Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, whose 1996 self-titled debut album went gold and spawned the hit single “Barely Breathing,” appears to be barely breathing as he thoughtfully, nervously fingers one of seven guitars laid out on a small riser in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s big, fluorescent-lit rehearsal room in midtown Manhattan. It’s a bitter cold afternoon in early December, and stray snowflakes spiral past a dirty window as the boyish, raven-haired rock musician, dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans, grins sheepishly at his bandmates. Clearly, it’s the crowd of 60 or so New York theatre types sprawled nonchalantly on metal folding chairs around the space that’s making him feel uneasy.
Little wonder. Sheik and his animated theatrical collaborator, playwright Stephen Sater, author of the 1990 Off-Broadway play Carbondale Dreams, are facing down the barrel of a Broadway gun as they publicly workshop their infant rock musical Spring Awakening, an adaptation of the dark, 19th-century play about teenage sexual repression by Frank Wedekind. Although Sheik, who wrote the music, and Sater, who tackled the book and lyrics, have two Broadway veterans aboard the project—director Michael Mayer of Side Man fame and Tim Weill, musical director of Jonathan Larson’s Rent—the unveiling of a rock musical, or anything that broaches that broad, moody and mostly undefinable genre, has never been an easy venture in American theatre. In fact, if you meander over to Manhattan’s Drama Book Shop on Seventh Avenue and ask for a book on rock musicals, you’re likely to receive a startling—and misinformed—response (as this writer did): “Well, didn’t that all just start with Rent?’”
Well, not quite. For starters, try Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni’s Hair (1967); Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1972); Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show (1973); Ray Davies’ 80 Days (1988); Tom Waits and Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider (1991) and Alice (1992); Pete Townshend’s Tommy (1992); Randy Newman’s Faust (1995); Lou Reed and Wilson’s Time Rocker (1996); and, more recently, Paul Simon’s The Capeman (1998), John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998) and Laurie Anderson’s Moby Dick (1999).
“I hated musicals,” confesses Sheik, who says he balked when Sater first suggested tackling a musical following their 1999 collaboration on Sater’s play Umbrage, featuring Sheik’s music (Sheik’s next album, Phantom Moon, a recording of those Umbrage songs, drops in late February on Nonesuch Records). “Very few of my friends or contemporaries will go to a musical at all. But I think the form has a lot of potential to be really great. So I said, ‘Yes, let’s write a musical that doesn’t have all of those things—like suddenly bursting out in a song in the middle of a conversation—that drive me crazy.’”
Since the mid-’50s, around the time when Elvis Presley first shimmied his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show, Broadway hasn’t gone out of its way to embrace contemporary pop, let alone rock or hip-hop. Things haven’t been much better Off-Broadway, in regional theatres or even on London’s West End. Even Elton John, who scored an immense success with critics and audiences alike courtesy of the Disney film-turned-musical The Lion King, was not immune to theatrical slingshots when his next collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice, an adaptation of Verdi’s opera Aida, began its slow march towards the Great White Way. John even tried to cushion the anticipated blow (and drum up some early enthusiasm for the show) by recording an all-star album of Aida’s songs with legendary rock and pop producer Phil Ramone and guest artists like the Spice Girls and Janet Jackson.
“The entire [theatrical] community was against us, against Disney, against Elton,” angrily recalls Aida star and original Rent cast member Adam Pascal. “Everyone wanted the show to fail; nobody wanted Elton to have another big success. It all comes down to jealousy. It’s absurd, but it’s because there’s such a dislike of Disney as a perceived corporate entity in this ‘industry’ that’s supposed to be only about the ‘art.’ That’s just bullshit. People in this industry are money-hungry and success-oriented, too.”
The West End’s hit musical comedy Mamma Mia!, which features 22 hits from the long-defunct Swedish übergroup Abba, is expected to open in New York this October after traveling across North America. Despite enthusiastic audience reception and not-unkind reviews in London, Toronto and San Francisco, Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus, who survived Broadway’s wrath 13 years ago when he, songwriting partner Benny Andersson and lyricist Tim Rice premiered their first musical, Chess, about an international chess match, admits he’s expecting a nasty barrage of critical missives once the show hits Manhattan.
“I like not to worry about the critics, but I think they’re going to be pretty harsh,” says Ulvaeus, on the phone from Stockholm. “Then again, that’s happened to other shows and they’ve survived. And we’re not making the same mistake as Chess, coming in completely cold and not having a reputation. If everyone knows what Mamma Mia! is, then, even if you get thrashed by critics, it is still possible to have a run.”
