First the songs, then the plot: Old formula

`Mamma Mia!' launches trend

Elvis, Gershwins in the wings

Theater

May 09, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Quickly, now: ABBA, Elvis and Gershwin. What do these three have in common?

Disparate as their music may sound, all three have supplied the scores for Broadway "songbook" musicals. Sometimes called "trunk" musicals, these are shows in which a plot is grafted onto an existing catalog of songs.

By far, the most successful example is Mamma Mia!, a show that has grossed more than $750 million and been seen by more than 10 million people since the original production opened in London five years ago. Eleven productions are now running on stages worldwide, from Las Vegas to Japan. Six more are scheduled to open in the next year and a half. On Tuesday, one of the show's five North American companies opens a three-week run at the Hippodrome Theatre.

Not bad for a musical with a score by a Swedish pop band that broke up 20 years ago. But then, Elvis and the Gershwin brothers are long dead, and they, too, have "new" musicals in the making.

The Elvis musical, All Shook Up, begins a developmental run in Connecticut on Thursday, prior to a pre-Broadway engagement in Chicago in December. The Gershwin musical, still in the formative phase, is being written by Washington-based playwright Ken Ludwig, whose previous experience in the genre includes the 1992 Tony Award-winning Gershwin musical, Crazy for You.

The songbook-musical craze has also taken off in England, where West End musicals in the Mamma Mia! mold have included We Will Rock You (the songs of Queen), Tonight's the Night (the songs of Rod Stewart) and Our House (the songs of Madness).

Although Crazy for You predates Mamma Mia!, librettist Ludwig recognizes that the megahit status of Mamma Mia! has "launched a trend because everyone wants to imitate success. ... `If that works, why can't we do it?' There are lots of trunks around."

But as he and other trunk-musical writers point out, creating a new musical from old songs is "very tricky." In the case of Mamma Mia!, producer Judy Craymer tried three different book writers before finding playwright Catherine Johnson.

Johnson and Craymer clicked immediately, however. In their first meeting, they came up with the central elements of the plot: A vacation setting (a Greek island), a mother-daughter theme, and a mystery in which the daughter tries to discover which of three men from her mother's past is her father.

Speaking from her home in Bristol, England, Johnson acknowledges that constructing a book to fit existing songs is like a puzzle - "bits of sky up there and grass down there and trying to fill in the people."

"It's a backwards way of writing a show," says Joe DiPietro, the New York-based author of All Shook Up. "Usually you have an idea for a song, and you say, `This character would say this about this issue.' And here you have pre-existing songs, where you can't change the lyrics. ... You have to say, `What kind of character would sing this song and how would it be interesting?' - especially if it's a song you know."

Traditionally, explains Max Wilk, author of numerous books on musical theater, "You have to start with the book, or how can you write the songs? What [songbook musicals] have done here, which is obviously very clever, is they put the songs in like raisins in the cake, as [actress] Gertrude Berg used to say."

Musical biographies

One way to simplify the process is to make a musical that is essentially a biography of a singer or songwriter. This approach has been used in shows ranging from Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story to this season's The Boy from Oz (about Peter Allen) and Taboo (about Boy George, and featuring a mostly new score).

Biography will also be the foundation of two forthcoming songbook musicals. Lennon, which will feature 10 actors portraying John Lennon at various stages in his post-Beatles life, is slated to have its premiere in San Francisco in 2005, before a Broadway opening. And Jersey Boys, about the Four Seasons, will debut in La Jolla, Calif., in September.

The biographical approach, however, wasn't available for All Shook Up. One condition DiPietro was given was that he couldn't put Elvis on stage.

Instead, he devised a story that has "a little bit of the plot of Twelfth Night, the magic of A Midsummer Night's Dream," he says. "The story essentially is about this depressed town in 1950s America, and this roustabout character comes to town and he brings Elvis' music, and everyone starts falling in love with everyone else."

Ludwig's task on his new Gershwin musical, tentatively titled S'Wonderful, might seem a bit easier, if only because he is dealing with a composer who wrote for the musical stage. But it's indicative of the inherent challenges that Ludwig started out working with the canon of a different songwriter - Irving Berlin.

After four or five months, however, he was stymied. "I just couldn't make those songs into a musical," he says. "I think they are too clearly popular songs that are stand-alone ballads."

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