Disco inferno

I spent a lot of time listening to songs by the young Turks Playbill dubbed Songwriters You Should Know. In writing about Michael Gioli’s subjective assessment previously, I pointed out a distinction between pop writers and show writers that may have left a false impression. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong about pop music. Nor am I saying theatre songs shouldn’t sound like pop songs. They must merely be theatrical, and a good number of composers have been able to accomplish this, writing in a pop mode.

“Pop” is one hell of a broadly-defined word, isn’t it? Covers so much. For instance, when a new artist records an album of songs she’s written, we tend to call that pop. Once the creator proclaims “These songs are part of a musical I’m writing!” she’s instantly in a different realm. Like it or not, show tunes are judged in different terms than pop. I take a hard line here, I know, but until you’ve put a musical on stage, in essence, you’re a pop writer.

Anybody else thinking about Tommy right now? Or the more recent American Idiot? In those, major rock stars got creative, admirably, and fashioned albums that tell a tale. Like musicals, in certain ways, but unlike, in others. For instance, a stage show often involves a large number of characters, a higher quantity of people than make up the typical rock band. So it follows that on cast albums you hear a wide variety of voices, whereas on pop albums, you usually don’t. But you knew all that.

A question comes up about both Tommy and American Idiot: did the creators actually ever intend they be on a Broadway stage? Seems highly unlikely to me. In any case, rock-writing is the creators’ strong suit, the machination of effective drama is not.

But what I didn’t mean to imply is that pop should be unwelcome in the theatre. Since the birth of rock, for too many years, far too frequently, Broadway has seemed inhospitable to rock, and to pop writers. It was as if the powers-that-be wished to maintain a sharp distinction between their music and our music. Hair came along and several of its riveting rock songs got on the Top 40 charts. Which, you’d think, would have opened up the floodgates. We’re used to Hollywood rip-offs of anything that sells. Perplexingly, Broadway remained resistant to rock. When a popular British TV interviewer teamed up with a teenager to use pop to retell Biblical stories, no stage producer realized they were on to something. So, the chat show host called some record industry connections to get their rock opera recorded and released even though it had never been done on stage. The tele-journalist was Tim Rice; the teen phenom was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Their show, Jesus Christ Superstar became a huge top-selling album and then (and only then) did stage impresarios wake up and produce the damn thing.

So, then, were the rest of the 70s filled with rock musicals? Hardly. The Great White Way is tradition-bound, deeply suspicious of the new. Lloyd Webber and Rice went the same odd route a decade later: album first, followed by the staging of Evita. A big hit, but, again, few copycats took to the catnip. When Jonathan Larson’s Rent came along in 1996, it felt like barren ground had been rained upon. At long last, a moving American rock musical, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a mega-hit. I’d say the show seemed fresh because it was rock; its dated setting (the Tompkins Square riots) seemed comparatively square.

Post-Rent, the schism ceased to exist. Broadway producers and audiences alike became – finally! – comfortable with a wide array of pop sounds. The pernicious blight on all this is the growth of popstar bios (Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, Fela) and jukebox abominations (Mamma Mia, All Shook Up, Rock of Ages). A new kind of theatre-goer flocks to these: They care not a whit if a score is freshly minted. They’d actually prefer to hear nothing but the classic rock hits they’ve known for years and years. Philistines, someone (Tim Rice, perhaps ?) once called them.

I’m that odd bird that actually prefers Broadway rock to the rock you can hear on the radio. ITunes tells me my most listened-to album over the past five years has been High Fidelity, a quick-closing bomb starring Will Chase. ITunes’ counter tells no lies: I really dig those Tom Kitt tunes.

High Fidelity was set in the present, and I tend to prefer when rock is used to tell a contemporary story. Jesus Christ Superstar excepted, and accepted as a choice to draw a parallel between the long-haired, warm and loving apostles and the hippies of (what was then) today. For the exact same reason, I embrace Godspell‘s melange of (then-)current pop styles for its street-performing Jesus freaks. But when Tim Rice and Elton John got around to their retelling of Aida, the choice of musical style lacked any discernable justification. Worse, the score’s closest thing to a hit, My Strongest Suit, is the closest thing imaginable to Elton John’s early hit, Crocodile Rock, which is a pastiche of a far earlier rock style. Forget justifying using rock to depict ancient Egypt; tell me why it should involve a 1970s gloss on 1950s music.

One other that bothers me: Miss Saigon, naturally utilizes rock, but, curiously, it doesn’t use the more acidic guitar-based strains of the mid-seventies. Go see any movie about Vietnam and you’ll hear The Doors, The Rolling Stones, et al. If you’re stuck watching the skin-deep refashioning of Madame Butterfly, you’ll hear some bits that sound like Billy Joel and “a song played on a solo saxophone” even though they’re wrong for the period.

When Jeanine Tesori composes a score set in the South in the 60s, she pays careful attention to the sound. Research leads to a verisimilitude I admire greatly. Or, for funny references to the way 80s hits sounded, try Matt Sklar’s The Wedding Singer or Dan Acquisto’s Like You Like It. These composers (along with Larry O’Keefe and Tom Kitt) are contemporary masters at harnessing the power of rock to tell a story in the theatre.

Now, something else I need explained to me: in The Paris Opera House, back in the 1800s, in its smoky basement, was there really a disco?


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