Changing its tune At long last, the Broadway musical knows the score and is putting pop music on stage.

January 11, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

After decades of largely ignoring pop music, the Broadway musical is finally beginning to sing a new song.

Two of this season's megamusicals boast pop scores: Disney's "The Lion King," with songs written, in part, by Elton John and Tim Rice, and Paul Simon's forthcoming "The Capeman." In addition, Randy Newman, Barry Manilow and Jimmy Buffett have all had musicals produced around the country lately.

In the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, from the Gershwins and Cole Porter through Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, Broadway show music and pop music were the same. Show tunes were played on the radio; sheet music was mass marketed; audiences arrived at the theater already humming the tunes.

But in the early 1960s, Broadway music and pop music parted company. The chief culprit: rock and roll. The pop charts blazed new ground; Broadway didn't.

There have been rock-influenced musicals on Broadway, but they have been sporadic enough to be aberrations. "Bye Bye Birdie" (1960), "Hair" (1968), "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" (both 1971), "Grease" (1972), "Dreamgirls" (1981) and, more recently, "The Who's Tommy" (1993) all had pop scores. Many of these, however, were mere imitations. For example, as Paul Simon told the Sun recently, " 'Bye Bye Birdie' was meant as a parody of rock and roll. Even 'Hair,' which was trying to be rock and roll, wasn't really."

"Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" came closer to being the genuine article, but "Dreamgirls," with its nonstop Motown sound, was one of the first to get it right.

Tuesday, a Broadway-bound revival of "Dreamgirls" opens at the Mechanic Theatre. "We were a trendsetter. We started a movement of pop music in what had been a rarified medium," says "Dreamgirls" composer Henry Krieger, admitting he isn't sure why it has taken Broadway so long to catch up.

It wasn't for lack of popularity. Directed and choreographed by "A Chorus Line" creator Michael Bennett, "Dreamgirls," which chronicles the rise of a Supremes-like singing group, ran nearly four years on Broadway. (The touring production, directed and choreographed by Tony Stevens, re-creates the late Bennett's staging, but relies more on the streamlined 1987 revival than the high-tech 1981 original.)

In terms of plot as well as score, "Dreamgirls" was one of the first musicals to deal seriously with the world of pop music. But with the exception of "Tommy," which was not conceived for the stage, the first major indication of change on Broadway didn't occur until two seasons ago, when two hip musicals, "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," began attracting younger audiences. Now with "The Lion King" and "The Capeman," that attraction shows signs of sticking.

Adapted from Disney's wildly successful 1994 animated film, "The Lion King" is the coming-of-age story of a royal lion cub named Simba. As staged by director and designer Julie Taymor, an avant garde puppeteer and MacArthur genius grant recipient (who worked at Center Stage in 1982), the Broadway production is a breathtaking display of life-sized animal puppets whose artistry stems from Asian puppetry and African masks.

The ethnic flavor of "The Lion King" score, which includes three new songs written by John and Rice, was also enhanced when it moved from screen to stage. The sound is predominantly influenced by the African feel of Disney's spin-off album, "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," and particularly by South African singer and songwriter Lebo M, who appears in the show and is one of six songwriters credited in the Broadway program after John and Rice.

The sound of "The Capeman" is similarly tailored to the material's ethnicity. The plot follows the story of Salvador Agron, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican gang leader who murdered two teen-agers in New York in 1959. At the time, he was the youngest man ever sentenced to death in New York state, but his sentence was commuted in 1962. On stage, he is portrayed by two actors -- as a youth by Marc Anthony, and as an adult by Ruben Blades.

Although "The Capeman" has delayed its opening until Jan. 29, the music can be heard on Simon's album, "Songs from the Capeman," which was released in November. The score is a rich assortment of doo-wop, salsa, Puerto Rican plena, rock, country and even gospel.

For Anthony, the hot young salsa star who put his concert career on hold for "The Capeman," Simon's mastery of the Puerto Rican pop idiom is part of the show's appeal. "It's not even a matter of sounding [authentic]. It is authentic. He went straight to the source," says Anthony. "He gave our music all the respect it deserves."

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