Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is from associate editor Marah Eakin: With Jersey Boys coming out this week, I’m wondering: What bands do you think deserve musicals? It could be a Cirque Du Soleil appreciation of their songs, a biography, a fictional story that uses the band’s tunes, etc. What’s your elevator pitch?
I have put far too much thought into the answer to this question, which I have always reflexively responded to with The New Pornographers. But now that I’m actually thinking about it, I’ve decided what we’re looking for is some sort of sprawling literary epic set across 20 to 30 years of life in the big city, explaining what happens to a bunch of kids who move there straight out of college and set about living up to their dreams. Yes, it’s a huge cliché, particularly in the world of musicals, but I think wedding that basic idea to the often joyous, often melancholy music and always suggestive lyrics of The New Pornographers would cause it to crackle back to life. I’m particularly excited about the beginning of the show when our protagonist gets off the bus in the sprawling metropolis (which will never be named), strumming a guitar and singing “Myriad Harbour” before he’s joined by the show’s chorus. The act one closer will be “The Bleeding Heart Show,” and we’ll open act two with “Mass Romantic.” The emotional climax will be scored to “Challengers” and the final song will be “We End Up Together.” I dare Broadway to defy me.
Considering the amount of pomp and playfulness (and unabashed cheese) packed into his work with and without Ben Folds Five, I’ve always figured that Ben Folds has a musical in his back pocket. There’s a whole cast of slacker archetypes living within Folds’ first two records; “Fired,” from 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, has long begged to be set to jaunty, Fosse-esque choreography. (If any pop song written in the last 20 years calls for jazz hands, it’s “Fired.”) There’s so much narrative in the Folds catalog that a musical built around his songs could turn into a Movin’ Out-style pileup of ham-fisted attempts to square the subjects of “Zak And Sara,” “Emaline,” and “Where’s Summer B?” Maybe keep the character-based stuff in the first act, then move into more abstract, emotionally based tunes in acts two and three: “Magic,” “Mess,” and “The Luckiest” provide the soundtrack as the dream of the ’90s dies and the protagonists learn to accept maturity, responsibility, and life outside the local college town. Okay, so maybe it’s just Movin’ Out—but this wouldn’t be the first time Folds endured comparisons to Billy Joel.
While Sam Cooke is overdue for a Ray/Get On Up-style biopic, the man’s tumultuous life and enduring body of work would serve as a Broadway musical just as well—or maybe better. Even a cursory list of Cooke’s hits in the ’50 and ’60s—“Another Saturday Night,” “You Send Me,” “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” and his posthumous civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come”—shows just how neatly his music could be slotted into a stage production, and that’s not even taking into account how absolutely stellar and immortal those songs are on their own. The arc of Cooke’s tragic yet triumphant life—from gospel singer to womanizer to secular pop star to activist to homicide victim at the age of 33—practically writes itself. And in Peter Guralnick’s massive, 2005 Cooke biography Dream Boogie, potential playwrights already have a sturdy blueprint.
Stephin Merritt originally intended 69 Love Songs to be a stage revue, and its sheer breadth of genres and lyrical subject matter means there would be a lot of material to mine for a Magnetic Fields stage musical. Set it up like a Cole Porter show, with a wisp of a plot anchoring one catchy tune after another, except through Merritt’s incredibly cynical lens. Throw a bunch of young lovers together—some smitten (“When My Boy Walks Down The Street”), some disinterested (“How Fucking Romantic”), some heartbroken (“I Don’t Believe In The Sun”)—get them all together at the end, and bookend each act with brief meditations on romance (“The Book Of Love,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like…”). That right there is a crowd-pleasing Broadway show the indie-rock crowd can call their own.
