Pop songwriters find excitement in stage musicals

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Cyndi Lauper at the open house for the Upcoming Musical “Kinky Boots,” featuring Music by Cyndi Lauper, at the Al Hirshfeld Theatre in New York. AP

NEW YORK—There was a time when most of the songs played on the radio came from Broadway. Now some popular hit makers like Cyndi Lauper and Sting are finding it still feels like home.

“Look, they don’t break your balls that much here,” Lauper said of the experience of composing “Kinky Boots,” her debut musical. “Know what I’m saying? They don’t friggin’ aggravate you as much.”

More and more singer-songwriters from the pop world seem to be hearing that siren song: The trickle of pop and rock stars turning to the stage is fast becoming a flood.

Besides Sting and Lauper, stars such as Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp, Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, Edie Brickell, David Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello and The Flaming Lips are making musicals.

The reasons are as varied as the different sounds those artists create: Broadway represents a new challenge. Or it offers a refuge from poor CD sales. Or they simply got asked.

“The record companies gave me a lot of grief for a long, long time,” says Lauper, who teamed up with Tony-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein and director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell for “Kinky Boots.” ”These people wanted me to be part of their team. I was so flattered.”

Lauper — and Tim Minchin, the songwriter for “Matilda: The Musical,” her chief competitor for the best original score Tony this year — have managed to find success on Broadway by learning the difference between writing songs for an album and penning ones for a show.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, as recent history shows.

Stumbling onstage

Big names in the pop world have sometimes stumbled on Broadway, including Paul Simon, whose 1998 show “The Capeman” was the most high-profile failure of his career. “Taboo,” Boy George’s foray into the world of musicals, went fine in London but not in New York.

The gold standard for a successful transition from the pop world is Elton John, whose repurposed music for “The Lion King” film has helped make the stage version a global phenomenon. He’s also had success with “Billy Elliot” and “Aida.”

U2’s Bono and The Edge seemed to have initially bungled their Broadway debut with “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” only to have it become a box-office success. And keyboardist David Bryan of Bon Jovi scored with the Tony-winning “Memphis.”

Duncan Sheik can see it from both sides — he’s the Grammy-nominated writer of the song “Barely Breathing” and the Tony-winning music writer of “Spring Awakening.” His latest is “American Psycho,” which debuts in London this winter.

“There’s definitely an art to be able to write a song that on one level is a pop song and one that also has to tell a story and keep an audience engaged in terms of a larger narrative arc,” he says.

“When you’re writing a song for the theater, it has to accomplish all this other stuff. It has to work in tandem with all these other agendas and creative impulses,” he adds. “It’s hard to get it right.”

Of course, taking already existing hits and throwing them onstage — the so-called jukebox musical — is easier than writing new material and hoping fans will come.

Successful jukebox shows include “The Who’s Tommy,” Green Day’s “American Idiot,” the ABBA-fueled “Mamma Mia!” Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” and “Jersey Boys” with tunes by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. The Tony-winning “Once” used existing music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

More jukeboxes are on tap for Broadway, including a musical using hits by Diane Warren and one with Carole King songs. There’s even a show with songs by The Flaming Lips planned for this winter at the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California.

‘Very, very tricky’

Some music world stars who have recently taken their licks for offering original stage music include Trey Anastasio, a founding member of Phish, who teamed up this season with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright and veteran musical songwriter Amanda Green.

Their show, “Hands on a Hardbody,” based on a 1997 documentary about a contest in Texas to win a truck, played just 56 total performances and became the fastest close of a new musical this season. Even so, it earned a Tony nomination for best original score.

“I expected it to be tough,” Anastasio said of his debut transition to stage songwriter. “I didn’t expect it to be as tough as it has been. It’s very, very tricky.”

His stumble follows on the heels of last year’s failure, “Ghost the Musical,” with songs by mega-songwriters Dave Stewart (half of the Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard, and 2008’s “Cry-Baby,” with songs co-written by a member of the pop group Fountains of Wayne.

On the other hand, ex-Talking Head singer Byrne and Fatboy Slim teamed up downtown to create “Here Lies Love,” a well-received musical about the life of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines.

Why do some succeed and others don’t? Jason Robert Brown, the Tony-nominated songwriter of shows such as “Parade” and “The Last Five Years,” says songwriters not familiar with ceding control over their work may find the theater confusing.

“I think if you’ve spent your life focusing on just how the music you make is going to sound and even how it’s going to feel, you’re going to get thrown when all these other people start adding what it is that they want it to look like and feel like,” he says. “If you’re not immersed in it, if you’re not of the theater, I think it can be very forbidding and very strange.”

Some advice

That feeling may loom for stars such as Crow, who is readying music for the musical “Diner”; Sting, handling songs for “The Last Ship”; McLachlan, who has contributed to the musical “King Kong”; and Amos, whose “The Light Princess” opens in the fall at Britain’s National Theatre.

Others with fledgling stage experience include Brickell, who has teamed up with Steve Martin to workshop the musical “Bright Star,” and Mellencamp, who has spent years working with novelist Stephen King to create the Southern gothic musical, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.”

Melissa Etheridge would like to write a musical, while Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello hope to create a musical based on their 1998 album, “Painted From Memory.”

Sheik advises all newcomers to be patient and listen. He admits he may have been a little bratty when he first started in the theater and that it took him years to learn how to be collaborative and take good advice.

“You have to bite your tongue sometimes and you have to play nice most of the time. And you really need to know when to dig your heels in and when not to,” he says, with a laugh. “I think I’m getting a little bit better at it, but I still have my moments.”

Green, the Tony-nominated lyricist and composer, says pop song writers who come to Broadway quickly find it’s not the best place to dabble since it takes years for a musical to get up and running. And yet she thinks more will come in this age of declining record sales.

“It’s really a place where artists can be heard and I think that’s attractive to artists from all walks of music,” she said. “Theater is live. You can express yourself in two hours and not in a three-minute song. I’m not surprised it’s attractive.”

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