There was a time, not so long ago, when we were in mourning for the musical theater that might have been. It seemed that no one remembered that Broadway was the place where the nation’s popular songs were born before they went to whatever the mid-20th century called its Top 40 lists.
That was before rock and roll became an art, a culture and a business, before a generation’s most gifted musical storytellers — Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen — grew up wanting to be a pop legend like Carl Perkins or Bo Diddley instead of a Broadway legend like Richard Rodgers or Oscar Hammerstein.
Well, that’s all so last-summer. The hearty new reality in our otherwise splintered world is that another generation of pop musicians and singer-songwriters are finding their way back to the theater and, for the most part, the theater knows what to do with them.
We’re not even going to discuss “Hamilton” today. Lin-Manuel Miranda certainly has galvanized the union of hip-hop and early American history. But Miranda has always first been a theater guy with tentacles in all directions and we’re crazy about that.
What I mean now is that, just this year, so many pop artists have crossed over that the word crossover sounds ridiculously quaint. With “Waitress,” singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles has a Tony-nominated hit show and her own nomination for her Broadway debut. Edie Brickell collaborated with Steve Martin for their gorgeous, Tony-nominated bluegrass score for “Bright Star,” another best-musical nomination. Although most of the music and lyrics for “On Your Feet!” comes from the pre-existing songbook of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, they are new to Broadway.
Meanwhile, down on the Lower East Side, the New York Theatre Workshop has the acclaimed “Hadestown,” by folk-influenced singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell. This is the same little theater where “Rent” and “Once” were nurtured before they shot uptown to Broadway.
And last winter, this was the creative caldron where David Bowie’s devastating, radical, drastically underappreciated first musical, “Lazarus,” opened just weeks before his shocking death Jan. 10 of liver cancer at 69. Although the show mostly used his greatest hits, I remember sitting in the audience feeling so happy that Bowie’s interest in theater meant more amazing Bowie musicals for me.
“I didn’t really know the ecosystem of New York theaters,” Mitchell told me in a recent phone interview. “I feel so lucky to have ended up here. . . . They do pretty ballsy and experimental stuff.”
Mitchell, who grew up on a farm in Vermont but now lives in Brooklyn, has been relishing her first experience with what she refers to as the “left brain/right brain” collaboration with a stage director (the richly inventive Rachel Chavkin). In fact, Mitchell has been working on “Hadestown” for 10 years — first as a folk opera in Vermont community theaters, later as an album and for material she sang on tour. The plot is built on the classic Eurydice and Orpheus myth but set in what might be the Depression and could be New Orleans.
Unlike pop musicians who mostly write about themselves, Mitchell hasn’t had to learn how to write in the voices of different characters. “I tend to write in old ballad-y English/Scottish/Irish style,” she said. “I love the ancient folk culture of storytelling. It allows me to be a little more expressive.”
Mitchell won the 2016 Richard Rodgers Award for the development of musical theater for the show, a fact I find delightfully circular. Shortly before Rodgers died in 1979, he told me how hard it was going to be to turn pop songwriters into Broadway composers. “Somebody like Paul Simon may be able to write songs,” he said, “but how would he know the craft? Could he write a valid musical score — to know where this number goes, or how one replaced song can affect another scene 15 minutes later? I am afraid we may have lost a generation.”
Significantly, Simon proved him right with his only Broadway musical, “The Capeman,” which crashed into a sad historical footnote in 1998. Despite lots of moving and unpredictably beautiful Simon songs, the theatrical inexperience of the creative team made an inert drama.
So there is a definite wistfulness in the knowledge that Simon is married to Brickell, whose Broadway debut as the lyricist for “Bright Star” has been such a success. In my fantasy world, they write a new show together.
Certainly the crossover journey has not been easy for some of pop’s biggest stars. Bono and The Edge were no help to “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Although Sting’s music was haunting in “The Last Ship,” the story was a bore. And while Randy Newman’s “Faust” is terrifically enjoyable, the disjointed style never could hold the stage.
But how I marvel at Cyndi Lauper’s Tony-winning music and lyrics score for “Kinky Boots,” how she changed her sounds to illuminate each character without losing her identity. In an interview before “Kinky Boots” played Denver in 2014, she explained that her new craft is “very different. Your job as the composer of a musical is to move the story forward with the songs. You have to write for many voices and from all the characters’ perspectives. And I had a blast doing that.”
Before “Waitress” opened in April, Bareilles told Newsday’s Glenn Gamboa that writing about other people’s issues was “an exercise in radical empathy. . . . I was really seeing myself in all these characters so I could write songs that felt truthful.” She said the show is “the thing that I’m most proud of in my whole life. . . . I really drank the Kool-Aid on this project.”
I asked Mitchell why so many pop musicians are attracted now to theater. “I’m no expert,” she said, expounding on the historic split in the ’60s between pop and Broadway. “But I think there’s a very natural affinity between people who want to tell stories in music. Maybe we’re all emboldened by our peers. We see all the other people doing it and we’re inspired by each other.”
As Lauper sagely put it, “It’s important that Broadway musicals and plays are written to live in the modern world. If young people don’t discover Broadway, then Broadway will die with this generation, and that would be a tragedy.” But, hey, David Byrne is doing his second musical, this one about Saint Joan, and, yes, Cher wants to do her first. So, at this very moment, nothing about musical theater seems tragic at all.