The theme of this year’s Tony Awards opening number was the current overwhelming number of songs on Broadway stages from the popular musical canon.
Well, dangit, that’s what I was going to say!
But it’s more than just this year’s crop. While leaving American Idiot a few weeks ago, I walked through Times Square and looked at all the marquees. Connections to popular music are all over the Great White Way in one way or another.
Let’s look at all the book musicals (in alpha order) currently playing on Broadway and connect the popular dots:
A Little Night Music
Stephen Sondheim is not considered a “popular” composer, but ALNM features his only major pop hit “Send In The Clowns,” of the over 800 songs he has written. It won a Grammy for ‘Song of the Year’ in 1976.
Composed by punk-rock super-group, Green Day, the album of the same title also won a Grammy for ‘Best Rock Album.’
Composed by rock superstar (and sometimes Rush Limbaugh supporter), Elton John, who has more Grammys than a retirement home.
What do I have to say about this composing team? How about this: two words repeated. “New York, New York.” That popular enough for you?
Come Fly Away
Speaking of NY, NY, Come Fly Away is all pop tunes sung by pop legend, Frankie S.
This bio musical uses pop tunes to tell some of its story.
Fela Kuti’s tunes may not have been featured on morning radio in this country, but in his homeland, his pioneering sounds were all the popular rage.
The astrological tune, “The Age of Aquarius,” held the #1 spot on the charts for 6 weeks and is listed as the 57th Greatest Song of All Time according to Billboard.
In The Heights
I got nothing on this one, except for the obvious influence of pop music of the time on the score. So far, that’s 8 out of 9 with a direct connection to the pop world.
A bio-musical about one of the most popular guy-groups ever, who sold more than 175 million records.
La Cage aux Folles
Not only did “I Am What I Am” rank on the charts, but Herman had a hit with “Hello Dolly” in 1964 when the Louis Armstrong recording knocked The Beatles out of the #1 spot!
The gold-record standard of the jukebox musical still has ’em dancing in the aisles and grossed almost $800 million last week, almost 9 years after its opening.
The Sherman Bros have should get an award for having so many awards. Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and more. Their supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songs have been sung by the masses for years.
David Bryan, the composer of Memphis is the keyboard player for a little known band called Bon Jovi.
Million Dollar Quartet
Some of the greatest classic rock tunes, and classic rock characters, are featured in this jukey musical.
Next to Normal
Outside of his musical theater work, Composer Tom Kitt is the founder of The Tom Kitt band, and his work on American Idiot led him to be hired by Green Day to provide arrangements for their latest album, 21st Century Breakdown.
Promises Composer Burt Bacharach has written 70 Top 40 hits in his lifetime, including “I Say A Little Prayer For You” and “A House Is Not A Home” which were both integrated into this revival.
Rock of Ages
Mamma Mia but with 80s tunes.
How many covers of songs can a composer/lyricist have? R&H’s tunes were all over the place in their day, and are still used in pop culture today.
The Addams Family
Like In the Heights, there’s no real strong connection to the pop world here. That makes 18 out of 20 with direct connections to the pop music world.
The Lion King
Another one by Sir Elton.
The Phantom of The Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber is like a modern day R&H when it comes to his theater songs becoming standards. Streisand, Manilow, and Mathis are just a few of the folks that have covered and scored hits with “Memory” alone.
West Side Story
Leonard Bernstein was successful in the popular idiom in another way . . . the classic way. He grabbed a couple of handfuls of Grammys in his day, including one for Lifetime Achievement. He wrote for the movies, for shows, for choruses, and more. His stuff was everywhere.
What Andrew Lloyd Webber is to the UK is what Stephen Schwartz is to America. He is our most popular successful composer, with Grammys and Academy Awards and more, oh my. “Day by Day” was a Top 40 hit, and he has even written songs for Five For Fighting.
There you have it. 24 musicals on Broadway and 22 of them with direct connections to the world of popular music. Some looser than others, I’ll admit. And some are chicken-egg questions (Did their pop success come from the theater work or vice-versa?).
But my point is not that you need to be a successful pop artist to be a successful Broadway composer. In many of the cases above, the Broadway success came first.
What I am saying is that the overwhelming lack of degrees of separation between successful Broadway composers and the world of pop music suggest that there may be a characteristic that binds the two.
And that characteristic is melody.
So if you’re a composer looking to get a show up on Broadway, you might want to make sure your songs have some similar characteristics to what’s on the radio. I can’t tell you how many demos I listen to (or stop listening to) where the composers seem to be after some sort of intelligentsia award, instead of just writing a song that people might enjoy hearing in their car, or while cleaning their room, or while they are finishing a blog at 2:08 AM (Lady Gag
a is on in the background on my Sirius radio).
I’m not saying that theater songs have to be Britney-like trite or super-simplistic (God knows Green Day isn’t trite, and Elton’s stuff is some of the richest musical and lyrical material you’ll ever listen to).
But they’ve all got melody and hooks and songs that people like to sing along to.
And that will put you at the top of charts and the Tony Awards.