

It wasn’t always so, as “Memphis” co-lyricist (with David Bryan) and book writer Joe DiPietro vividly recalls. When his Elvis Presley songbook show, “All Shook Up,” came to Broadway in spring 2005, “jukebox musicals were thought to be both the nadir and the death of the modern musical,” he says.

And it didn’t help that “All Shook Up” followed, in a matter of weeks, “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys’ big misfire. “Now, of course, the vast majority of (new) musicals on Broadway this season are jukebox. Amazing.”

In fact, when DiPietro tells producers that he and Bryan are now writing a tuner about the legendary Brill Building, a former hub of the Gotham music biz, “they all excitedly ask if we’re using pre-existing music,” notes the scribe. “When I tell them no, they’re a little confused. Five years ago, everyone would’ve assumed we were writing an original score.”

Songbook tuners from 1978’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’?” to 1992’s “Crazy for You” were been Tony blessed, but they came before the genre was so commonplace. Controversy regarding jukeboxers didn’t really grip the awards until “Contact” won in 2000. Not only did the Susan Stroman-helmed dance show use a wide selection of pop standards, it eschewed a live orchestra for tapes of the original recordings.

As if to tame this unruly tuner beast, which had embraced everything from revues to book musicals, the Tony org immediately created a category, known as special theatrical event, which quickly devolved into a limbo for one-person shows. In one of its wiser decisions, the org retired the slot last year.

The use of pre-existing songs to build a show, however, had become so pervasive that the Tony committee deemed its score prize open only to those shows in which at least 50% of the music was new. That diktat obviously excludes the scores of this season’s songbook tuners, even though there is a long precedent for honoring a rock opera like “American Idiot.”

“When Green Day wrote the album, they created a rock opera,” says the show’s director, Michael Mayer. “They were referencing all these rock operas like ‘Tommy’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ all these concept albums that ended up being successfully brought into a theater context. When I listened to (the album), that’s what I heard. I heard the narrative and saw the potential to bring it to the stage. You can’t confuse ‘American Idiot’ with a songbook musical where songs are amassed to create a story. That is not the case here.”

Tony history sides with “Idiot,” even if the org’s contempo rules don’t. Not that long ago, it would have had a very good shot at the score prize. For example, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” were both concept albums that preceded the live stage works by a year or two, and both went on to win Tonys for score. The Who’s 1969 concept album, “Tommy,” the first to be billed as a “rock opera,” waited 23 years before opening at La Jolla Playhouse, and in 1993, it tied with “Kiss of the Spider Woman” for score.

While no longer eligible in the score category, songbook shows tend to rely on strong original books, and it is here that the genre is, arguably, doing the most to advance the musical form. Intriguingly, it is choreographers who often take the most novel approach — like “Come Fly Away” by Twyla Tharp and “Fela!” by Bill T. Jones and co-book writer Jim Lewis. They offer storylines that are more horizontal than linear.

“We tell a story that is porous,” says Tharp, “so that the viewer can project himself into it, which is why dance can be so emotional.”

Through Frank Sinatra’s songs and dance, the four love stories of “Come Fly Away” run simultaneously, with some intertwined “and a couple running separately,” says Tharp. “I try to write these scenarios in such a way that (lyrics) support but are not critical.”

Tharp drops Dave Brubeck’s instrumental “Take Five” into the middle of act two of her Sinatra opus, and her love stories are impressionistic enough that the music doesn’t jar. Or as she says, “I did it because I love it, because it’s from the era, it’s a great piece of dance, and because I could get away with it.”

Lewis describes “Fela!,” the bio of composer Fela Kuti, as “more of a collage” than a linear story. “It’s a very different process from writing a book and making the songs serve that book. We do the opposite,” he says. “The music tells us how we could create the powerful moments of this man’s life, and then we tie these moments together so that they more or less give a picture of Fela and his life.”

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