The Great White Way hits the replay button

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2011 - 12:57 PM

From "Fela!" to "American Idiot," more Broadway musicals are marching to the beat of time-tested popular music.

Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of the band Green Day, performs Saturday evening at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

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Green Day, U2, Abba, Frankie Valli, Fela Kuti, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. This is not your hipster aunt's iPod playlist. Actually, it's the soundtrack of Broadway.

More than ever, Broadway is turning to popular music for its sounds and story lines. Whether it's 1980s hair-band classics by Bon Jovi and Pat Benatar in "Rock of Ages" or newly minted material by U2's Bono and the Edge for "Spider-Man," pop stars guarantee an audience.

"You're going to sell tickets," said Baruch College music professor Elizabeth Wollman, author of "The Theater Will Rock: A History of Rock Musicals From Hair to Hedwig." "Familiarity is huge, and it's lower in terms of risk."

Some of the music is so familiar that the old Broadway adage has been flipped around -- people don't come out of the theater humming songs, they go in singing the songs. Who doesn't know "Dancing Queen," "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Don't Stop Believin'"?

The funky Afro-pop of "Fela!" presented more of a challenge, which may explain why this Tony-winning bio-musical about Nigerian musician Fela Kuti -- a world-music superstar but still a cult figure in this country -- closed on Broadway three weeks ago. Twin Cities audiences can finally see "Fela!" for themselves Thursday at the Guthrie Theater, which will screen a high-definition broadcast of the London production.

Blame it on Abba

Historically, Broadway has reflected the popular music of the day. The songwriters of New York's Tin Pan Alley primed the hit parade while pumping out show tunes from the 1920s through the early '60s.

Now the pipeline is flowing the other way, with Broadway awash in vintage pop sounds.

The idea is similar to what Broadway has successfully done by adapting movies to the stage ("Lion King," "Shrek," "Billy Elliot") -- trying to create something new out of something old.

The current wave of pop-inspired musicals -- "popsicals," they're sometimes called -- clearly emphasizes music over book. In fact, some shows seem to be little more than trying to shrink a Madison Square Garden concert experience into a Times Square playhouse.

With "Fela!" the music came first, said co-creator/director/choreographer Bill T. Jones. At a workshop, he staged several scenes featuring Fela in concert at a nightclub, and then his creative team worked together to craft a story.

It follows in the sensational steps of "Jersey Boys," the musical about 1960s hitmakers Valli and the Four Seasons that is coming to the Twin Cities for a third time in April.

The quintessential jukebox musical is "Mamma Mia," a soap opera that's really an excuse to hear two dozen Abba songs. "Rock of Ages" is a similarly silly platform for an evening of 1980s hits.

"Million Dollar Quartet" delivers some of rock's earliest tunes, built around a fabled night in 1956 when Presley, Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins convened in Sun Studios. The dialogue is contrived but this one-act musical is all about the classic songs.

The new wave of Broadway musicals isn't just about recycling, however. Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan wrote the Tony-winning score for "Memphis," which chronicles the taboo romance of a white radio DJ and a black singer in the 1950s. But it sounds nothing like Bon Jovi -- it's Memphis-flavored R&B.

Finding new audiences

By serving up the right brand names, Broadway has captured the attention of baby boomers and their offspring.

"My generation didn't care about theater. It wasn't cool," said baby boomer and Newsday theater critic Linda Winer, who has covered Broadway for four decades. "Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Billy Joel grew up wanting to be Bo Diddley, not Richard Rodgers. Now theater is cool again."

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, 38, probably didn't want to grow up to be Pete Townshend, who pioneered rock opera with the Who's "Tommy" in 1969. But his 2004 concept album "American Idiot" has made a successful transition to the stage, with Armstrong even performing as part of the Broadway cast. (He's doing a limited number of performances through February, as is Melissa Etheridge.)

"American Idiot" is drawing two factions of younger audiences to Broadway: people raised on modern rock and those hooked on Disney's "High School Musical" and Fox's "Glee."

Clare Seeman, 14, of Chanhassen, is one of the "Glee" kids. For the past five years, she has regularly attended musicals with her father, Dan, a veteran Twin Cities radio executive and avid theatergoer. Her interest in theater is affecting her musical tastes. "She saw 'American Idiot' on Broadway, and now she wants to see Green Day in concert," Seeman said.

"Rock of Ages" is drawing another unexpected constituency to Broadway -- the alpha male who has traditionally stereotyped musicals as "too gay." Booze sales alone at the 1980s-metal musical have producers shouting "Rock on!"

Is it easier to fashion a musical around existing music or to create an entirely new musical?

"They all have degrees of difficulty," said Tom Kitt, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of the 2009 musical "Next to Normal," who was enlisted to orchestrate Green Day's album for the stage. "With 'American Idiot,' the last thing I wanted to do was have people come to the show and feel that the album wasn't getting its due. That's a huge thing that I had to overcome. That stands up to the challenges of things you'd do in original shows."

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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