Mainstream Musicians Are Theater People, Too
Last week, Sara Bareilles did two sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden. I was in attendance, as were countless others from the NMT community (based on the precise accuracy of Twitter and Instagram posts). It was an incredible show, as it always is when Sara Bareilles is involved, and it made me about five million times more excited (more accurate measurements!) for the musical adaptation of the movie Waitress that she’s currently writing. But this got me thinking about the recent influx of original musicals with scores written by already successful musicians of other genres: Hands on a Hardbody is (in part) by Trey Anastasio from Phish, Kinky Boots is by Cyndi Lauper, Spider-Man is by U2, and so on. These shows are definitely new musicals, but what of the writers?
“She Used To Be Mine” from Sara Bareilles’ upcoming adaptation of Waitress.
For these bands and songwriters trying their hands at a different kind of writing, it can probably be inferred that they’re not doing this for money, but to stretch themselves creatively. Yet these attempts are often met with some measure of bitterness from the theatre community. I’ve read people saying that it feels like an intrusion, like these celebrities are somehow taking opportunities away from our homegrown musical theatre folk. The three shows I mentioned above achieved varying degrees of commercial success, but regardless of the shows’ outcomes, try not to forget that the writers still put in months of work to create these shows, and even more years of working to achieve success in the music industry.
I propose a different way of looking at this: perhaps this trend does not mark a celebrity infiltration of musical theatre. Perhaps it is actually a movement towards theatre once again becoming part of popular culture. I would be so beyond thrilled to see the writers on NMT getting production opportunities and opening new musicals on Broadway, but Bono and The Edge didn’t steal anything from anyone; all of these musicians worked their ways up the ladders of different industries than the one we’re used to scrutinizing. And we’re seeing the overlap and exchange more and more frequently and from both sides! Not only are popular musicians writing for theatre, but Kait Kerrigan has said that she and Brian Lowdermilk sometimes consciously emulate the indie music scene, both in their business practices (their You Made This Tour used the structure and venues an indie band would use, but in the context of musical theatre) and, to a degree, in their musical style. In her post last week, Kait also pointed out that the theatre industry now has routes to success other than the coveted Broadway show. Joe Iconis, Pasek & Paul, Drew Gasparini, and others had songs on Smash, and a commercial Broadway run is no longer the only destination for a musical.
So I consider it a good thing that these artists view writing for theatre as a worthwhile endeavor; it means musical theatre has begun to reach the masses again. I’m not necessarily saying that pop artists writing musicals will single-handedly push musical theatre back into the mainstream. If it were that simple, it would have happened already. Ultimately, I think it’s detrimental to frame the influx of famous musicians writing musicals as something negative, or belonging to a category of writers other than “new musical theatre” writers. Unlike film actors being stunt-cast in plays, we’ve seen how being a popular musician does NOT guarantee a hit or eliminate risk for producers – Bono may have achieved massive success in the music industry, but he was hardly embraced by the theatre community (your opinions of Spider-Man aside). Cyndi Lauper didn’t cut some new path with Kinky Boots; she joined the ranks of all the other new musical theatre writers working today. I welcome that, and I hope you do too.