Everyone Wants to Write a Musical

Aaron Netsky

I have two quotes in the “About You” section of my facebook profile, which, for the most part, have been there since I signed up for it nearly ten years ago. They reflect my feelings about musical theatre. In the musical Curtains, Lieutenant Cioffi, a musical theatre enthusiast himself, says to a discouraged Broadway-bound cast, “Putting on a musical has gotta be the most fulfilling thing a person could ever hope to do!” Perhaps more famously, toward the end of 42nd Street, Julian Marsh, trying to convince a shaken, departing Peggy Sawyer to come back to star in his show, exclaims, “Think of Musical Comedy, the most glorious words in the English language! Sawyer, think of Broadway, damn it!” I haven’t read the scripts, I’m quoting what I hear when I hear in the line readings. The exclamation points represent the thrill that the very thought of musical theatre inspires in those of us who have dedicated our lives to it. I’ve been following, researching, and participating in musical theatre for about fifteen years, now, and it has become very apparent that everyone, not just pure theatre geeks, wants in.

I came of age during the rise of the jukebox musical, but that’s not what I’m referring to when I say, “everyone wants to write a musical.” After all, many years before Mamma Mia!, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, members of ABBA, on whose songs Mamma Mia! is based, wrote the musical Chess, with Tim Rice, about rival chess masters, one American, one Soviet, during the Cold War. They wanted to write a musical, not just have their old songs arranged into one. Similarly, Boy George and Jim Steinman, both of whom have plenty of songs that they could arrange into musicals that would probably do very well, took risks with mostly original scores on their projects, George’s semi-autobiographical Taboo and Steinman’s rock opera Dance of the Vampires, which, while neither did particularly well on Broadway, have been very successful in various European countries. I always loved how Broadway introduced me to stories, historical and fictional, that I might not have come upon or been so interested in otherwise; I’m grateful that it also served to nudge me toward the work of musicians like those mentioned here.

Perhaps the strangest case of “everyone wants to write a musical” occurred in 2005, when Joseph Brooks, who wrote commercial jingles and won an Oscar in 1977 for the song “You Light Up My Life,” wrote, directed, and produced In My Life on Broadway, which was described on Playbill.com as follows: “A love story between a young woman journalist who has obsessive-compulsive disorder and singer-songwriter with Tourette syndrome, its characters also included a slovenly, jingle-loving God who wears a baseball hat, and a transvestite angel who has a dance number with a skeleton. The finale featured a giant lemon.” He was not a well man, as the circumstances of his death with attest, but the fact that Brooks felt so strongly about putting a musical on Broadway that he used his own money to get it there, which, to paraphrase a musical written by yet another man who took years to get around to it but seems destined to have written a few musicals, you never do, speaks to the draw of the form.

“Never put your own money in the show,” is, of course, from The Producers, by Mel Brooks, who was inspired early on in life by a performance of Anything Goes he saw in 1935. A contemporary of Brooks, Woody Allen, put a musical adaptation of his 1994 film, Bullets Over Broadway, on Broadway just last year, though he had previously written plays, and he used pre-existing songs instead of writing a new score, as Brooks did. More recent examples include Cindy Lauper’s high energy Kinky Boots, and Sting’s passion project, The Last Ship. Randy Newman, best known for his musical theatre-ish scores for Disney movies, once wrote a musical based on the story of Faust, which was given an Encores! staging last summer. Still to come, from the world not of movies nor of music, but of television (and Netflix, I suppose), Tina Fey is working with composer Jeffrey Richmond (her husband) and lyricist Nell Benjamin on a musical adaptation of Fey’s 2004 movie Mean Girls. May it be as sharp and witty as The Book of Mormon, by two guys also much better known for television and film work (but whose songs in said work are instant classics), South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. On that note, Seth MacFarlane, of television’s Family Guy, seems destined to write a musical, one day, or Ryan Murphy, of Glee and American Horror Story fame, am I right? Oh, we mustn’t forget Sara Bareilles, who recently had a hit with the song “Brave,” and who has adapted the 2007 movie Waitress into a musical, which will have its world premier at the American Repertory Theatre.

Yes, everyone wants to write a musical. These days, especially, they are our earliest exposure to participation in the collaborative-creative process, through school productions, and they’ve got everything: singing, acting, dancing, writing, lighting, painting, and building. They are all-inclusive, and can be great places for people who don’t fit in well elsewhere. The issue is complicated by the fact that people coming from other, more widely consumed forms, where they already have success, often have a much easier time getting their musicals produced than people for whom musicals are their be-all and end-all. I would be remiss if I did not mention that, but I am not discouraged. They are only finally finding their way to this finest of forms. For all we know, they wish they’d been doing it all along. We were always going to have to work hard to get our work produced; the influx of people from other worlds doesn’t suddenly make that a factor. It should only serve as a reminder that we were right all along, and we are right where we need to be.