Scottish composer Paul Scott Goodman was nearly eviscerated by critics when his contemporary pop musical Bright Lights, Big City, an adaptation of the coke-sniffing and club-hopping Jay McInerney novel, opened at New York Theatre Workshop in 1999. Despite good songs, the beneficent afterglow of New York Theatre Workshop’s Rent and a creative team that included Rent director Michael Greif and musical director Richard Barone of Bongos fame, Goodman’s Bright Lights swiftly dimmed.
The theatre-trained songwriter, who is working on two new musicals entitled Rooms and Don Juan, Rock Star, says he allowed his original, simple vision of Bright Lights—he wrote it just sitting around and playing a guitar—slip out of his control. And though Goodman admits he got “caught up in the hype,” even allowing Greif to cast him as a narrator in the show, he couldn’t understand the vicious tone of the reviews.
“I was perceived as some fucking rock musician who stumbled upon a musical,” snaps Goodman. “I felt like, how can you do that to me? The day after the show closed, I got up the next morning and thought, I can either start drinking really heavily or I can start writing a new show. So…I decided to do both.”
With that sort of history as a testament to rock’s theatrical reception—and considering the serious-looking crowd in the Roundabout’s rehearsal room awaiting Spring Awakening’s New York reading—it’s a miracle that Sheik, 30 (who cites cult-fave English rocker Nick Drake and former Japan frontman David Sylvian as seminal influences) and the nervously pacing Sater (who just started writing lyrics two years ago) aren’t running out the door and hailing the nearest taxi.
Why do the theatre, on one hand, and rock-and-roll and post-’50s pop, on the other, have such an unruly, antagonistic relationship? While the popular charts and Broadway ran at a respectful, parallel pace throughout the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s—the Beatles even covered Meredith Willson’s “Till There Was You” from The Music Man in 1963, and the Fifth Dimension had a huge, Grammy-winning 1969 hit with “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine” from Hair—the divide between the two media became increasingly extreme and irreparable as the turbulent politics of the ’60s gave rise to radical-minded artists like Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix.
“The theatre tends to be conservative and even reactionary about change,” says La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff, who along with Pete Townshend gave Broadway a real rock-and-roll kick in the pants with 1993’s Tommy. “I think we use the word ‘tradition’ and we often mean ‘convention.’”
Even an acclaimed—and pop-chart friendly—songwriting team like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who dominated the ’60s with a string of breezy hits, encountered major resistance when they, along with playwright Neil Simon, brought Promises, Promises (an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s screenplay The Apartment) to Broadway in 1968. Phil Ramone, who worked on the show and won a Grammy as the cast album’s co-producer, said that the Bacharach-David sound was “highly feared” because it was noisy and different—especially once the drums kicked in.
“The sound was quite controlled, but it was loud,” explains Ramone, laughing. “I covered the orchestra pit and, working with the designer, we created sound booths. We had backup singers covering what was going on up on stage. By the end of the run, I was asked to cut back the pit so that people could see that there were actually humans playing.”
Technology has also been a major sticking point for Ramone, who has produced a dizzying roster of everything from albums by rockers Billy Joel, Sinead O’Connor and Elton John to recent cast albums for The Wild Party and Seussical. “I blamed the sound community because for years they never got the budgets to work,” says Ramone. “Now they’re getting real budgets, so it doesn’t have to appear as though you’ve got a hand mike and you’re screaming at people. I think that orchestration and its original rules got thrown out in the last few years because people have taken chances in Footloose, Saturday Night Fever and shows like that, whether they performed well or not. You know, five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones and twelve strings hurt us for years. No flexibility.”
McAnuff concurs with Ramone: “Rock-and-roll tends to be associated with rebellion and being on the side of good causes,” he says. “The civil rights movement, racial equality, the antiwar movement, and so on. It has a fairly noble history, in my opinion, but it was probably threatening in the ’50s to the people who were controlling Broadway. I think technology also took a long time to catch up. That’s only really happened in the last 10 to 15 years.”
