It was announced recently that the late David Bowie
's Broadway play, Lazarus,
starring Michael C. Hall, is being revived for the London stage after opening at the New York Theater Workshop last year. Based on Ivo van Hove's novel The Man Who Fell to Earth,
the musical features music from Bowie's final album Blackstar
as well as classics like "Heroes" and "Changes." Hearing about Bowie's interest in Broadway got me thinking about rockers and theater as a whole, so in honor of the legend's new show, I took a look into other rocker-related musicals worth talking about, and tried to understand why some are massive successes and others are spectacular disasters. Obviously, there are a lot of factors that play into a good or bad show, but these are just some of the parallels I noticed among the many plays that involve non-Broadway artists. So without further ado, take your seats and leave your drinks at the bar, ladies and gentlemen. It's show time.
MUSICALS THAT ROCK
Don't worry; I'm going to talk about Hamilton.
But believe it or not, there have been other unconventional plays to hit the stage before the hip-hop/Broadway/APUSH classic. There are of course rock operas like The Who's Tommy
and Green Day's American Idiot,
which were based on the respective bands' albums of the same name. These musicals exemplify the easiest way for rock musicians to successfully grace the stage: The concept album. Both Tommy
and American Idiot,
the albums, already had a premise, a mostly worked-out plot, a set of characters, and of course, pretty good music. With just a couple tweaks here and there, these things were pretty much set for Broadway from day one. Then you have the "catalog" rock musicals, which take an artist or artists' entire body of work and build a story around that. These can be a coin toss, but also result in megahits like Beautiful: the Carole King Musical
and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.
These ones seemed to have worked because of their semi-autobiographical premises, with Beautiful
literally being about King's songwriting career and Lady Day
depicting Billie Holiday recounting her life in-between songs. By using the music's rich history to their advantage, these musicals found a way to fit non-Broadway genres into a fully fleshed out show without the music feeling forced or out-of-place.
Finally, the most ambitious and probably the hardest way for rock and pop stars to make it on Broadway is to start completely from scratch and compose completely original music. As you will see in the next section, these either really work or really, really
don't, but when they do, they make for some of the most unique and noteworthy work on Broadway. These include shows like Spring Awakening
and American Psycho,
both written by Duncan Sheik (aka the "Barely Breathing"
guy), Sara Bareilles' Waitress,
the numerous Elton John-composed projects like The Lion King
and Billy Elliot,
and of course, Hamilton.
These ones work because in each situation, the artists composed music for Broadway, but in the style of whatever genre they are known for, whether that be pop, rock, or hip-hop. To make it easier to explain, and since it's the most revolutionary thing on Broadway since they stopped doing blackface, let's focus on Hamilton:
This is a perfect example of an atypical Broadway show working because it knows it's atypical and doesn't try to conceal that fact. It isn't a play that's trying to take Hip-Hop songs and make them sound "more Broadway," it instead is a play that has genuine Hip-Hop songs that easily stand on their own. You can listen to the Hamilton
soundtrack without ever seeing the play, I know plenty of people who do, and that's why it's so great. Hamilton,
and the other musicals mentioned, isn't concerned with being "Broadway enough," but instead uses the stage to incorporate what the artist is good at into a coherent story that wouldn't be possible to pull off on a typical album. These kinds of plays take traditional theater and combine it with modern genres, and when they're done well, they can leave an impact that hits well beyond the Broadway world.
MUSICALS THAT SUCK
Don't worry; I'm going to talk about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,
because man oh man, not only was it a massive Broadway failure, it's the
massive Broadway failure. But before I rip into Bono, there are plenty of other duds that are worth ragging on as well. The biggest problem that seems to stop a lot of rockers from striking Broadway gold is that their plays suffer from a serious case of identity crisis. They either get bogged down in trying to write purely Broadway songs or try too hard to make pop and rock songs work in a way they weren't meant to work. Take Pete Townsend's The Iron Man
and Sting's The Last Ship,
for example: Both featured original songs by incredibly capable songwriters, and both were panned by critics and had disappointing runs. The biggest criticism the music from both plays received is that they clearly weren't rock songs, despite their writers being really freaking good rock songwriters, but they weren't very good Broadway songs, either. You have to commend these guys for trying, but it takes a different mindset and approach to write for Broadway vs. writing radio hits, and it can be easy for new writers to fall for the cliches and tropes that make for predictable musical fodder.
The bigger crime tends to be putting existing songs in a musical they have absolutely no reason to be apart of, and this is when the cringe really
ensues. Take We Will Rock You,
a bizarre musical that takes place in a dystopian future where rock music doesn't exist, and it's up to a bunch of Bohemians to save the world with the power of Queen. If this sounds like the plot to 2112
by Rush, that's because it is, so why they didn't use that album is beyond me. Then there's the pre-Hamilton
but much less successful Hip-Hop musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me,
which had good intentions but lost its way by hastily compiling Tupac songs into a generic story about street life. There's also The Times They Are A-Changing
... and I just vomited in my mouth a little while typing the name, so I'm just gonna let you watch this nugget here. It should get the point across:
And then there's Spider-Man: TOTD.
Arguably the biggest critical and financial failure in Broadway history, the problems behind this crapshoot were so extensive that I could write a whole separate article, but the music by Bono and the Edge didn't help its chances much. Script rewrites, lawsuits, and cast-related injuries aside, after sitting down and (*shiver from disdain*) listening to the soundtrack, I feel that this is the true antithesis to Hamilton.
It's clear that the songs are written by U2, which makes sense considering Bono and the Edge were one of the biggest draws for the show. Like Hamilton,
the music is all original and unabashedly written in a non-Broadway style, in this case guitar-driven anthemic rock. Where TOTD
goes wrong is that the songs have absolutely nothing to do with Spiderman, minus occasional name drops and spider-themed lyrics, and end up sounding like a U2 cover band's first batch of original material. The play doesnt use the fact it contains unconventional Broadway songs to their advantage, which results in a musical that was seemingly forced to use rock music for no good reason. Hamilton
doesn't have that problem, because it uses unconventional genres to set the tone and drive the story, making its non-Broadway characteristics the centerpiece of the show. I guess TOTD
tried to do that, I mean it's hard to tell what
that shit-show was trying to do, honestly.
So there you have it, folks. Like I said before, there's obviously a lot that plays into a show's success, but this is just my personal attempt to generally explain the art of rock and pop music on Broadway. It's always cool to see the blending of two distinct types of music, and it takes a lot of guts for all of these artists to try something new. So to the late David Bowie's new show, I wish it all the best of luck, and luckily Spiderman: TOTD
set the bar pretty damn low, so no pressure.