When Randy Newman’s Faust receives a one-night concert presentation this week as part of City Center’s Encores! Off Center series, its NYC debut could be the end of the road or a new beginning for this two decade old musical conceived by the prolific songwriter, whose early 70s songwriting fame has been eclipsed in many peoples’ minds by his popular film scores. Having started as a 1993 concept album featuring Newman, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John and others, the show, co-written by David Mamet, made it to the stage of the La Jolla Playhouse in 1995 and then to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1996, under the direction of Michael Greif, in the same period that saw the launch of the Greif-directed Rent.
Over the years, there have been countless musicals created by or utilizing the music of rock and pop stars, from Paul Simon and Trey Anastasio to Abba and Elton John. But a handful of projects tied to popular recording artists have been launched around the U.S. and in England that, like Faust, never made it to New York. Here’s a quick rundown of some you may not know about.
The Education of Randy Newman/Harps & Angels
The lure of Randy Newman’s music has tempted many to want to bring it to the stage, and there have been two other efforts that didn’t get to NYC. The Education of Randy Newman played at South Coast Rep in 2000 and resurfaced at ACT in Seattle in 2002. Harps and Angels played at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in 2010. The first show was an attempt to tell the story of Newman’s musical family, conceived by Michael Roth, Jerry Patch and Newman. At South Coast, it was directed by Myron Johnson and the cast included Alison Smith, Scott Waara, Jennifer Leigh Warren; in Seattle it was directed by Gordon Edelstein and Johnson and the cast included Daniel Jenkins and William Katt. Harps & Angels was conceived by Jack Viertel and directed by Jerry Zaks; the cast included Storm Large, Michael McKean and Katey Sagal.
What’s most surprising about these two attempts at a Newman revue is that there had already been a moderately successful one that did play New York long before either of the others were developed, back in 1982. First seen in NYC at the Astor Place Theatre, Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong was conceived and directed by Joan Micklin Silver, and the cast included Mark Linn-Baker and Deborah Rush. It was subsequently produced at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1984 in a revised production that featured Melanie Chartoff, Dann Florek, Dee Hoty and Paul McCrane under the direction of Susan Cox.
For roughly a decade from the mid-60s to mid-70s, Harry Nilsson was at the top of his game as a singer songwriter, with multiple hit albums and chart-topping songs both for himself and other artists. He even created a made for television children’s cartoon, The Point, with a musical score that is indelibly remembered by those watching TV in the early 70s and now licensed for stage production. He also wrote the charming songs for the otherwise problematic Popeye movie with Robin Williams. But as chronicled in the recent documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him)?, he was also an alcoholic who sabotaged his voice, his career and his health. His one stage effort, Zapata, about the famed Mexican revolutionary, never made it past a tryout run at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1980. Of course, part of the problem may have been Nilsson and his friend Ringo Starr spending more time at the Gelston House bar next door to Goodspeed than in the theatre itself. And in one of its more incongruous quirks, Zapata had its genesis in an idea from musical comedy star and game show host Bert Convy.
A jukebox musical about the early days of The Kinks, Sunny Afternoon, is headed into the West End after a successful run at the Hampstead Theatre in London, but it’s not the first musical to feature songs by Ray Davies. 80 Days, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days by Davies and playwright Snoo Wilson (who replaced Barrie Keeffe) was offered up by the La Jolla Playhouse back in 1988; it trod a path forged decades earlier by no less than Orson Welles and Cole Porter, whose Broadway Around The World managed 75 performances in 1946. In La Jolla, 80 Days featured Timothy Landfield and Stephen Bogardus under Des McAnuff’s direction.
Among the leading lights of ska music for decades, the band Madness’s catalogue of hits were the basis for the musical Our House, an Ayckbournian musical that showed how one man’s life could go in two very different directions (long before If/Then). With a book by Tim Firth and directed by Matthew Warchus, the show was the surprise winner of the Olivier Award for Best Musical in 2003, beating out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bombay Dreams and Taboo. It wasn’t a long-running West End smash, but it has proven popular enough that its tenth anniversary was marked by a West End concert that reunited many of the original cast members and also featured Madness frontman Suggs.
We Will Rock You
We Will Rock You may well be the most successful rock musical to never play New York. Despite being critically reviled, it chalked up an 11-year West End run based on the popularity of the Queen catalogue, despite Ben Elton’s outlandish sci-fi storyline. It’s worth noting that the show has also toured the U.S. and played an extended run in Las Vegas, so New York may be one of the only major U.S. cities to have not been rocked by the show. Presumably it will also never see the sequel, which is reportedly in the works.
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s cross-dressing heroine may have been heard by her Poppa over 30 years ago on film, but just last year she sang on stage at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Florida using a score by Jill Sobule, of “I Kissed A Girl Fame.” No word on whether there’s any future life for the project, which used Leah Napolin’s non-musical play for its book and was directed by Gordon Greenberg.
You might want to say I’m cheating because it did make it to Joe’s Pub, but Todd Almond’s reworking of Matthew Sweet songs into a coming of age romance hasn’t had a major outing in NYC on a legit stage. First seen at Berkeley Rep in 2012 and then in 2013 at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Almond took Sweet’s rocking and plaintive songs of alternately angry and mournful romance (the album included a love song to Winona Ryder) and made it a two-character musical for two young men.
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
This column would have been vastly briefer if it hadn’t been for the La Jolla Playhouse, which could lay claim to being the American theatre that sits most squarely and the intersection of musical theatre and popular music (let’s not forget two of their successes, including Jersey Boys and Tommy). Former artistic director Des McAnuff collaborated with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne on this futuristic tale using songs by the Lips; the theatre’s website synopsized the show thusly: “Yoshimi must choose between two boyfriends, but first she’s got to take down an army of pink robots. This magical tale of love and the struggle for survival is a poignant and humanistic story.” No word on whether our robot overlords will reach Manhattan.
The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County
The idea of Stephen King and John Mellencamp collaborating on a musical sounded pretty exciting when it was first announced, but after their show debuted at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater Company in 2012, many people realized that a musical created by people who had no experience writing a musical, or for that matter, for the stage, might be somewhat problematic. The following year, the show went out of tour in a pared down concert version, reversing the route of shows that showcase their wares in concerts before moving to full production. It suggests that the Ghost Brothers will be confined in little pink houses under a dome for the foreseeable future.
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I have no doubt that this rundown is incomplete. By all means, add other examples, including video links whenever possible, in the comments section below.