Mellencamp: the musical

February 27, 2008
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The long-discussed John Mellencamp/Stephen King stage musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” at last has an opening date.

It’s scheduled to premiere in Atlanta at the Alliance Theatre in April…of 2009. (The Alliance, FYI, won the Tony Award for Oustanding Regional Theatre in 2007).

While the pair and their collaborators (including director Peter Askin who staged “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” off Broadway) take the time to do what they do, we who are awaiting a look and listen can consider the history of big name rock and pop songwriters who have attempted to create original musicals.

Sure, Burt Bacharach and Hal David did fine with “Promises, Promises” in 1968, but since then, things have been a bit rocky.

Prior to scoring with the retreat tunes in “Mamma Mia!”, the ABBA guys had great success in London with their original musical “Chess.” That success, though, wasn’t matched in a rewritten Broadway version (which was again rewritten for a road tour).

Paul Simon’s “The Capeman” famously crashed and burned on Broadway, although having seen it, I’d argue that the problems lied in the concept and book more than the strong music.

Harry Connick Jr.’s “Though Shalt Not” didn’t fare any better: Its bad reviews combined with bad timing—it opened in September of 2001—make it barely a Broadway footnote.

Jim Steinman—who penned most of Meat Loaf’s hits—penned the over-the-top lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind.” The Brits know it, but it has never made it to Broadway. A short U.S. tour just ended.

Skipping over the previously written songs for “The Lion King,” Elton John had a mid-size hit with “Aida,” a London smash (soon opening in New York), “Billy Elliot” and a bomb with “Lestat.”

Which leaves us with Duncan Sheik, whose outstanding “Spring Awakening” won last year’s Tony Award for Best Musical and is in the midst of a healthy Broadway run. See, it can happen.

So what’s the secret in transitioning from popular songs to Broadway?

Your thoughts?
  • I'm just happy to see that it isn't another jukebox musical and that there's actually original material being written for this. The story seems to be within the country-fried idiom in which Mellencamp is most comfortable, and if he can strike out into simpler, bluesy, roots-rock territory for this, I think it's got a chance of being compelling. Ol' Johnny Cougar is capable of some powerful stuff, much as we all might be tired of hearing him here in the Hoosier state. After all, this is the guy who gave us Rain on the Scarecrow.

    We'll try to forget that irritating Chevy truck commercial.
  • 1. aida is wonderful.
    2. it would be really great if i could go see spring awakening.
    3. please?
  • On the success side, there is also Roger Miller for Big River and The Who for Tommy (originally done as a movie). I thought Miller's music for Big River was beautiful and a shame that it was the only musical he worked on (now deceased).
  • Good call on Big River.
    I didn't include The Who's Tommy because it's primarily previously written material (a la Moving Out, Mamma Mia! etc.). No slight intended. Just a different beast.
  • I think TOMMY stands apart from the jukebox musicals in that it's based primarily on a single narrative from a concept album - just like JC SUPERSTAR was, for that matter - and wasn't just cobbled together from disparate elements of the Who's existing song library. Unfortunately, I've never seen the stage version, which may yet be another beast entirely from the film.

    (Side note: it's really too bad that CHESS never took off in the USA. That's an underrated show, IMO.)
  • Brian,
    Agree that Tommy is different from jukeboxers. But it's also different from Capeman,Billy Elliot and other conceived-for-theater pieces.

    Chess is problematic. Loved Judy Kuhn in the Broadway production, but it was a lumbering thing. And the rewritten-for-tour production was kind of a mess. I'm not sure which version is the one available for licensing, but it would seem like Beef & Boards or Footlite could make an interesting production happen. Seems like there are more concert versions of Chess being staged than full productions.

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