Bridging Broadway and the Top 40


Composer Frank Wildhorn is unapologetic about writing musicals for the masses.

October 24, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun theater critic

Critics may see him as Mr. Hyde, but in his heart, songwriter Frank Wildhorn is Dr. Jekyll, fighting for a cause he believes in.

"My ambition is to be a bridge between popular music and the world of theater," says Wildhorn, who is often criticized for the generic Top 40 sound of his Broadway shows. "If we are going to have a healthy theater in the new millennium, we have to cultivate new audiences. We need to speak to them in a musical vocabulary they can understand, not the language of 30 or 40 years ago."

While the language Wildhorn's music speaks may have led the press to dub him everything from a "pop-schlock composer" to "the Kmart Andrew Lloyd Webber," his legions of fans are unfazed. They follow the fortunes of the composer, his shows and stars on an array of Web sites, attend those shows over and over again -- in some cases, more than 100 times -- and sit in the audience dressed like his characters.

This season, area theatergoers will be able to see all three of Wildhorn's Broadway shows. On Tuesday, "Jekyll & Hyde" opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre. In February, the same theater presents "The Civil War," and in July, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" comes to Washington's Kennedy Center.

Briefly last spring, before "The Civil War" closed prematurely, Wildhorn held the distinction of being the first U.S. composer in more than 20 years to have three new shows running simultaneously on Broadway.

"Jekyll & Hyde," his most successful show, has been seen by nearly 3 million people. The Broadway production has grossed nearly $70 million, and, along with the national touring company, there are continuing productions in Germany, Sweden and Holland.

Unscathed by the critics' barbs, Wildhorn is a happy man. "I've never had more fun doing anything in my life," the 40-year-old songwriter says from his New York office.

It's not that he wasn't successful before he burst on the Broadway scene three seasons ago. Like his Tin Pan Alley predecessors, Wildhorn writes music for the masses. His songs have been recorded by singers ranging from Natalie Cole and Peabo Bryson to Kenny Rogers, the Moody Blues and Whitney Houston, who had an international hit with his "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" in 1988.

But Wildhorn insists the thrill of a hit song can't compare to the thrill of a Broadway musical. "If I'm writing songs for artists like I did in the '80s, the most I could hope is to get someone to record them. When you write a Broadway show, the composer gets too be the singer. I sing through the voices I cast," he explains. "I get to stretch in a way only theater lets you stretch."

He also is trying to get theater to stretch, by attracting younger audiences. "The demographics of my shows are always 10 to 20 years younger than traditional Broadway shows. Friday and Saturday nights are like being at a sports event -- not as polite, a little more visceral, I go for that," he says.

Evolving 'Jekyll & Hyde'

Baltimore theatergoers are already familiar with "Jekyll & Hyde," which played a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic in 1996. The show, however, has gone through several evolutions since then, and Wildhorn says the version coming here is his favorite yet.

For one thing, the star, Chuck Wagner, has a history with the musical that goes back to the days when he and Wildhorn were fellow students at the University of Southern California. Wagner played the lead in the show's first readings at the university, then re-created the dual title roles a decade later when the musical made its professional debut at Houston's Alley Theatre in 1990.

But when "Jekyll & Hyde" embarked on the national tour that culminated in its spring 1997 Broadway opening, Wagner was busy starring in "Beauty and the Beast," so the lead went to Robert Cuccioli. "To go full circle and have the Broadway tour go out there and have [Wagner] do it is a thrill for me on personal level," Wildhorn says.

There are a number of other changes in the touring production as well. Audiences on the road hear more musical underscoring than on Broadway, as well as two more songs -- "I Need to Know" and "Bring on the Men" (which was heard in Baltimore in 1996, but cut in New York). In addition, the show acquired a new set design and director on Broadway, and that set design is the one adapted for the tour.

The changes in "Jekyll & Hyde" are typical of Wildhorn's penchant for revising shows, even after opening on Broadway. "A lot of that, for me, is the fun. When I produce a record, after the record is done I can't do anything to it, but I can play with my shows. They're like my kids, I want to play with them."

"The Scarlet Pimpernel" is now in its third major Broadway incarnation since its fall 1997 opening, and "The Civil War," which lasted only two months on Broadway, will be reworked for the road.

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