Everyone Wants to Write a Musical Vol. 3: You Singin' To Me?

Aaron Netsky

Few things give me more pleasure than reading about a musical I had never heard of and suddenly thinking, “THAT PERSON WROTE/IS WRITING A MUSICAL?!” But it happens more and more, which means it’s time for another installment of “Everyone Wants to Write a Musical.” There is so much to get to, I will keep the introduction brief.

I will start in the category of “Obviously,” in which Seth Rudetsky figured in my last volume of this series. First off in this category, Nathan Lane. The Frogs was not a new musical when Lane became involved. Stephen Sondheim had first added music to the Aristophanes play for a production in a pool at Yalein 1974 (Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang were in the ensemble). In the early 2000s, Lane took an interest in the project as it related to what the world was going through in the aftermath of 9/11, and Dionysus’s determination that the arts hold the answer to the world’s problems spoke to him. He was not initially interested in actually playing Dionysus, but ended up doing so in 2004 at Lincoln Center, after revising and expanding the book for the musical.

Also in the “Obviously” category is Tituss Burgess, well known not only for Broadway musicals like The Little Mermaid and Guys and Dolls, but for the Netflix show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Burgess has written the score for a musical based on the 1996 movie The Preacher’s Wife, about a woman trying to help her husband so they don’t lose his church in Harlem. It had a reading last September and is aiming for Broadway. Burgess’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is loosely based on him. Well, I don’t know how based on him it is, but they have the same first name, and given the involvement of Broadway luminary Jane Krakowski in the cast, and Broadway-writer wannabe Tina Fey on the production team, one wonders if I might have to start keeping a list of fictional characters who want to write musicals.

Moving toward the less obvious, Adam McKay, who was the head writer on Saturday Night Live for two seasons and has co-written and directed a sizable portion of Will Ferrell’s movies (AnchormanThe Other Guys, etc.), and who produces the “Funny or Die” web series with Ferrell, is writing the book for a musical based on the Archie comics. No one is set to write the score, and I know next to nothing about Archie so I won’t presume to suggest anyone, not that it would make a difference if I did. Perhaps one day he will also bring one of his Will Ferrell movies to the stage, and maybe Will Ferrell with it. After all, they did You’re Welcome America on Broadway together, with Ferrell as George W. Bush in 2009.

The 101 Dalmatians musical was one of those blink and you’d miss it musicals. It never played Broadway, but toured the country in 2006, produced by Purina Puppy Chow. Dennis DeYoung, who wrote songs like “Mr. Roboto” and “Show Me the Way” as the keyboardist and lead vocalist of the band Styx, wrote the score, penning Broadway style tunes for the human characters (who went around the stage on stilts) and pop songs for the dog characters that were played by humans (15 actual dalmatians were trained for the production). DeYoung also wrote a Hunchback of Notre Dame musical in 1997, but, really, so did everybody (look it up).  

The growly voiced Tom Waits, most famous for songs like “Jersey Girl” and “Downtown Train,” wrote a few musicals himself, of which I will here focus on two. In 1992, his musical Alice, based on the Lewis Carroll stories about Wonderland, but concentrating on how Alice Liddell inspired Carroll to write the stories, premiered in Hamburg with a score by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. Waits later recorded the songs on a studio record with the same name as the musical. Before Alice, Waits wrote a musical with William S. Burroughs. Yes, the postmodernist author of Naked Lunch and influential figure in the beat generation who killed his wife by pretending to be William Tell, wrote the book of a musical. It makes more sense when you know that the musical, The Black Rider, was about a man who makes a deal with the devil so he can control bullets and impress a hunter into letting the man marry the hunter’s daughter. And that story makes more sense when you know it’s a German folktale. Still, Burroughs is the last person on this list I would have expected to write a musical…but not the last person on this list.

Moving to this season, Robert DeNiro. Ok, he’s not credited as any kind of writer on A Bronx Tale, but he co-directed the musical having directed and starred in the movie adaptation of the original play, so he probably had some say in the words that come across on the stage, and besides who would have guessed DeNiro would be involved in any musical at all ever? He’s the George Takei of this edition of the series: he is not credited as a writer, but it wouldn’t have happened without him. This is DeNiro’s first time being involved in Broadway at all since his first time, when he acted in the play Cuba & His Teddy Bear (he was not, as you might imagine, the Teddy Bear). How did this happen? Apparently he has always thought A Bronx Tale had great potential to be a musical. It’s a special property for him, since the 1993 film was his directorial debut in movies, like the musical is his directorial debut on Broadway. His co-director is Jerry Zaks, who directed the one-man play on Broadway in 2007. Chazz Palminteri, who wrote the play based on his own life in 1989, wrote the book (and the movie), and Alan Menken and Glenn Slater wrote the score.

Almost as big a surprise for me as the news that William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, and Robert DeNiro were involved in musicals was the fact that Orson Welles wrote one. Around the World in 80 Days, the classic novel by Jules Verne, has been adapted into at least three musicals, and before going into the Welles version, I would briefly mention that one of the other two was co-written by Ray Davies of the 60s rock band The Kinks (Everyone. Wants. To. Write. A. Musical.). Welles had done plays, operas, and of course films, and he had directed the musical The Cradle Will Rock, but this was the only musical he wrote, and he had a very experienced musical theatre collaborator in Cole Porter, who did the songs. Welles also appeared on stage as Detective Fix, who pursues the main character around the world in the story. And he produced it. And he contributed film footage that was projected throughout the production. And what a production it was. Among the grand details were a full Japanese circus troupe, four full-sized mechanical elephants, a train crossing the Rocky Mountains, and an eagle that carried Welles over the audience and dropped him on the stage. There were 70 cast members, 54 stagehands, and 38 sets, and this was 1946 (same year as Annie Get Your Gun). It cost a ton of money, but did not make it back. Not even the biggest spectacle of spectacles get that big these days. Maybe in Vegas, I wouldn’t know. What possessed Welles, who had had so much success with subtler projects like his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and films like Citizen Kane, to put on such a big, lavish musical? He loved the book as a kid. It starts in childhood.


Aaron Netsky is a Freelance Writer, Editor, and Photographer for Atlas Obscura. His writing has also appeared on Slate, TheHumanist.com, Thought Catalog, and Medium. He has written a few novels, including one about musical theatre, and he has worked in a variety of jobs off- and off-off-Broadway. Check out his personal blogs (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com and http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.