Everyone Wants to Write a Musical Vol. 2: Prince and Bowie

Aaron Netsky

  • OnStage New York Columnist
  • @AaronNetsky

A little more than a year ago, I wrote an article called “Everyone Wants to Write a Musical.” It was exactly what it claimed to be, an exploration of non-musical-theatre people who have made their way to musical theatre. Not every singer/songwriter directs a movie. Not every playwright writes an opera. But everyone seems to find their way to musical theater. And since everyone does, one article could not possibly contain all of the people who have come from different walks of life to join our merry revels. So it has become necessary to write a sequel to my article of yesteryear, with the promise that it probably won’t be the last. I’m steeped in this stuff, and always finding new and interesting connections.

First of all, the musicals of this past Broadway season. I mentioned in the last article about Sara Bareilles making her Broadway debut as the songstress behind Waitress, based on the 2007 movie of the same name, with the history making all-woman production team. Many of the other musicals of this season are also by, or at least involve people from other areas of entertainment. George Takei is not credited as one of the writers of Allegiance, but it is based on the time of his life when he and his family were forced to live in a Japanese-American internment camp. He, a star of television and movies, was the driving force behind the musical, inspired to tell his story in that form by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights.

Steve Martin, of Saturday Night Live and countless classic comedy movies, not to mention the stand-up and bluegrass concerts (he was kind enough to finally write us atheists a song), brought a musical to Broadway this year, Bright Star, with the help of his recent collaborator, singer/songwriter Edie Brickell (who, by the way, is married to Paul Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel, another singer/songwriter who wrote a musical, 1998’s The Capeman, about convicted murderer Salvador Agrón). Bright Star grew out of their songwriting collaboration. Disaster! was co-written by Seth Rudetsky, and while I’m sure him writing a musical surprised no one, it is still the first time in his wide-ranging musical theatre career that he has written a musical. Actor Jack Plotnick’s involvement as co-writer may have been less expected. And then there’s Tim Federle, who also has a background in musical theatre, but is better known as the author of Better Nate Than Ever, about a young boy auditioning for E.T: The Musical. Who better, really, to help adapt the children’s classic Tuck Everlasting for the stage than a musical theatre children’s novel author?

There are a few, in addition to Paul Simon, who I left out of my last article, much to my embarrassment. First of all, Trey Anastasio, lead singer of the band Phish, wrote one of my favorite musicals of the past few years, Hands on a Hardbody, with Broadway musical theatre veterans Amanda Green and Doug Wright. When Wright and Green invited him to join them on the project, it was natural for Anastasio to say yes, because he had been taken to musicals as a kid and has regularly taken his own kids to musicals. Kathie Lee Gifford, best known as a talk show host, has also been an actress and a singer/songwriter in her life, and so it was also natural for her to arrive at musical theatre. With composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman, Gifford wrote the Broadway musical Scandalous. She also wrote a coming-of-age musical called Key Pin It Real with Friedman, and is working on a musical adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life with John McDaniel, a man I first heard of when I was watching him as musical director of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Speaking of Rosie, who has performed in and produced musicals, I’m calling it now: she’s going to write one one day.

Now to the real reason I brought this back up. For all of the names above, only two in the past few months have really made me stop and think, “Wow, everyone really does want to write a musical.” Those names are David Bowie and Prince. Both men, of course, died earlier this year, and left such huge careers behind that their musicals were largely overlooked, even though Bowie’s had just recently debuted. Lazarus, which shared its title song with a song on Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, was conceived as a sequel to the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis, in the movie adaptation of which Bowie had starred. It ran from November 2015 through mid-January 2016 at the New York Theatre Workshop. It was co-written by Enda Walsh, and directed by Ivo van Hove, represented on Broadway this year by two hard-hitting Arthur Miller revivals.

In 1993, Prince wrote a musical based on Homer’s Odyssey called Glam Slam Ulysses, and it was performed for only a few weeks at Prince’s own nightclub. It told the classic story of Odysseus’s ten-year journey back to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and all of the trials he went through, through Prince’s signature brand of music and dance. Many of the songs went on to appear in future Prince albums, but while a big, glamorous Prince-themed musical is almost certainly being plotted somewhere by someone, this musical was small and intimate, and never resurfaced, never went beyond what was essentially an off-off-off-Broadway run.

Just filling in a few blanks here, making a few predictions. I didn’t plan to write a sequel to a blog post, but it just built up until I couldn’t avoid it. Maybe there will be a volume three, if people keep migrating to Broadway from their corners of culture. Nothing wrong with it; it brings diversity: George Takei’s musical has a mostly Asian-American cast, Steve Martin’s has a bluegrass score, and Prince and Bowie’s musicals surely went places most musicals dare not go, as the men themselves went where few before them had dared. How many names will I remember that I should have included after this article is posted? Why, just now Michel Legrand’s name has occurred to me. He’d been scoring movies for nearly a half a century and had won three Oscars, one of them for Yentl, when he arrived on Broadway in 2002 with the musical Amour at the age of seventy. You see? Everyone.


Aaron Netsky writes about musicals on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and writes about books and politics on his personal blog, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). His writing has also appeared on StageLightMagazine.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, TheHumanist.com, and AtlasObscura.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.