I take my musical theater very seriously. I want the songs to be a driving force for character and plot development, not just performances inserted into a biographical play. Given that she so often embodies a strong female protagonist, Adele’s songs and covers would lend themselves effortlessly to musical storytelling. “Rolling In The Deep” and a duet of “Someone Like You” chart the act-one breakup of our central couple. He wastes time “Chasing Pavements” while she re-gains her independence in “That’s It, I Quit, I’m Moving On.” They reconnect in a show-stopping dance number (“Rumor Has It”), and he ultimately wins her back with his heartbreaking rendition of “Make You Feel My Love.” And since we’re living in my fantasy world I’m going to go ahead and cast my two favorite Broadway performers, Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, as the stars of Set Fire To The Rain.
Cheap Trick, and power pop in general, has a certain theatricality to it that needs to be let out. Just think of the costuming possibilities: The rock ’n’ roll slickness of Robin Zander and Tom Petersson versus the cartoonish nerdiness of Rick Nielsen and the Office Space-fashions of Bun E. Carlos (guys, guys, a stage full of dancing Bun E.’s!). Traumatized by the Tommy-esque backstory afforded by “Surrender,” Rick, with only his triple-necked guitar, leaves home and meets the rest of the gang in a Wizard Of Oz-style sojourn in search of the mystical quadruple-necked guitar. He encounters Robin and Tom checking out ladies (“Southern Girls”) and Bun fending off lovers in Tokyo (“I Want You To Want Me”). The opening number is, of course, set to “ELO Kiddies.” Okay, so my plotting is terrible, but I really want to see a crazy, tricked-out version of “Dream Police.” I’m thinking smoke machines.
The sweet, sweet ’70s groove of intertwining band romances and breakups, copious and changing body hair, and heaps and heaps of the finest cocaine, all scored to the irresistible California pop stylings of Fleetwood Mac. How has this not been done yet? Naturally, this would be the band’s most successful and tumultuous years, say from the mid-’70s into the early ’80s with the Mirage album, when everyone loved each other, slept with each other, and did the a ridiculous amount of coke, all while writing and performing some of the most epic love and breakup songs in the American rock canon. It could go the jukebox route—the early days scored to “You Make Loving Fun,” with “Tusk” the perfect accompaniment to the decadent coke-party orgy, and maybe the full six-minute version of “Sara” bringing the house down when everyone’s relationships fall apart for good. Or the five members could come together to write all new music—but it seems like that would just start the whole thing up again.
I’m not a huge fan of jukebox musicals—the idea seems to just be a way to Muzak songs under the guise of “artistic re-interpretation”—but okay, let’s assume some kind of ideal-type world, where re-purposing great pop music into Broadway shows results in the best possible version of that concept. In that case, I’m going with David Bowie. He’s so perfect for it that it sort of feels like cheating; he’s got Ziggy Stardust, of course, but also a career filled with such a relentless gift for adaptation and innovation that seems tailored made for theater. There are so many narratives to pick from—shape-shifting alien from beyond the stars? Rock ’n’ roll poet slowing losing his grip on humanity? World’s most terrible firefighter? This musical would need a strong, vaguely androgynous, utterly magnetic actor to pull off the starring role, but it could be done. And hell, I’d probably even see it in this world, if only to see how they handled staging “Life On Mars.”
Most musicals are inherently ridiculous. Even some of my older favorites, like Brigadoon or Singin’ In The Rain seem pretty campy and goofy now that I’ve grown up. So why not bend to that camp, instead of trying to justify a great artist’s work being destroyed by the ridiculousness that is a jukebox musical? And if the masses want camp, Scissor Sisters has it (they even described their second album as “Muppety”). They’re flamboyant and danceable, but have the right amount of pathos to their songs to make sure the proceedings aren’t totally sugary. For the end of the first act, I’d choose “Mary,” a heartfelt ode to a dying loved one. But the closing song of the whole shebang has to be “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing.” Who doesn’t want to leave a theater with that in their head?
