The music of discord

Dark-themed, unconventional tuners reveal Broadway's anything-goes spirit

Finally, the long-awaited new musical “Spring Awakening” receives its world premiere June 15 at the Atlantic Theater Company. It has been an extended, rough journey for the tuner by rocker Duncan Sheik and playwright Steven Sater.

But then, what were these two talents thinking when they tried to set such an unconventional story to music? When it comes to original source material, Frank Wedekind’s much-banned 1891 play about two 14- year-olds who fall in love, meet with their parents’ disapproval, undergo an abortion and end up dead could not be more tragic. “Mamma Mia!” it’s not.

Can such a dark, unconventional musical find life in a Broadway world filled with such upbeat movie-to-stage adaptations as “Spamalot,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”? Apparently when it comes to musicals, all bets are off, whether it’s tuner versions of the Maysles brothers’ documentary “Gray Gardens,” Ang Lee’s chop-socky “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or the Middle-earth fantasy “The Lord of the Rings.” Last year, Michael John LaChiusa created a stir in legit circles with his Opera News article “The Great Gray Way,” which contained few kind words for most of these so-called pastiche tuners. “Parody is good,” he says. “But what is the goal of sending up the musical? How does that change us?”

LaChiusa’s musicals have run the gamut of source material, from Joseph Moncure March’s poem “The Wild Party” to the short stories of Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutgawa, which the composer turned into this season’s “See What I Wanna See” at the Public Theater.

“I love provocative source material — ideas that I haven’t heard put to song or dance in the theater,” says LaChiusa. “Usually, a writer wants to fill a void, to write what they haven’t already seen.”

Commissioned by the Roundabout Theater Company, Sheik and Sater’s “Spring Awakening” created much positive buzz after director Michael Mayer put the show through its first workshop in 2000. Then 9/11 happened, and in a budget crunch, Roundabout scuttled a projected 2002-03 staging in Gotham. The property languished, and not until Feb. 2, 2005, did it resurface in a one-night-only concert performance as part of the American Songbook Series.

Essentially, that Lincoln Center event was a big backers’ audition, which did succeed in attracting the interest of Broadway producer Ira Pittelman (the current “Odd Couple”), who in turn has agreed to enhance the Atlantic production.

As several scribes are quick to note, the American musical canon is filled with adventurous and controversial, if not downright tragic, works that sing and dance magnificently.

“When we started on ‘Spring Awakening,’ I took Duncan to see ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ” Sater recalls. “The use of music and the way music came out of that story resonates for me.” It was not lost on either of the two writers that “Porgy and Bess” is the story of a paraplegic who falls in love with a drug-addicted prostitute who ultimately leaves him.

Its story could be one reason the George and Ira Gershwin show played only 124 perfs in its original 1935 production. But the rest is history, since “Porgy and Bess” went on to tour the world several times and enjoy no fewer than five Broadway revivals. Like the play “Porgy” by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, the Wedekind drama is ripe for musical treatment, Sater believes.

“It has so much anguished desire and yearning,” says the playwright. “It felt like it had song in it. It was a play yearning to sing.”

Stephen Sondheim is oft cited as the man most responsible for bringing edgier fare to the musical theater. Unquestionably, book writer John Weidman provided two of the composer’s more unlikely subjects for musical treatment: Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Japan, which sets off “Pacific Overtures,” and presidential killers, the subject of their “Assassins.”

“The best source material is that which excites a particular artist,” says Weidman. So it was with his Sondheim collaborations. ” ‘Assassins’ was based on conversations between Steve and me, our wrestling with the raw material and how to express it theatrically and musically. Same is true of ‘Pacific Overtures.’ The most adventurous musicals are based on something brand new, which is spinning around in someone’s head, and appears onstage as a musical for the first time.”

As for Sondheim jumpstarting a trend to more challenging tuners, Weidman says the best shows have always been based on seemingly unsuitable fare.

“The novel ‘Green Grow the Lilacs’ is an unbelievably dark, complicated play,” he says. “How Oscar Hammerstein got from it to ‘Oklahoma!’ is a journey I’d love to know about.” In the current Broadway season, “The Color Purple” grosses around $1 million a week despite a much-abused lesbian heroine who is long-separated from her two illegitimate children.

“Seven years ago, many people thought I was crazy,” producer Scott Sanders says of the stage adaptation. “On paper, the Alice Walker novel with all its stories and characters isn’t the most obvious source material to turn into a musical. People saw it as a play, not a musical. But I always thought it had music in its soul.”

“The conventional cliche is to ask whether the material sings,” says Weidman. “The answer to what sings, however, can depend on who’s asking the question.”

Such bizarre concepts for a musical as pogroms in old Russia or a stripper’s overbearing mother have been turned into the beloved “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Gypsy.” To those classics, playwright Doug Wright adds “West Side Story” and “Sweeney Todd.”

“You need material that, at its core is extreme, hyper real, a little baroque or over the top. It needs to press the boundary of the form so that you earn song in the storytelling.”

Wright found just such a subject with his first stab at writing for the musical theater, “Grey Gardens,” written with songwriters Michael Korie and Scott Frankel. Based on the Maysles brothers’ 1975 doc about the reclusive Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, the musical has enjoyed an extended run at Playwrights Horizons.

Despite its unconventional, not to mention claustrophobic, story, Wright found music in the characters.

“The Edies were in love with the American pop songbook, and their rivalry most often expresses itself in competitive singing,” says Wright. “They fight over who sings best, and so music forms the basis of their relationship.”

Challenging source material, of course, does not guarantee success any more than the most likely (“The Match Maker,” “Chicago,” “La Cage aux Folles”) spells disaster. To paraphrase Weidman on what sings, it might be asked: What’s adventurous? Again, it depends on who’s asking.

Songwriter Adam Guettel began his tuner career with the unconventional and ultra-austere “Floyd Collins,” based on the true story of a man trapped in a Kentucky cave for two weeks, and followed it by turning a fairly undramatic novella, “The Light in the Piazza,” into a musical, which won him the 2005 Tony award for score. This summer, he radically shifts gears to workshop his third musical, “The Princess Bride,” a swashbuckling fairy tale that fits perfectly into the more conventional vogue for movie-to-stage escapist fare.

“I want to explore a more comedic, adventurous and athletic part of who I am,” Guettel says without apologies. “I feel ready to try to write something commercial.”

And therein lies the challenge. “Commercial requires real skill,” he says, “not just heart, pathos, or melody. The plot barrels along, and as composer-lyricist, I have to increase the velocity. No navel-gazing allowed.”