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WHY BROADWAY DOESN’T ROCK

Somewhere during the first act of the “Rock of Ages” at the Minskoff on Broadway I could feel my eyes roll but not rock back in my head. This is a rock and roll musical? This? The book was camp garbage and the music was 80s hair metal covers. Look at hair metal this way: get Roth Halen, get Guns N Roses and pick and chose maybe ten songs according to taste from the rest and you’re done. DO NOT go to Broadway to hear naff covers of naff songs.

What’s the problem here? While Presley was singing to a hound dog on the Steve Allen show, Leonard Bernstein was writing “West Side Story” with nary a doo wop song on the horizon. The two didn’t mesh, they were different musical forms. No rock and Broadway, no no.

In the 60s, as the current “Hair” revival reminds us, rock took another stab at Broadway but for all the pleasures of the compositions, and despite the book being borderline connecting sketches, “Hair” was faux rock, it was Broadway pretending to rock and it absolutely did not really, really rock. It wasn’t comparable to the Stones and certainly not comparable to Hendrix.

In the mid 70s Richard O’Brien’s camp classic failed to transfer successfully from the West End despite a very good book and some wonderful pop (but not rock) songs; the movie became a cult classic but the musical never did so great on Broadway (even the revival bombed). “Grease” had a weak book and average to good 50s rock but it wasn’t a serious Broadway production (incidentally, the movie is much better than the musical). “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Rice and Webber and “Godspell” by Scwartz and Tabelak brought together rock and Broadway and god -God won.

Fast forward to the late 80s and Pete Townsend’s “Tommy”. “Tommy” is definitely rock but the music on Broadway was over pitched fake rock and the orchestration dreadful, and taking Ken Russel’s overheated movie version as the template, the book a pathological dramatic disaster show.

None of this is working and the next serious attempt, “Rent,” didn’t work as rock music either. Good book (based upon La Boheme), wonderful music but not even vaguely rock and roll -mostly Broadway by numbers with the occasional pop power ballad.

The problem was, if the book was good the music wasn’t rock and if the music was rock, the book wasn’t good. So Broadway tried another tack: the Broadway musical of the movie. Here we go: “Saturday Night Fever,” “The Wedding Singer,” “Footloose”: Ugh, Ugh, double ugh. Oh, and “Hairspray” -a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable rock musical based upon a movie. Unfortunately the very next attempt to make a show off a John Waters movie, “Cry baby” was a flop and deserved to be one (the fault lay in the very lame score).

In the mid-90s Paul Simon attempted to mount his production of “the Capeman,” the story of Salvadore Agron, a sixteen year gang member sentenced to death for murder. With Ruben Blades and Marc Anthony singing Simon’s wonderful Latin, rock and roll, and doo wop score this should have done it. I went to see it twice, once in previews and again after it opened because I couldn’t believe it was so bad. The score was perfection; the staging, the cheography and the book the absolute pits. Apparently, rock songwriters can’t do without Broadway veterans the way Broadway veterans can’t do without rock songwriters.

There are only two rock songwriters who have had Broadway success and only one has been writing rock songs. For all of Elton John’s genius on “The Lion King” and “Billy Elliot,” these musicals are not rock musicals, they are grounded in power ballads and Broadway song and dance. I’ll discuss the other person later.

So next came the “jukebox” musical. Only the musical of the movie was worse than the jukebox musical. It followed on the heels of the very successful progenitor of the form Abba’s “Mama Mia” -which had very popular Abba songs integrated into a rom-com. It was followed by the rock ballet Twyla Tharpe’s take on Billy Joel’s songs “Movin’ Out”, also very succesful, and that was followed by Tharpe’s failed attempt to do the same for Bob Dylan songs “The Times they Are A-Changin'” but it didn’t work. years early that had been “Beatlemania” and “The Buddy Holly Story,” the former a tribute band with slides, the latter a weak biography. And in between there somewhere: jbm’s featuring songs by Presley; Lennon; Earth, Wind And Fire and many equally hapless flops. The other great success here was “Jersey Boys” featuring the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four seasons.

The future promises the Julie Taymor-U2 “Spiderman” project and the Green Day “American Idiot” musical. My bet? The one thing i am pretty certain of is the “Spiderman” book won’t be very good.

So does pretty much nothing work? Here are two that did. Stewie’s “Passing Strange” was very good but it would’ve been much better as a concert with a twist. It isn’t really a Broadway Musical. “Spring Awakening” is the one and only. It is a real musical based upon the german play of the same song and therfore has a rock solid book behind it; the songs are really rock songs by a rock songwriter Duncan Sheik (his minor league status may help here -the U2s and Paul Simons overwhelm the stage with their presense) who wrote original material specifically for this work; it is the story of sexually confused teenagers wallowing in their own self pity; the cast is young and pretty and the staging is original without being avant garde.

Teenage confusion -the reason for rock music, and its most important subject matter, is the antithesis of Broadway. Rock has, time and time again, proven itself the wrong medium for the musical reaching out to the wrong audience for the form. By the way the other great orginal show was “Hairspray” -another teen story. I don’t quite see what can be done about it; a bloated affair like the U2 show, even if successful, is no answer. The economics (not to mention unions) of a Broadway musical insist upon a big show but rock is at its best in a smaller setting with younger concerns (one of the problems of being a rock critic is that rock is a young persons’ game; 52 year olds worrying about whether the Veronica’s or the Verve is better is faintly ridiculous: ps the Veronicas today, the Verve ten years ago).

Once you get past the age question (and you can of course, the Stones are all in their 60s -except Brian Jones, hahahaaa) you find yourself with the question of transitional music and instrumentals; something so simple and steady in opera and jazz isn’t a good fit for rock. There is an unsteadiness, shot gun wedding feel to the two and it sounds either too pompous or too feigned.

Also, often it takes a certain artist to break down the barrier. A genius able to transform the musical for those waiting in the wings and, with all apologies to Duncan Sheik, it hasn’t found one yet. No Carl Jung, no Einstein, no Elvis, has kicked down the door on the form.

So we are left with a “Mama Mia” here and a “Hairspray” there: every five or six seasons there will be some rock based something or the other that we can all agree upon, though if it is going to be “Rock Of Ages” we are really clutching at straws.

Let’s end with this quote from Spring Awakening: “Yeah you’re fucked alright and all for spite, you can kiss your sorry ass goodbye.” That’s so good Titus Andro
nicus might have written it.
Or if you prefer, from the same song and the same show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW4EdV880qQ

Or if you prefer:
BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BL

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