My favorite pop star wrote a musical! It’s GOT to be good!

Noel Katz

Oh. My. God. Didja hear? Sara Bareilles wrote a musical called Waitress and it's about to begin performances in Boston. Sara Bareilles is my favorite contemporary pop songwriter! It HAS to be amazing, right? So how excited am I?

Ooh: a discomfiting sense of déjà vu just hit me. I'm flashing back to my excitement that Paul Simon, my favorite pop songwriter like, ever! was focusing his genius on musical theatre with The Capeman. I mean, this is Paul Simon we're talking about, so it HAS to be good, right?

The Capeman depicted a true story of gang violence in late 1950s New York. And it's not as if we already have a show featuring gang violence, right? Oh, how could I forget West Side Story? How could rhymin' Simon?

These days producers seem to think that shows based on well-regarded, fairly-recent movies are most likely to succeed. And Waitress has a female protagonist. A little like Nine To Five, the 2009 musical Megan Hilty was in. Let me look that up, see how it did, and who wrote it. OMG: Dolly Parton! I love her! Who doesn't love her? Broadway audiences, apparently; they kept it afloat for just 148 performances.

Barrett Wilbert Weed, Jessie Mueller, and Keala Settle in the reading of Waitress. (© Jimmy Ryan)

Barrett Wilbert Weed, Jessie Mueller, and Keala Settle in the reading of Waitress.
(© Jimmy Ryan)

I'm not as excited as I was a moment ago. You, too? Let's not talk about how U2's Bono and The Edge created the worst financial disaster in Broadway history. And let's not talk about Waitress, because it's always unfair to cast aspersions on something that hasn't been seen.

Instead, let's speak in general about musicals written by people whose previous experience isn't in the theatre. To me, it's utter lunacy to believe that a person who has previously been very successful writing chart-topping hits will therefore be able to create a worthwhile stage-piece. The skills required to get a lot of airplay and downloads are - I hate to break it to you - completely different from the craft needed to tell a story on the stage. That's why so many rock star efforts are such disasters.

The theatre is a more wacky arena than most, inexplicably hopeful that hits can be created by neophytes. Vera Wang designs a pretty dress; would you let her design your house? Would we expect a hit if Philip Glass choreographed a ballet? Let's discuss this after seeing the Sondheim-directed movie, over a piece of Quentin Tarantino-baked pie.

Rock stardom, more often than not, involves penning songs in the author's own voice, usually for the author's own voice. Writing musicals involves delineating a whole set of characters, in different vocal ranges, who need to sound distinct from each other. Theatre scores benefit from mixing up the type of songs: the big chorus number, the small ensemble, the danceable tune, the introspective ballad, the duet where characters disagree. I'm one who believes variety makes for great pop albums, too. But these days rockers and rappers succeed on individual songs and the array on an album is less important. A Broadway show that serves up the same sort of song again and again will close faster than you can say "The Last Ship."

There's a point to be made about harmonic sophistication, something you find in many a Broadway score but relatively few pop albums, but I don't want to delve into music theory on such a sunny day. Instead I'll praise the rare popular music stars who've successfully made the transition. Elton John's musicals include Aida and Billy Elliot, hits that justified their anticipatory excitement. And Cyndi Lauper's Kinky Boots is a Tony-winner, helped by the know-how of her venerable collaborator, Harvey Fierstein. Were you similarly excited to hear songs by the author of True Colors and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun? So was I. Until I discovered Lauper didn't write those songs.

I don't mean to be a pessimist but when producers mount the work of celebrities from other media, it can seem like they've turned their backs on the opportunity to produce shows by theatre people, who've previously given some thought to how to keep things dramatically intriguing. So let’s be optimists and head over to Sheryl Crow’s Diner. I don’t mean a greasy spoon where she’s the cook; I mean her musical about male bonding in 1959 Baltimore. That’s the sort of thing Crow does best, right?

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