Torture rock

Rock stars are attractive people.  Or perhaps the way the media works, and effective promotion, result in pop music stars becoming the most widely-admired segment of society.  Theirs is a specialized talent: they write (or, sometimes, simply perform) the songs the highest quantity of people want to hear, again and again.  I don’t knock that ability, or think they don’t deserve the massive riches derived. 

I’m sure you’ve noticed what so many have commented on, that rock is the music of the young.  Sometimes, the young-and-uninhibited; often, the young-and-angry.  Assuming the star isn’t one of the many who overdose at the age of 27, eventually he becomes too old to be young-and-anything.  Now, what are they going to do?

I’m not going to make fun of the geriatric rockers who still tour.  I mean, that’s one reasonable response to the situation they find themselves in, and a great quantity of concert-goers eat it up.  No, this is another of my acidulous musings on musicals.  I have to ask why must the past-prime pop stars traipse on my pasture, the world of theatre.

There was a time in which just about everyone in the rock world made fun of musical comedy as square, their parents’ idea of entertainment.  Regrettably, it took the theatre a long time to wake up to the idea that the Baby Boomers’ music had a place on the stage.  Can it be that it’s now been 16 years since Jonathan Larson’s Rent?  The contemporary feel of that music had been so rarely heard on Broadway, the retelling of La bohème in the era of the Tompkins Square riots seemed bold and fresh.  Happily, since then, there seems to have been less of a schism.  Tom Kitt’s exceptional score, Next To Normal (2009), didn’t seem like an exception, a step in an untried direction at all.

So, that’s a positive change.  Broadway now caters to aging Baby Boomers and next to no one looks askance if show tunes don’t sound wildly dissimilar to what can be heard on the radio.  But what’s not-so-positive to us trained-and-prepped-for-this musical theatre writers, is that so many theatre powers-that-be go ape over the idea of doing a musical with a score by a well-known rocker.  They follow two false assumptions: that the theatre-going public is more likely to buy a ticket to a show by a famous pop composer, and that the score will be good.

Is there a living American songwriter more widely admired than Paul Simon?  Well, his legions of fans stayed away from his Broadway musical, The Capeman, in droves.  Randy Newman was a top 40 singer-songwriter who, as he aged, took up his uncle’s profession, writing scores for movies.  Over the past 30 years, he’s been nominated for Academy Awards 20 times, winning his second just last year.  But his musical for the theatre, Faust, languished on the road and never made it to New York, even after David Mamet came in to rewrite the book.  And some other day, I’ll talk about a show for the entire family by a member of the not-for-the-entire-family band, Styx, that truncated its road tour due to low box office.

Now, I can understand a producer’s assumption that big name music celebrities will lead to filled seats.  What I can’t understand is why so many people believe that a score by a pop writer, trying his or her hand at the stage for the first time, will be any good at all.  It simply makes no sense.  And I’ve an analogy that’s a little faulty, but I can’t get it out of my head.  (When that happens, I put it on this blog and forget about it.)

Two decades apart, the actors who played the villains in two of my musicals were housepainters.  Let’s use one’s name, Dennis.  And, because I’m in an odd mood, let’s use Chaim Soutine as an example of an artist who had an extremely successful career. Take a good look at his beef carcass.  Make your mouth water?  Never mind.

So, say your house needs painting: Who are you going to call?  Both Dennis and Soutine are certainly painters.  They know about color, applying paint permanently with a brush; they’ve an understanding of how different hues reflect light.  Dennis, I should have already pointed out, has been doing this for years.  He apprenticed, learned his craft, got better at it, perfected it.  And Soutine?  Well, he’s hung in every major art museum.  Don’t argue this point: he’s a great painter.

But, of course, there’s painting and there’s painting.  A canvas, or work of art, is wholly different from a home, or living space.  If you ignore that difference, and get Chaim Soutine to cover the walls of your dining room, you could end up with unsavory butchered meat on your walls; guests might find it frightening and not stay for dinner.

OK, that’s a crazy analogy, but welcome to my reality: There’s a major regional theatre, in a sunny climate, that, over the years, has produced premieres of many musicals.  This season, they’ve got an entire season of first efforts – by well-known rock composers.  It’s as if they’ve hired Soutine and Pollack and Bosch to paint their walls, rather than Dennis who knows from walls.  The theatre company is abandoning what it knows from years of producing new musicals – that the best are those that are written by musical theatre specialists who’ve honed their craft – and glommed on to a sort of false logic a lot of us are guilty of.

We hear a pop song and admire certain things about it.  Maybe the lyric tells a story.  Maybe the tune is every bit as hummable as something by Jerry Herman.  Maybe the composer has a history of delineating different characters in her songs.  These maybes lead some to jump to the conclusion that this particular pop songwriter would be good at writing musicals.  Which makes exactly as much sense as the idea that Soutine might be good at painting a house.


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