When pop composers become musical composers.

Over the past decade or so, Broadway has had a popular music invasion, as artists like Elton John, Paul Simon, U2, The Eurythmics tried their hand at writing the score to a musical.  Some to success, others to not.  And this year, we’ve got Cyndi Lauper and Phish (!) joining the ranks, with Kinky Boots (!!) and Hands on a Hardbody respectively.

As someone who develops musicals, I have to admit, having a successful pop artist on the writing team is an attractive proposition.  They usually have a knack for melody, and come with millions of fans.

So why not take anyone who has a couple gold albums, right?

Well, like anything else that Producers do, it’s important that you don’t make a choice solely for marketing’s sake.  Art has to come first, no matter how tempting it may be.  Because as I said in an article about Spider-Man some months ago, “Writing a three minute song is a lot different than writing a three hour musical.”

Yes, memorable melodies and snappy hooks are an essential part of writing a quality score . . . but musicals tell stories, and musicals develop characters . . . and that’s not as easy as coming up with a catchy chorus and couple of words that stay top o’ mind (Taylor Swift’s “Trouble, Trouble, Trouble” comes to mind).

So when I’m in the market for a composer that may come from the popular music world, I look for song writers that tell stories in their songs first and foremost, whether or not they’ve got Grammys on their resume.  And as luck would have it, there are a few Grammy winners that have the knack (Elton, Paul, Billy, Bruce, Cyndi (!) and I always thought Tracy Chapman would write a great story-show).  Find one that can do both, and you could have an artistic and marketing one-two puncheroo.

But go after someone just because their tunes are on iTunes could get you in a lot of Taylor-like trouble, trouble, trouble.

Because just because a composer comes with millions of fans, doesn’t mean those fans will come out for your show.


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  • Mark says:

    I would love to hear some specific problems that have popped up with pop composers adapting their style to a theoretical attempt. any anecdotes? without mentioning names if need be.

  • Michael Dale says:

    I never understood all this objection to pop composers in musical theatre. What I do think is a concern is pop lyricists, a/k/a lyricists who can write material which is perfectly fine for listening to in your car or at a party but that don’t hold up under the character/plot-specific focus of musical theatre. We do have cases where characters come from a pop music culture and I think it’s appropriate for them to communicate in that fashion, but the demands of musical theatre lyrics are simply different from the demands of pop music lyrics.

  • Randi says:

    Almost had a heart attack when I saw the Taylor Swift picture accompanying this post! I thought I was about to read how she’s writing a musical or how her songs are getting the jukebox treatment (aka the worst ideas ever). Phew.

  • Kile Ozier says:

    …or stay past intermission…

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    In addition to the problems you cited, most pop songwriters wouldn’t know a rhyme if it bit them, and couldn’t care less is the emPHAsis falls on the wrong sylLABle. That lack of professionalism may fly in the pop world, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in a musical. There is also the problem of the unchanging beat, which is not only monotonous, but too limiting in terms of characterization.

    There is also the problem of their unprofessional behavior. Look at Elton John, who writes his music and faxes it in while he is touring. He can’t even be bothered to show up for rehearsals! Writers who hold the theatre in that kind of contempt do not deserve to have their work produced.

    I find it infuriating when pop writers are hired for shows over theatre writers who actually know what they are doing. If they were willing to study the craft and learn the disciplines involved, that would be one thing. But I have yet to see that happen.

  • Elisa Christina Clayton says:

    I’d like to think that Natalie Merchant with the right book writer could write for musical theatre.

  • Suggest everyone catch “Hands on a Hardbody”… some great stories with well developed characters on stage, full of pathos, energy and truth. Trey Anastasio of Phish fame has managed to convey their tales of woe in a wide variety of musical genres, and it all falls under the umbrella of “Amanda Musical Theater.” Of course having Broadway royalty like Amanda Green as lyricist certainly helps.
    Impressive narrative songs couched perfectly within the framework of the overall story line.
    Check it out.
    Joanne Theodorou

  • Howard says:

    It’s very sad that Harry Chapin died before having a chance to write a musical. Talk about a master of characterization and storytelling in song!

    • Dave says:

      He did put together a short-lived work in the 70s (The Night That Made America Famous), and there was Cotton Patch Gospel as well – but you’re right, he had a wonderful knack for story-telling.

  • Queerbec says:

    It’s interesting that many pop composers who dabble on Broadway are one hit wonders…..Burt Bacharach, Duncan Sheik, Paul Simon, the late Roger Miller. It seems that getting connected early in the process with a theatrically savvy book writer and/or director is essential to success. I recall how Paul Simon and Derek Walcott were being hailed as “Broadway outsiders” to stress the innovation and uniqueness of their collaboration, and we all know how that turned out! (Though we did get to know Marc Anthony a bit better!)

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