But more is needed than improved sound quality and acceptance by the Broadway establishment to keep rock musicals from becoming, in McAnuff’s words, “watered down, milky and even exploitative.” Actor and musician Michael Cerveris, who starred in Tommy and who took over for John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in New York, Los Angeles and London, applauds McAnuff for crossing a new Broadway threshold with Tommy. “Des’s visual vocabulary comes a lot from multimedia performance,” explains Cerveris, “and Tommy drew heavily for its staging from people like Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson. It became pretty revolutionary in rock-and-roll as well.”
As a working rock musician, who has toured with rocker Bob Mould and recently recorded his first solo album in Scotland with members of the U.K.’s Teenage Fan Club and Ash, Cerveris points out that casting has plagued most so-called rock musicals. “People seem to think that if you’re an actor and you play different characters, that you can just play a rock singer,” says Cerveris. “But it also involves an understanding and affinity for the genre that not many actors really have. I grew up doing it. I don’t feel like I’m imitating a rock performer onstage. I think I’m just being the rock performer I’ve always been.”
Rock’s raw, visceral power is so potent that the most thrilling moment in the current New York revival of The Rocky Horror Show occurs when famed punk mama-rocker and original riot-grrrl Joan Jett, making her Broadway debut as the leather-thong-and-fishnet-garbed Columbia, straps on a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar in “Time Warp” and lets loose. “You can’t just walk on and look the part—you are it or you’re not,” believes Jett, who also starred as a rock musician in the 1987 Paul Schrader film Light of Day. Rocky Horror director Christopher Ashley “has mentioned to me that my body language when I have the guitar on is different,” Jett says. “I know I sing differently as Columbia than when I’m doing my Joan Jett and the Blackhearts stuff. I have to control my voice, because you’re singing with other people and you have to blend in. But sometimes, you just can’t get the gravel out.”
Not many actors have the advantage of Jett or Cerveris’s rock career, however. The standard Broadway-style casting call of performers trained solely in musical theatre—who’ve never gigged at a grungy bar or rock clubs like New York’s CBGB’s—represent Duncan Sheik’s greatest fear in keeping Spring Awakening authentically rock-and-roll, with its cast of young actors singing what are essentially internal rock monologues.
“That’s my major struggle,” says Sheik with a sigh. “I tell them, don’t act like you’re in a musical, act like you’re David Bowie in 1973 or Thom Yorke. Think that you’re just going into a little rock club to sing a song.” When one of Spring Awakening’s young workshop singers, Christopher Garneau, raucously blasts through the song “Touch Me” during the performance, Sheik proudly smiles.
If McAnuff’s Tommy pried open the door for contemporary rock musicals, Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell’s Obie-winning Off-Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch tried to kick it down. Mitchell, who appeared in The Secret Garden and Big River on Broadway, and Trask, who fronted his own band, Cheater, began developing the rowdy, gender-bending tale of a German transsexual rocker back in 1994, when Trask was musical director of a weekly drag-punk-rock show at New York’s The Squeezebox.
“No one had ever presented a rock musical in which the music was integrated in terms of having the band onstage, and the music was really rock music,” says Trask. “Rent isn’t rock music,” he says unapologetically. “It just isn’t. It’s theatre music played with guitars and drums.”
Hedwig’s glam-meets-hard-rock songs not only made the walls of the run-down Jane Street Theatre tremble, but attracted young, downtown audiences and drew a parade of rock royalty like David Bowie (who later co-produced the show’s L.A. run), Joey Ramone, Joan Jett and Lou Reed, who upped the rock-and-roll ante on the show. The Hedwig cast received enthusiastic coverage in Rolling Stone magazine and on MTV, opened for Culture Club at Radio City Music Hall on New Year’s Eve 1999 and even performed with post-grunge rockers Stone Temple Pilots at the show’s L.A. premiere party. A film version of Hedwig, which features Mitchell as writer, director and star and Trask singing the Tommy Gnosis tunes (actor Michael Pitt portrays Gnosis), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is due for general release this spring. But Trask doesn’t think that Hedwig’s success automatically makes it easy for other rock musicals to flourish.
“Hedwig might be a breakthrough, but I think the follow-up to it is going to have to be either by me—because I understood how I did it—or by someone who understands what went into it. It wasn’t simply a matter of saying, ‘Let’s have some real rock music,’ and then writing it. Writing rock songs for theatre was a real technical challenge, because you can’t sacrifice the story like you can for a concept album. Meeting the needs of character development, storytelling and the particulars of finding the right song for the right moment—dealing with all of that was very hard.”
