I recently spoke to Mark Mulcahy, the former Miracle Legion frontman who wrote the much-buzzed-about new rock musical The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island with oddball cartoonist Ben Katchor, which opens at the Vineyard Theatre this week (and just got raved about in the Times today), and an offhand comment he made struck me. I was asking him if he'd seen or knew about Passing Strange, Stew and Heidi Rodewald's new rock musical, which opens on Broadway this week after a hit run last year at the Public Theatre. Mulcahy wasn't aware of Stew's show--but he did say, "Yeah, I opened for that guy at Largo," a club in L.A. that's as close as that town has to a Joe's Pub.
That, coupled with the news of Paul Simon doing a staged reading of his 1998 Broadway flop The Capeman at BAM in April, got me thinking: Do obscure indie pop/rock songwriters just make better musicals? In the past decade-plus, original musicals by the likes of Simon, Michael Jackson (Sisterella), Barry Manilow (Harmony), and Randy Newman (Faust) have either floundered en route to Broadway or flopped there. Meanwhile, such non-household-name music acts as Duncan Sheik, David Yazbek, Stew, GrooveLily, and now Mulcahy, have garnered great reviews, and in most cases a wide and enthusiastic audience, for their musical theater efforts.
I'm wondering if this has to do with the relatively smaller egos of "indie" musicians; with their band-bred familiarity with collaboration on the one hand, and their offbeat or outsider sensibilities, honed by their non-mainstream career path, on the other hand; the seat-of-the-pants ethos such artists find, and recognize very well, in the Off-Broadway and regional theaters where they develop a lot of their work. On the audience side, I wonder if being a huge pop star with a hummable hit catalogue is a disadvantage when you try to write a brand-new original musical; in a version of the old struggle between the artist who wants to play all the songs from his new record and the audience who wants to hear all the hits, I think that most fans of a major pop artist don't necessarily flock to a new show that happens to have music by that artist--unless it's a jukebox musical, and even then, it's a gamble. Theater fans, on the other hand, do tend to flock to shows that are supposed to be really, really good and fresh and interesting, and the name of the composer isn't what is going to get them in the door unless it's Sondheim.
The exception that doesn't quite prove the rule, of course, is the sui generis Sir Elton.