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More on “Why a Musical?”: Original Music Versus What Was in the Source.

April 26, 2012

This isn’t so much “Why a Musical?” as it is “Why That Music?”. I’ll explain:

New musicals open (and close) with some frequency, if not regularity. Lately they’ve been falling into one of several categories:

  • New Shows: New book, lyrics, and tunes. The Book of Mormon and Wicked are two current examples.
  • Old Wine in New Bottles: Not quite the same as “jukebox musicals” (see below), these are shows that take existing songs from old shows (that had creaky-at-best libretti) and have new stories written around them. Nice Work If You Can Get It, a pastiche of 1920s plots with great George/Ira Gershwin songs, is a recent example.
  • Jukebox Musicals: Taking pre-existing pop songs and constructing a plot around them. I have already mentioned Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys (as successful examples), but you should also count shows like Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.
  • Revivals: New productions of existing shows. At the moment that includes Anything Goes, Evita, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (sort of, considering the tinkering done to it), Godspell, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
  • Long-running Shows: Few and far between, these are shows that have not only stood the test of time but are proving it every time the curtain goes up. That happened for a couple of decades-plus with the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks, but also Chicago (still a great show), The Lion King (not that long but getting there), and Phantom of the Opera.

And last but not least, there are the, well…

  • Let’s-Cash-In-On-A-Popular-Movie-Musical-Complete-With-Whatever-Hit-Song-Was-In-It Shows: There is an overlap here with jukebox musicals, especially with shows like Sister Act and the aforementioned Priscilla…. I’m thinking more about shows like Ghost The Musical. Off-Broadway there is the well-meaning but uneven Danny and Sylvia about the comedian/actor Danny Kaye and his songwriter wife Sylvia Fine Kaye. And herein lies the problem for me.

If you can craft an entire, workable musical from a handful of pre-written, originally non-theatrical songs and a new plot, well by golly good for you. I mean that; it is not an easy task, as the tiny success rate of such ventures will show. (Anyone remember the John Lennon musical? I’m a long-time Lennon fan, and I barely recall it existed.) But to take a film story that has a specific, well-known tune integrally embedded into the plot, well, you’re taking your compositional life into your hands.

Why, you may ask? (I’ll assume you just did.) Think about it. If a tune is well-known to begin with (as in the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”) is made even better known (or well-known to a new generation) by incorporating it into a film, you’ll be pitting anything you write against it. Comparisons between that song and whatever you compose, no matter how fabulous, will always have you on the losing side. And it’s a double-edged sword: Don’t use the tune in your show and you run the risk of an audience’s disappointment. One of the several reasons Big didn’t last long was precisely because of the “Chopsticks” scene in the original film. What can compare to a scene in which grown people dance on a giant keyboard mat thing playing “Chopsticks”? So the writers of the show probably (I’m guessing here) thought, “Gee, we’re sorta stuck with using this.” And then folks compared that to the rest of the show and of course found the totality lacking. (And it’s not a bad score overall. Maltby and Shire are excellent songwriters.) But they also didn’t do anything with the scene. They didn’t make it anything but a direct lift from the film, virtually unchanged.

The show about Danny Kaye (one of my — what? heroes?) was disappointing because it tried to have it both ways, almost literally splitting things down the middle so that half the score was classic Danny Kaye (“Tchaikovsky” from Lady in the Dark as well as songs by Sylvia) and new songs written for the show proper. It never — and never could — properly balance out for me.

When the few reviews I’ve read so far of Ghost The Musical completely omit mentions of the composer and lyricists but does mention the repeated use of “Unchained Melody”, you know there is a problem. (Charles Isherwood in the New York Times credits the book and lyrics to Bruce Joel Rubin, and music and lyrics by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and Glen Ballard, but only to blast them for what he considers an utter failure.)

You can imagine the conversation among the instigators of such projects: “We can get the rights to this hit movie; let’s do it as a musical and get somebody famous in pop music (Dave Stewart) or other Broadway shows (Maltby and Shire) to write it for us. We’ll even throw in the song or songs from the original film so we can be sure to have a hit.” So they throw money and “name” creators at it and expect a sure-fire hit, and more often than not are surprised and disappointed when the show flops.

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to having tried to get the rights to do a musical based on the movie Big back when it first came out. If I’m not well-known now (and I’m not, I acknowledge) I was a complete and utter unknown then, so in retrospect it shouldn’t surprise me that the letter from 20th Century Fox’s lawyers was a resounding, no holds barred “No.” I’m paraphrasing, but the letter essentially said “We have no intention of making a musical out of Big. Ever.” And then the musical opened (and quickly closed) about two years later. I have never felt the need to gloat about this. I’m just sorry they couldn’t find the real potential of the show.

So what do you do? Do you write a musical based on a film and incorporate a tune from the source? You can if the circumstances let you. Examples, all from musical comedies:

  • The Producers: Not just a song, but several moved over from the original Mel Brooks movie into his own musical version. And because it was the same composer in each case, it worked.
  • The Addams Family: How could you do a show based on a quirky t.v. comedy without one of the catchiest theme songs around? (Dah dah dah dum — snap, snap!) You can’t, and the creators of the Broadway show didn’t. They did it right though, using it as a theme song for the musical, thereby framing the new with what we wanted/expected. The score may not be the greatest (it’s okay to very good, in my opinion) but you’re going to see it for the characters first anyway. It works.
  • Young Frankenstein: Another Mel Brooks show, this one uses both “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” within the larger score. But in this instance the songs were used as gags to begin with, and we take it as such. It works.

What no one has done yet — and I know in my heart it could — has been to not just transfer a song used in a film into a new show, but to transform it to better suit the new medium. Write a new partner song (a second song to be sung with the other in counterpoint) to be used then. Or, better still, just write a new song for that moment if a song is needed there. For goodness sake, if your writing a new show, write. Don’t make us wish we were watching the original film, make us want to hear the rest of your score.

©2012 Steven L. Rosenhaus

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