Friday, January 21, 2011

Rock on Broadway

This article by Charles Isherwood appeared on the New York Times website yesterday and it got me thinking about the issue of rock music on Broadway.  What is its place?  Does it even have a place?  Musical Theater scores are, I would think, written (to a certain extent) to be singable by a large range of people to accommodate casting changes, as well as revivals et al.  But rock, until it invaded Broadway, was often written for a particular voice -- one specific person's talents.  Lots of stuff going on here.  Let me know what you think.

Rock is mostly retro on Broadway, where the jukebox musical has taken up firm residence. The notable exception is “American Idiot,” which received a heady injection of pop excitement this month with the return of Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong to the role of St. Jimmy. (Of course, rumor has it there’s a score for some new show by a rock band called U2, but I haven’t heard a lick of it yet. Some distant day, perhaps.)
Now comes word that Melissa Etheridge will slather on the eye makeup and take over Mr. Armstrong’s role during a week of “American Idiot” performances beginning Feb. 1.
The news inspires a little trepidation. Broadway already has something of a reputation as a rehab center for established (or aspirational) movie stars looking to recalibrate their careers when the big offers are not on the table. Will it now perform a similar function for rockers absent too long from the charts? The signs are there: Dee Snider, the lead singer of the 1980s hair band Twisted Sister, appeared in “Rock of Ages.”
As a big fan of “American Idiot” I can only hope the show doesn’t become a revolving door for the kind of thoughtless celebrity casting that made the great “Chicago” into something of a running gag for a while. (Next up: Justin Timberlake!)
I’m not set against the idea of a woman taking over the role of St. Jimmy. The character has distinct similarities to the Acid Queen from The Who’s “Tommy,” after all. And as played by the terrific Tony Vincent in the original cast, St. Jimmy was intriguingly androgynous. Ms. Etheridge certainly has real rock bona fides. But she does strike me as a more down-to-earth presence than the flamboyantly sinister role of St. Jimmy would seem to require. The female rocker who comes to my mind would probably be somebody like Joan Jett, who wouldn’t even have to adjust her look much. 
The real issue is the matter of integrating a particular performer’s energy and style into an already conceived role. Many rock stars are great live performers – that’s pretty much a requirement of the job. And they are often enacting highly stylized roles that are distinct from their everyday personalities. When he struts onstage with his distinctive stomp and aggressive pout, Mick Jagger is definitely acting, on some level. But he’s not playing a character written and conceived by somebody else, a craft that requires entirely different skills.
David Bowie has been more of a chameleon over the years, reinventing his onstage persona to suit new eras in music. Yet it may be telling that while both have tried their hands at film roles here and there, neither Mr. Bowie nor Mr. Jagger made much of a splash, despite their immense popularity. You could say the same of Sting, who appeared in a few movies in the 1980s and even made a foray onto Broadway, playing Macheath in a revival of “The Threepenny Opera” (to no great acclaim). So, for that matter, did Mr. Bowie, who took over the title role in the original Broadway production of “The Elephant Man” for a few months. Neither Mr. Bowie nor Sting chose to repeat the experience.
I will admit a curiosity about what impact the reigning pop queen Lady Gaga might have in a Broadway show. She was among the suggested performers named by readers when the news of Ms. Etheridge’s casting in “American Idiot” was announced. (As was Ms. Jett.) And yet it is hard to conceive how Lady Gaga’s meticulously manufactured stage persona could fit into even a show as highly charged as “American Idiot” without turning it into a vehicle for her own outsized personality. She doesn’t strike me as a performer who has any interest in playing a role other than the one she has carefully honed to maximize her talents.
The example of Madonna naturally springs to mind here. She made her career by enacting a series of evolving personas, from scrappy street kid to debauched virgin to domineering seductress. When she appeared on stage and in movies, Madonna creditably attempted to subsume her personality in to the role at hand, but mostly the charisma evaporated. The only role in which she truly bloomed with authentic life onscreen was in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” when she was quite clearly playing a variation on her (current) self.
Ms. Etheridge, of course, does not possess the kind of lavishly conceived persona that would need to be jettisoned so she can fit into an ensemble cast. She may turn out to be terrific in the role. But history suggests that the role of rock star and the role of working actor (on the stage or in movies) can rarely be played wholly successfully by the same man or woman.
Let me know if you agree or disagree, and whether you think any rock and pop performers would or could be an ongoing asset to Broadway, or a liability.

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