Monday, February 18, 2008

Do obscure indie pop/rock songwriters just make better musicals?

Rob Kendt is asking this question in a recent post, particularly as he compares the attempts at musical theatre by superstars (Barry Manilow's Harmony; Paul Simon's The Capeman) versus stuff like Stew's Passing Strange or the various Groovelily ventures.

Personally, I think it's an interesting question. Here's a very well thought out graph:

I'm wondering if this has to do with the relatively smaller egos of "indie" musicians; with their band-bred familiarity with collaboration on the one hand, and their offbeat or outsider sensibilities, honed by their non-mainstream career path, on the other hand; the seat-of-the-pants ethos such artists find, and recognize very well, in the Off-Broadway and regional theaters where they develop a lot of their work. On the audience side, I wonder if being a huge pop star with a hummable hit catalogue is a disadvantage when you try to write a brand-new original musical; in a version of the old struggle between the artist who wants to play all the songs from his new record and the audience who wants to hear all the hits, I think that most fans of a major pop artist don't necessarily flock to a new show that happens to have music by that artist--unless it's a jukebox musical, and even then, it's a gamble. Theater fans, on the other hand, do tend to flock to shows that are supposed to be really, really good and fresh and interesting, and the name of the composer isn't what is going to get them in the door unless it's Sondheim.
I'd only like to add that I think it has less to do with whether the songwriter in question is a megastar or an indie-fringe person and more about whether the songwriter in question knows how to freight songs with the quality of narrative. Rob quite rightly submits Elton John as the exception to the rule -- but really, that's only recently, what with Billy Elliot and whatnot. Until now, I don't think Elton John has had much of a clue how songs function in a musical.

A couple of other thoughts. The Capeman has a great score; what killed it was Mark Morris not understanding anything about the function of narrative -- that of book, score or choreography, strangely enough -- in a musical theatre context. And aside from Mark Anthony and Ednita Nazario, it was completely miscast. If memory serves, The Capeman was also intermissionless -- that was about preventing people from leaving, not about some narrative superstructure, like that of A Chorus Line, where the intermission was needlessly hurt the emotional build.

Now, Groovelily is an interesting story. I know them, or at least I've met them, interviewed them and had an opportunity to spend a little time with them. At one point, back when they acted as if they wanted to be friends with me, we were even kicking around an idea for a musical for which I would write the book. But aside from such grousing, do not consider me one of the deliriously enchanted with Striking 12. I know, I know, everyone creamed over it, but ultimately I thought it was visually -- and narratively -- static, in the final analysis. Clever lyrics and neat tunes are fine for the musical theatre of yesterday, or chamber pieces like Striking 12 wants to be, and certainly I'm in the minority in terms of what I thought of it. But I just didn't come away convinced that this was anything but a very talented indie band giving off a frisson of narrative-writing ability. So, nyeh. (Actually, here is my 2006 New York Press review of Striking 12.)

Anyway, great post, Rob. Lots of food for thought.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: