I’m sincere in wishing Cyndi Lauper all the best in her new career as a Broadway songwriter. Her maiden effort, Kinky Boots, began previews March 3. I hope it’s good; I hope it’s a hit. And I hope its reception encourages her to write more.
But when a friend asked which new show to get tickets for, Matilda or Kinky Boots, my skepticism led me to endorse the former. Friends who’ve seen Matilda were enthusiastic. As I write this, I don’t know of anyone who has caught Kinky Boots.
So, this isn’t about Kinky Boots. But my skepticism doesn’t come out of thin air. For a long time I’ve watched, faintly horrified, as rock stars have tried their hands at Broadway. With the notable exception of Elton John, they’ve crashed and burned. Of course, the widely-derided first effort of U2’s Bono and The Edge, Spider Man: Turn on the Dark, is still running. I’ve seen financial analysis estimating that the show will have to be well into its second decade before it turns a profit. So, one might say the jury’s still out on that one. But not the jury of critics, who all hated it, especially the score.
Need I drag out the usual suspects again? There’s Jimmy Buffett’s Don’t Stop the Carnival, which, promisingly, is based on a Herman Wouk novel; it died in Florida, as many do. Paul Simon’s The Capeman is a famous flop from a pop star of such artistry, you’d think, if anyone can succeed on Broadway, Ol’ Rhymin’ Simon can; but he couldn’t. Randy Newman has a great deal of experience making his songs work in movies, with Oscars to show for it. His Faust was sent to hell on the road, and never made it in town. Paul Williams has written movie musicals, but his stage musical Happy Days has been declared not good enough for New York, too. Holland, Dozier and Holland’s First Wives Club got left at the altar. Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 came and went so quickly, it’s now best known as the one Broadway show that opened with Megan Hilty in the cast. The rocker who no longer has Cougar in his name, John Mellencamp, wrote Ghost Brothers of Darkland County with Stephen King. No one’s beating a path to their door, nor that of Sheryl Crow’s Diner (and that door never closes).
Enough! I find the act of listing bombs too dispiriting to spend another second on it. Let’s discuss, instead, the specious thinking that leads producers to believe that those who’ve been very successful in the rock realm (many decades ago, in Lauper’s case) are the least bit likely to write a hit musical. I think you know what the producers are thinking: How much they love the star’s old rock hits. How popular they were, in their prime. And sometimes there’s a more artistic-minded thought, that there’s something in the nature of the well-loved songs that’s in some way similar to what a musical theatre piece might require.
Time out here to quote a domestic conversation. My wife and I weren’t entirely sure whether Cyndi Lauper had written her two best-known numbers, True Colors and Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Just looked that up, and she hadn’t. Is it too cynical of me to wonder whether Kinky Boots’ producers and investors looked up this key information? Are you as confident of Kinky Boots’ success now that you know its songwriter didn’t write those wonderful 1980s classics?
My pessimism about rock star-written debut musicals has less to do with the long sad history of such things than an understanding of the myriad differences between pop songwriting and creating for narrative theatre. One has to do with voice; rockers tend to write how they feel, putting words into their own mouths. Musicals delineate different characters, giving each a distinct voice. That’s not a thing a lot of pop writers have experience with. I’ve heard a lot of talk of grooves, and, naturally, musicals need a wide variety of those. The country idiom suited to Hilty’s 9 to 5 character hardly fit Allison Janney’s. When you get down to it, a show’s songs tell a story on a stage, using an assemblage of actors. Now and then, an ambitious rock artist might attempt to tell a tale over the course of a concept album, but that’s still not the same thing. Show tunes, generally, take a plot from one emotional place to another; this is never the requirement for a Top 40 hit.
I hate to bring up some long-forgotten dirt, but the well-documented calamitous times leading to the opening of Aida and Spider Man involved superstars who didn’t seem as involved, as fully engaged, as most show songwriters get. It seemed Bono, The Edge and Elton John before them were far too used to the cushy life, in fancy if trash-able hotel rooms, music royalty is used to. Writing musicals is, in contrast to the lives they knew, hard work. Truly, I applaud them for getting out of their comfort zone after so many years (and Grammys). So many, unfortunately, got into something they didn’t quite expect and couldn’t quite handle.