- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

Prediction: Madonna will hit Broadway again. Not the singer herself — although that’s always a danger — but her music.

If the trend of musicals created around the hits of pop stars continues to thrive, it’s only a matter of time before the Material Girl’s hits become fodder for a live stage production.

Just last week, it was announced that Rod Stewart’s catalog is being retrofitted for a musical called “Tonight’s the Night,” scheduled to debut this fall on London’s West End.

Add that to the megapopular, Abba-themed “Mamma Mia,” the Queen-themed “We Will Rock You,” and the Twyla Tharp-choreographed “Movin’ Out,” which turned Billy Joel’s hits into a Tony Award magnet.

If that’s not enough, fear not. More pop musicals are in the hopper.

An Elvis Presley musical called “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” for example, is being planned for the Broadway stage, according to Arlington-based Signature Theatre Director Eric Schaeffer.

The trend isn’t confined to the New York-London axis; it has also filtered down to the theatrical grass roots.

Frederick’s Maryland Ensemble Theatre just ended its run of “Planet Claire: A Sci-Fi Go-Go Musical,” based on the music of the B-52s.

Pop musicals, to be sure, aren’t an entirely new thing. Before the bellwether “Mamma Mia,” there was the Who’s rock opera, “Tommy,” and later, the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a 1975 cult movie that began as a pop experiment in a small London playhouse.

However, the current shows are linked by a distinctive new wrinkle: They are deriving original stories for the musical theater from songs that have previously succeeded in the pop music marketplace.

Such musicals trade on solid, time-tested brand names, and they appeal to a lucrative crossover market that potentially includes both baby boomers and thirtysomething Gen-Xers, explains Marks Chowning, vice president of the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in Baltimore.

“The thing that ultimately sustains theater is audience development,” Mr. Chowning says.

What better way to hook theatergoers than to piggyback on music that’s long been popular? “If the music weren’t good, it wouldn’t endure,” Mr. Chowning reasons. “Those are very well-established brands, and you’re capitalizing on that in the same way you cast a star, or any other marquee value you attach to any entertainment production.”

“It’s just smart theatrical production,” says David Petrou, president of Eisner Petrou and Associates, a communications consulting firm that numbers Clear Channel Entertainment among its clients.

“It’s not just mass appeal, it’s ‘most’ appeal.”

This formula happens to be so “most-appealing” that pop musicals are virtually critic-proof. “Mamma Mia” generated such a groundswell of word-of-mouth enthusiasm that lukewarm reviews didn’t matter a whit: Box-office numbers for the production, which will start another run at the National Theatre in November, have been consistently strong.

Pete Sanders, who’s handling marketing for a “Chicago” revival that debuted at the National Theatre on June 10, says, sadly, that there aren’t many original musicals being written today.

So why not produce musicals that appeal to consumers who don’t read theater criticism and wouldn’t normally spend their money on live theater?

“It’s widening the base of theater, and that’s always good,” he says. “People who go to ‘Mamma Mia’ might not go to ‘Chicago.’”

However, after seeing “Mamma Mia,” Mr. Sanders hopes, maybe they’ll be more inclined to see a pure Broadway show.

“You want pieces that have various access points so audiences can find a way into the piece,” says Wendy C. Goldberg, an artistic associate and director at the Arena Stage.

Having been hooked by a pop musical, audiences “could then potentially shift to something else down the street on Broadway,” Ms. Goldberg says.

Mr. Schaeffer, for his part, isn’t so sanguine about the pop-musical phenomenon, arguing that it’s a cheap-and-easy way of ginning up interest among media-saturated audiences.

While he thinks there’s value in some of the productions — particularly “Movin’ Out” — he wonders how many times pop musicals can be made without seeming like threadbare imitations of one another. “There are only so many ways to slice an apple,” he says.

“Everyone was worried that 42nd Street was being Disneyfied,” Mr. Schaeffer continues. “Everybody thought it would turn into a theme park. It didn’t.”

It’s turning into a different kind of pop culture emporium, he fears — one that depends on a somewhat unadventurous audience.

“If people are going to spend $100, they would rather gamble on something familiar than something unknown,” he says.

What’s lost in this derivative medium-melding, Mr. Schaeffer contends, is real storytelling.

“You don’t have challenging musicals on Broadway anymore,” he laments. “The big concern is that we’re losing the theatricality of storytelling.”

But Ms. Goldberg says that although pop musicals can fairly be lumped together, artistic quality varies from piece to piece.

“They’re all actually quite different,” she says. “Personally, I’m less excited by ‘Mamma Mia,’ but I saw it, and I understand why it was made.

“The notion of taking Abba songs and creating a story line around them — it’s a good idea. It wasn’t the most successful artistic piece I’ve ever seen, but I think it has its place.”

Only time — and audiences — will tell how much drama can be wrung from pop songs that go, “If you want my body, and you think I’m sexy … .”

For now, one thing, at least, seems certain: As long as people keep showing up, producers will continue supplying the product.

Watch out for “Material Girl” at a theater near you.

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