As for Cerveris, he’s taking a break from theatre (“I got a little burned out,” he admits) to get back to his much-missed rock roots; he’s launching his debut album, tentatively titled Hinterlands, exclusively in the U.K.
Since the late ’70s, the American music industry has been less than welcoming to singers who’ve earned paychecks in theatre. There have been notable, much-hyped exceptions. Actor Murray Head scored an unlikely New Wave hit in 1984 with “One Night in Bangkok” from Chess. American singer Yvonne Elliman, plucked from a Kings Road coffee shop by Webber and Rice and cast as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, joined Eric Clapton’s band in 1975 and became a Saturday Night Fever legend when the BeeGees handed her the song “If I Can’t Have You.” Broadway veteran Barbra Streisand and R&B singer Stephanie Mills of The Wiz thrived as chart-topping favorites during the disco ’70s.
But as rock and pop swiftly expanded, ironically, by becoming more genre-specific with disparate and rapidly evolving styles like grunge, glam, deep house, funk, speed metal, trip-hop and gangsta rap, Broadway became more loath to acknowledge new musical styles. In turn, the music industry, searching for the next Kid Rock or Britney Spears, wants nothing to do with young theatre performers.
Case in point: Adam Pascal, 30, a veteran of two major Broadway shows, who still considers himself more a rock musician than an actor. A baby Taylor practice guitar sits in his dressing room so that he can write songs during Aida’s downtime. Compact disks by Godsmack, Fishbone and Radiohead are scattered on his makeup table. But the actor/singer, who gigged around New York with his own hard-rocking Adam Pascal Band during the years he was paying his rent with Rent, was dismayed to discover that sold-out club gigs and hit Broadway shows didn’t attract A&R record executives.
“For whatever reason I was just perceived as a musical-theatre guy,” said Pascal, a trace of bitterness in his voice. Pascal, who finally released his debut rock album, Model Prisoner, on a small, independent label in 2000, said he saw his fellow Rent alumnus Idina Menzel go through a different kind of hell when she signed with Hollywood Records.
“The first thing the record company said was, ‘You gotta get outta that show!’” Pascal exclaimed. “Why? She was performing to 15,000 people a week! Didn’t they use their brains for half a second and figure out a way to use that and get her some publicity? No. And, of course, the record tanked, and she has no deal now.”
Menzel confirms the “horror story,” but says she actually chose to leave Rent to concentrate on writing songs for her soulful 1998 album Still, I Can’t Be Still. She also says that her label and her music writers were disdainful of her Broadway pedigree once the album hit the stores. “There tends to be a lack of respect for my theatre background,” said Menzel, “and there’s only so much self-advertising you can do when you’re in a show eight times a week. I’d be on the phone with journalists who were giving me shit about, ‘Well, is this a theatre album? Do you sound like Barbra Streisand?’”
The meeting across the river is even turbulent for rock’s celebrity elite. Aside from a few fortunate souls—like David Bowie, in his 1980–81 Broadway run as John Merrick in The Elephant Man; and Linda Ronstadt, in her 1981 Tony-nominated performance in The Pirates of Penzance—stardom has been no insulation from the kicks of New York critics and the theatre establishment. Such artists as Paul Simon, Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades (collaborators on 1998’s The Capeman), Madonna (who appeared in David Mamet’s Speed the Plow in 1988) and Sting (who headlined a Broadway Threepenny Opera in 1989) have weathered some of the harshest critical pans of their careers when they leaped into theatre’s pile of unforgiving sawdust. Hard rockers like Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, The Who’s Roger Daltrey and ex–Van Halen frontman Gary Cherone are viewed as jokes the moment they step onstage.
One of the most notorious recent examples of this phenomenon is The Capeman, Paul Simon’s beleagured and badly reviewed $11-million production about convicted murderer Salvador Agron, which went through three directors and extensive delays and protests from the families of Agron’s victims, then closed after 68 days. Despite its formidable pedigree, it’s now sadly remembered in theatre history as one of Broadway’s biggest flops.
“I met with Paul about Capeman,” recalls McAnuff. “Theatre is a collaborative art form, as we know, but rock artists are used to controlling everything for an album, and that’s a good thing—you want to keep the record company away. But in the theatre, it just doesn’t work that way. You want a designer who is smarter than you about design, and you want a director who has vision. Simon, a man who has made a career of exploring different cultures, seemed to have not much interest and little respect for Broadway, a culture he grew up near to, in New York. The greatest irony is that he ended up with Jerry Zaks trying to fix his show, which seems to be the exact opposite of the kind of artist he wanted to work with.”
