Popular composers face difficulty in musical theater

Hair.” “Rent.” “Jesus Christ Super-star.” Each in the landmark trio of original Broadway rock musicals has one thing in common: They weren’t written by composers with rock ‘n’ roll cred.

When true rockers and pop stars hit the stage, the results have been decidedly mixed. Long before Bono and the Edge started taking heat for their “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” score, Paul Simon (“The Capeman”), Jim Steinman (“Dance of the Vampires”), Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger (“Cry-Baby”), Styx’s Dennis DeYoung (the non-Disney “101 Dalmatians”) and the Abba guys (“Chess”) experienced the brutal slap that characterizes trying to make the leap from the Billboard charts to the New York boards.

Sure, there are successes. Duncan Sheik’s 2006 Tony-award winning “Spring Awakening” had a healthy nearly 900-performance Broadway run, Elton John’s “Aida” lasted almost as long, and his “Billy Elliot” is still running (with “Lestat” largely forgiven and forgotten). Bon Jovi’s David Bryan had Off Broadway fun with “The Toxic Avenger” before bumping up to Broadway with “Memphis.” But the transition from gold-record writer to original score author of a Broadway hit remains a difficult key change.

What’s so hard about stringing a few good songs into a plot?

“There’s a learning curve,” says Scott Farthing, senior director of marketing for Sony Masterworks, the label for many Broadway cast recordings, including the upcoming “Wonderland.” “The songs have to be well-integrated into the story. They have to work in that context. That poses a challenge when a writer is used to writing three-minute, stand-alone ministories.”

Besides, adds Farthing, “most of these composers are used to writing for themselves or their bands. The Broadway musical is … a truly collaborative art form.”

Some, like Simon’s much-maligned “The Capeman,” sound great on disc but don’t translate dramatically to the stage. Others, such as DeYoung’s critical disaster “101 Dalmatians” feel like work-for-hire rather than artist-driven projects. In all cases, composers have to adjust to the fact that lyrics must be heard — and they have to deepen the characters, further the story or get laughs.

In many a rock song, lyrics aren’t very important, says Seth Rudetsky, host of “Seth’s Big Fat Broadway” on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio and the live “Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox” at Gotham’s Don’t Tell Mama cabaret. “It’s a lot of the same thoughts over and over again and they don’t always rhyme.”

In fact, says Rudetsky, on Broadway, rhyme is frequently the reason. “Onstage, you need more. When it doesn’t rhyme perfectly, it might be a mild smile. But if it rhymes perfectly, it’s hilarious.”

Much of the hardest work happens between first rehearsal and opening night. Broadway musicals, as the adage goes, aren’t written; they’re rewritten. From “Hello, Dolly!” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” to “Wicked” and “Ragtime,” shows historically have faced enormous problems during out-of-town tryouts — frequently solved by material written in hotel rooms. (The “Wicked” tune “Dancing Through Life” was added in San Francisco, while “Ragtime” lost a number for Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit in Toronto and added “Sarah Brown Eyes” for two more-central characters.) While starting with solid material is certainly a plus, industryites know that greatness often comes from the banging together of creative minds during the rehearsal and preview periods — a commitment some rockers won’t or can’t make.

Eric Schaeffer, director of Broadway’s jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” and the recent rethinking of “Chess” at Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., (where he serves as artistic director), has a more embracing view.

“I don’t necessarily think there’s a big difference between rock and musical theater composers. The groove of it is going to be different and may dictate how a song is structured, but both are composing songs about a character and whatever that character is feeling and saying. It may not typical musical theater. But it’s exciting when the art form is pushed — when it asks the question ‘what if this?’ It’s breaking new boundaries.”

Schaeffer’s advice to Rod Stewart, John Mellencamp, the Decemberists and other music stars who are said to have an eye on penning a Broadway hit?

“You can’t be afraid to kill your babies,” he says. “To throw out songs that aren’t serving the show. You are constantly making hard decisions to make the machine work. You turn one screw and it affects another thing. Musical theater is about collaboration and everyone getting in the room and working together.”

So who should be writing a Broadway show?

“Prince,” suggests Farthing. “And he’s talked about it more than once. He did write the songs that were removed from the movie ‘I’ll Do Anything,’ and they were great songs.”

“Carly Simon,” says Rudetsky. “Her lyrics are amazing. She gets characters. And if Billy Joel had actually written a new show instead of just having his songs in a jukebox musical (“Movin’ Out”), I think he could be great. ‘Allentown’ is like a number from a musical — a great opening number.

“The most important thing is to write something you love and care about. If you aren’t emotionally connected, you aren’t going to have the passion and perseverance.”

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