A couple of years ago, I wrote my first piece for OnStage, discussing the song cycles and concept albums that deserve staging. Inspired by Kate Bush’s concerts in 2014, her first in 30 years, which contained the vivid story of The Ninth Wave, state of the art effects, and stark choreography, I took a look at some other song cycles that deserved the same level of attention. In my search for material for a Part 2 over the last couple of years, many of my favourite artists have released their own stage shows from concept albums or otherwise: Shara Nova (formally Worden)/ My Brightest Diamond and her baroque opera YOU US WE ALL, David Bowie’s LAZARUS, to name a few. Broadway is no stranger to contemporary artists writing shows; Sara Bareilles is responsible for WAITRESS, Vienna Teng’s THE FOURTH MESSENGER has been well-received during its multiple tryouts, Sting gave us THE LAST SHIP, Tori Amos’ THE LIGHT PRINCESS did well in London, David Byrne gave us HERE LIES LOVE, and Cyndi Lauper wrote the fun KINKY BOOTS.
So, for my Part 2, I’ve decided to switch gears a smidge and explore some of the work of some of the finest contemporary recording artists and composers of our generation, and why they should write shows. This isn’t a full or a comprehensive list; there are many, many talented people out there who should be writing for Broadway and beyond. This is just a small sample of some of the best (and my personal faves).
Martin Gore (Depeche Mode): Martin Gore is one of the primary, founding members of the electronic group Depeche Mode, and its primary songwriter, a career now spanning four decades. Though usually delegated to secondary/backing vocals (despite having the superior voice of the two lead singers, sorry, not sorry), Gore is largely responsible for the composition and arrangements for Depeche Mode’s catalog. Martin Gore is one of the finest songwriters in the world. Gore has a keen understanding of the emotional core of all of his work, fine lyricism, and rich, gorgeous melodies. One need look no further than 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion for evidence that he should be writing for the stage, “Judas,” Mercy In You,” and "Higher Love," all of which showcase harmonies coupled with the haunting melody for the full effect. Anything from Songs of Faith and Devotion could easily be rearranged for a mass. If “Judas” doesn’t do something to your heart while you listen to it, you’re dead inside! Some of Gore’s finest work also includes “Shake the Disease” and “Precious.” Think about it: Something like the outro of “Mercy In You” arranged for a full Broadway company and orchestra? Yes, please.
Susanne Sundfør: Susanne Sundfør has been making records for 10 years. She’s a superstar in her native Norway, and has been on the ascent into the international eye for the last decade. You may have heard her voice in the Tom Cruise film Oblivion, or seen her on the BBC Proms last month at the Scott Walker tribute concert, stealing the show. Sundfør is a master storyteller, with a taste for vivid imagery and high drama. Her music has a complexity no American popstar would even dare to attempt. The Silicone Veil, in its cohesion, style, and arrangements, showcases her abilities to write for the stage some day. A Night at Salle Pleyel proves quite easily she could, at the very least, do the score for a straight play. Her finest compositions include “Rome,” “When,” “Your Prelude,” “Meditations in an Emergency,” “Slowly,” Delirious” and “Mountaineers,”--just to name a small few. She is an incredibly versatile arranger, producer and writer; her talents lend themselves to whatever she sees fit, and, in turn, lend themselves perfectly to writing a varied, captivating and moving musical.
Robert Smith (The Cure): The Cure emerged in the late 70’s in the wake of the development of the post-punk and new wave movements in the United Kingdom. Robert Smith has been its only consistent member since its inception. The Cure has provided the world some of the most iconic pop songs of the last 3 decades: “Lovesong,” “Just Like Heaven,” and “Friday, I’m In Love.” By far, the best showcase of Smith’s writing abilities (and why he should some day write a musical) is 1989’s Disintegration. It’s truly a masterpiece. Foregoing the pop inclinations of their 1987 double-album and international hit Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, The Cure decided to turn a few heads. Disintegration is a lush orchestral piece using synths and guitars to create washes of sound, and more focus on composition that previous efforts. “Plainsong” could easily be an opener for a musical. Disintegration perfectly illustrates that Smith can tell stories through song and offer theatre goers infectious tunes they can hum on the way home.
Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers/ solo): While I am late to the Scott Walker party, I believe it’s better late than never. Holy cats, Scott Walker, y’all. Walker understands the power of the orchestra as a force, like his songs ride the back of this great orchestral whale, albeit a sinister one. With a great sensibility of arrangements and movements and musicality, Walker would be an excellent fit for a spooky, darker Broadway show. And, if And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And What Shall Go to the Ball? Is any indication, it might not be so far fetched a suggestion.
Bat for Lashes (Natasha Khan): Multi-instrumentalist Natasha Khan’s work is characterized by its complexity in both composition and storytelling, all at once whimsical, disturbing and captivating. Both The Haunted Man and The Bride could easily be adapted for the stage. Themes that appear frequently in Khan’s work are those of love, loss and grief, and of the endlessly nurturing never having their own needs met; these would all be ripe for a great Broadway show. Like Robert Smith did with Disintegration, Khan’s The Bride focused more acutely on storytelling and composition, and less on generating radio-friendly hooks. The Haunted Man, however, with its grand sounds, intriguing structures, use of male choruses/vocal arrangements, and strong narration (despite the former actually being a song cycle), proves Khan not only understands narrative, but the art of its dispatch.
Charlotte Martin: Last, but certainly not least is Charlotte Martin. Charlotte Martin recently retired from touring, but shall remain one of the finest songwriters of our generation. A graduate of Eastern Illinois University with a degree in opera, and coupled with her virtuosic piano playing, Martin’s vast skillset allows her to tell any story she wants any way she wants. She’s done everything from orchestral work, opera, full rock band and delicate electropop. There are no limits to either her writing abilities nor her gorgeous vocal arrangements. At once both entirely personal and remarkably universal, Martin’s writing is marked by challenging music to both sing and play. Most of CharMar’s work is just heartbreakingly beautiful. “On Your Shore,” “Every Time it Rains,” “Just Before Dawn,” “Maybe I’m Not Her,” “Starlight,” “The Long Road,” and “The Dance” could easily be breathtaking showstoppers in a musical. (“The Dance” has in fact been used several times on So You Think You Can Dance). Given her works’ niche in the dance world, it’s not so much of a stretch to see her composing an intimate, beautiful little Broadway show.
Now, go out and buy all these records. :)