Ramone says he’s given up trying to talk his friend Billy Joel into writing for the theatre, even though he thinks Joel songs like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” from 1977’s The Stranger are musicals just waiting to be made. “The reception is always, ‘I can’t throw away a year of my life to something that can be killed in one night,’” says Ramone, adding that the “year” is more realistically two to five years.
Some rockers are willing to risk the time and the torment. John Mellencamp, who has maintained a vibrant, 26-year career by exploring the mythic American dream in albums like 1985’s Scarecrow, is collaborating with best-selling author Stephen King on a yet-unnamed project about a dysfunctional family that Mellencamp describes thematically as “very Tennessee Williams-ish.”
“We’re making up our own job here!” says Mellencamp, laughing. “Stephen’s never done it, and neither have I, so we’re going to have to do our homework and look at musicals we enjoy and see how they work. We’re trying to approach it more as a fun thing than a pressure thing, and if it ceases to be fun, then I think that we’ll just say forget it.”
By December, Mellencamp had only five songs written and King hadn’t even begun work on the book, and the composer says that he’s already upset about some of the press coverage about the project. “I read something like, ‘Well, what’s it gonna be? “Jack and Diane”meets Cujo?,’” says Mellencamp with a snarl. “I was 23 when I wrote ‘Jack and Diane’; I’m 49 now. I’ve probably had 1,500 songs published since then, and Steve has written dozens of books. I hate thoughtless comments like that.”
When Deborah Harry of Blondie appeared in the Sarah Kane play Crave this past fall, she didn’t even consider the potential critical fallout—she just loved the play and was deeply moved by Kane’s tragic story of early brilliance and desperate suicide. But Harry, who made her Off- and on-Broadway debut years ago with Andy Kaufman in Teaneck Tanzi and the Venus Flytrap, is well aware that theatre is a choppy road for most musicians.
“It’s desperately hard for people to dedicate their lives to theatre and acting, and I imagine there’s some resentment to some interloper coming in from the pop world. I think I’d sometimes feel that way about actors who suddenly decided they wanted to sing in a band.” Harry, who has also starred in films like Hairspray and Heavy, admits she’s gotten some offers for musicals and would be tempted if Hairspray were to make its rumored transition to the musical stage.
“But a lot of musicals are not really my cup of tea, and I’d feel corny and stupid in them,” says Harry. “I could think of ways to do it myself so it was gutsy and had a raw edge, but Broadway’s not about that.” How would she do it herself? “I’m not telling!” exclaims Harry, laughing.
If only Harry had the magic answer for Spring Awakening’s ever-hopeful team. Director Michael Mayer is determined to find a way to make the dark, haunting piece—with its innovative interior dialogues sung by ten teenagers and three adults—blossom into a work that will narrow the gap between theatre and contemporary music. “What’s ironic is that the actors who have worked primarily in a non-musical theatre idiom understand the goals of this process more, because they’ve done so many classic or new plays that incorporate music in a Brechtian way. The musical theatre performers come from a place where their characters suddenly burst into song. In a musical, every part of a scene pitches you to the song; the song always wins. But here, in Spring Awakening, it’s really quite balanced.”
As the midtown rehearsal room empties, Mayer says goodbye to Sheik and Sater, who both look wrung-out and weary. “I guess the only thing I sometimes fear,” says Sheik as they walk into an elevator, “is what happened to Paul Simon. Everyone just hated him because he was like, ‘I’ll do it my way.’ Sometimes I do feel like that when it comes to the music itself.”
“Michael is really talented and I trust what he’s going to do with Spring Awakening,” he continues. “But in terms of the music itself—exactly what guitar tone is being used, how drums are programmed, every bit of sound that comes from those speakers—all that has to come from me. Otherwise I’ll flip out. The only time I feel a bit weird is when I say, ‘No, I don’t want three-part harmonies here—it sounds like Manhattan Transfer!’”
“Which is an exact quote from yesterday,” Sater interrupts.
“When it comes to the music, I’m not shy,” says Sheik, and the pair glance at each other and laugh, exhausted but cautiously elated as they step out into the December chill. Spring seems just around the corner.
New York–based Kara Manning is a 2000–2001 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation. She is a writer for MTV News.