They're Playing Our Song

The stars of the new Broadway musical "Mamma Mia!," from left, Louise Pitre, Karen Mason and Judy Kaye, pose in front of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York Oct. 5, 2001. The show, which uses music by the Swedish pop group Abba, opens Oct. 18. (AP Photo/Jim Cooper) AP

Believe it or not, in suburban New York, "Lennon," the musical, is taking shape.

"Everyone thinks John had this really down upbringing, and the truth is he was a suburban kid," says Don Scardino, a veteran Broadway director and longtime Lennon fan. "He wasn't quite as poor as the stories led them to believe."

Scardino is set to bring "Lennon" to the Great White Way next season. The musical will focus on music Lennon wrote after the Beatles split up, reports CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver.

"I would say it's the life and times of John Lennon, how we defined his times, and how the times defined him," explains Scardino.

The Broadway director says he didn't have a hard time getting financial backing for the show. In fact, he says, "investors have been falling all over themselves."

Scardino notes, "I think people who invest in Broadway shows say, 'Well, this is a brand name.' It's like The Beach Boys or something else. And people are going to come."

In fact, there's a Beach Boys musical headed for Broadway, too. And while the "Lennon" musical is somewhat biographical, the Beach Boys project is one of fictional fantasy.

The show, "Good Vibrations," which is also the name of The Beach Boys' classic, is built around the music of one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of the 1960s.

"Many people heard this song, these songs, 30 years ago, and they have an emotional resonance that we can tap into," says John Caraffa, the director and choreographer of "Good Vibrations."

The latest Broadway trend seems to be shows that incorporate music that audience members are already familiar with. Once upon a time it worked the other way. A show was a hit if you walked out singing the songs.

But, the musical "Mama Mia" helped changed all of that. The blockbuster show was created around the music of the Swedish group ABBA, which hit it big in the 1970s with songs like "Dancing Queen."

Back in the 1980s, producer Judy Cramer started thinking that ABBA's music would work in a show format.

"There were very much stories within the songs that had a kind of accessibility, a continuity," Cramer says.

But she couldn't convince Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the leaders and songwriters of the group, to go along with the idea.

Cramer explains, "They weren't interested at that time because ABBA was the past for them. They were moving on."

But Cramer kept coming back. Finally, they relented and even helped craft a zany, tongue-in-cheek comedy set in the Greek Isles, of all places, about a woman trying to figure out who the real father of her child is. At the oddest moments, the woman breaks into song.

And, audiences were on their feet, singing and dancing, much to the surprise and delight of Bjorn Ulvaeus, who says, "I'm just amazed that actually the experiment worked the way it did. I was ready, after half way, if it didn't work out, to stop the project."

He's lucky he decided the show must go on. Mama Mia opened in London five years ago and on Broadway, two years later. It has been performed all over the world and translated into languages from German to Japanese to Korean.

So, is it any wonder that producers with dollar signs in their eyes are racing each other to find the next great pop-rock repertoire to turn into a musical?

Playing on Broadway this very minute is "Moving out," which is set to the music of Bill Joel.

"The Boy from Oz," features the songs of Peter Allen and is up for a Tony this year.

And there are competing Elvis Presley musicals that may be headed to Broadway such as "All Shook Up," which just opened in Connecticut and "Jail House Rock," which is now running in London.

Also in London, the musical "We Will Rock You," which is based on the music of the British group Queen, and "Tonight's the Night," where Rod Stewart's hits are playing.

There's only one problem with the trend toward recycling familiar music. It does not bode well for the old fashioned written-just-for the-stage-Broadway musical.

Peter Marks, The Washington Post's music critic, says that part of the problem is the way music becomes popular these days. No longer are show tunes likely to get radio play.

A song like "Maria" or "Tonight," which worked its way into the great American songbook through both the Broadway show and the film of "West Side Story," might not become one of those 'everybody can sing it' songs in today's climate.

"There would be desperate appreciation to the fact that someone was writing this now, but as a kind of becoming a cultural touchstone, absolutely not. There would be no room for it to become that in this day and age," says Marks.

But John Carafa, now at work on the Beach Boys musical, dismisses any notion that turning to pop-rock hits of years gone by shows a lack of creativity.

He says, "Everybody's always trying to talk about the death of American musicals, and 'it's never like it used to be.' And I'm about, 'Lets make new musical theater.' Musical theater is an art form that existed since Greek times, and its not going away."

At least, it's here for as long as the fans, and the money they pay for their tickets, keep rolling in. And just think of how many old rock 'n' roll songs there are, just waiting to find their way to Broadway.
  • Rome Neal

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