Guest blog post by Abby Chelsea
It would be an understatement to say that these are uncertain times for anyone who is in theatre. Nowadays, it’s especially important to maintain a positive outlook. And sometimes, the inspiration to do this can be found by looking back at theatre history. As the world of live performance transitions to a new era, it’s the perfect time to re-examine the careers of the rock stars who have successfully transitioned to Broadway.
VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EK33CY68s1w After getting their fair share of hit singles out the door, The Who lead guitarist Pete Townshend wanted to tap deeper into the storytelling power of music. He got his wish in 1969 when The Who released Tommy, a 24-track album that can only be described as a rock opera. In a nutshell, Tommy is the story of a young boy who goes through traumatic experiences until he eventually grows up to become a pinball master. In 1975, the album was adapted to film, which apart from including members of The Who, it starred the likes of Tina Turner, Elton John, and Eric Clapton. After the film’s success, Townshend eventually took on the role of librettist and adapted Tommy into a full-blown Broadway musical in 1993. Its breathtaking stage work, musical performances, and unique story came out to massive acclaim, prompting comparisons with Miss Saigon and even The Phantom of the Opera – while still retaining the energy that the band is famous for. Indeed, Townshend’s storied love of fuzz pedals, Keith Moon’s maniacal drumming, and Tommy’s original concept was fully intact in the ‘93 Broadway musical. And today, it’s widely recognized for its role in popularizing rock operas.
VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lg4hcgtjDPc More popularly known as the Talking Heads vocalist, David Byrne wrote his tenth album American Utopia alongside ambient music pioneer Brian Eno in 2018. A year later, the musicians staged the album as a live Broadway show at the Hudson. Apart from the album itself, they incorporated songs from Byrne’s career such as Burning Down the House and Once in a Lifetime. In their attempt to translate the passions of rock songwriting for the Broadway stage, joyful and disorienting dancing, snare drum beats, guitars, and harmonic vocal work are abound in this brilliant extension of Byrne’s work. Meanwhile, the band for the live version of American Utopia itself is composed of 11 talented musicians, singers, and dancers whose performances have made Byrne larger-than-life on the theatrical stage. The result is a continuation of Byrne and Eno’s decades-long quest to find human connections through artistic expression – in a format that does justice to the pair’s seminal contributions to their respective genres.
VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXlW-ab0adM Multiple Grammy award-winner Sting first became famous as the bassist and vocalist for ‘80s new wave rock band The Police. After he went solo, he transitioned from ‘80s rock star to pop and folk god, performance artist, and esoteric icon. It’s no surprise that in 2014, Sting turned his sights to musical theatre. In The Last Ship, Sting pens, scores, and performs in a play about the imminent demise of a shipbuilding town in the north east of England. As its plot heavily involves unions and industrial privatization, the show didn’t see much success during its short Broadway run. Be that as it may, with Sting taking on even just a supporting role in the cast, The Last Ship is a fine example of just how adept contemporary pop songwriters can be on Broadway. Alongside extremely talented stage veterans such as Frances McNamee and Jackie Morrison, Sting’s theatrical stint is a must-see for any stage manager struggling with a difficult concept or script. These are just a handful of the many legendary musicians who have written and produced their own musicals. If you’re ever feeling hopeless about the future of live performance, remember that the most fascinating Broadway concepts can come from the unlikeliest of sources.
Written exclusively for Broadwaysymposium.com by Abby Chelsea
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