If we’re talking Broadway musicals, I think my dream Vic Chesnutt show is probably less appealing than a Kinks spectacular. The thing is, I’m not sure about the action. Straight biopic is a snooze, but lean into the ’60s cuteness and the result is The Beatles in I’m Not There. Speaking of which, the band could be fictionalized—perfect for Lola Versus Powerman—but there’s an uncanny valley for any representation that’s close, but no cigar. Todd Haynes got around that by making six approximate Dylans. Maybe that’s the answer: a pastiche of different stories from the early ’60s to the early ’70s—one for the punk garage sound, one for the wistful pastoralism, one for the traditional record deal story. Even here I’m practically condemning The Kinks to Across The Universe. All I know is they have a treasure trove of diverse, accessible rock and plenty of songs that Wes Anderson hasn’t gotten to yet—from introductions like “David Watts” and “The Village Green Preservation Society” to table-setting like “Sunny Afternoon” and “The Money Go Round”—and some that he has that I’d use anyway, because “This Time Tomorrow” was made for ending The Kinks musical.
A lot of artists lend themselves very well to a particular story. But I’ve been impressed by the music and the savvy of a group that has already found themselves a perfect fit for many stories. Sigur Rós’ music has been featured in over a dozen movies and TV shows. (Need something contemplative, slightly otherworldly, and probably sad? Bingo.) The band hasn’t even bothered to deny how good a canvas its music makes for other people’s stuff, even premiering a track on the third season finale of The Vampire Diaries. But I’d be very interested to see what could be done if the band had the story all to itself. Ethereal fantasy? The journey of a single cold virus through the human body? Introverted acrobats? The history of a city in which people appear only as tiny shadow puppets in windows from time to time? Someone standing staring out at a projection of the ocean for two hours? (Or just let them use their many “Untitled” tracks and cackle when the programs are printed.) The title? Let’s say Endalaust, a nod to how long it would seem to people who weren’t into it, and how long I would probably want it to be.
There are few bands that can suck me into a story as completely as Stars. Their best songs are exquisite snapshots of love gone so right, so wrong, or worst of all, so lost. A Stars musical would inevitably focus on one couple’s relationship—their heartbreaks, their reconciliations, their crossed paths, their missed opportunities. (Think Once divided by The Last Five Years, multiplied by smashing drums and jubilant synth.) It also might be fascinating to use Stars’ way of telling complete stories within a single song to be more experimental, and follow the couple through various scenarios where they love and lose each other, again and again. They could be high school sweethearts reuniting after a lifetime apart (“Reunion”), a lonely executive and the cad who makes her feel wanted (“Elevator Love Letter”), online suitors who never meet (“Personal”), teenage dirtbags (“We Don’t Want Your Body”), or a married couple that’s less settled down than made its peace (“Romantic Comedy”). All I know is, the show ends with a wall-shaking performance of “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” that vibrates through your chest down to the thumping floor.
I imagine I’m stretching the definition of jukebox musical well past its breaking point with this suggestion, but I’m an incorrigible history nerd, so what the hell: I’m intrigued by the thought of a musical constructed around the life and folk songs of Woody Guthrie. Such a show could offer a kind of people’s history of the Great Depression, examining not only the hardships and deprivations but also the strains of radical thought on both sides of the political spectrum that emerged in response to such unprecedented times. I kind of love the idea of a musical in 2014 offering an evenhanded, broadly sympathetic look at California socialists in the 1930s. As for the music, I’d pull liberally from Dust Bowl Ballads, but the show probably has to open and close with “This Land Is Your Land.” Indeed, a big point of such a show would be examining how the U.S. transformed and left behind the identity of the triumphal, uncritical “God Bless America,” the song Guthrie wrote his in response to. Besides, there’s also a ready-made framing device for such a show: the conversations between a Huntington’s disease-stricken Guthrie and his final musical mentee, a young Bob Dylan.
It wouldn’t necessarily be the happy-go-lucky hit of the season, but I can see a lot of possibility in a musical devoted to telling the tale of Syd Barrett, the former lead singer of Pink Floyd who departed the band’s ranks in 1968, a few months before the release of their second album, A Saucerful Of Secrets, and has gone on to be seen as the textbook definition of an acid casualty by most. My suggestion: call it “Wouldn’t You Miss Me?” and tell the story of his initial desire to be an artist, his rise to fame as a musician, his rapid career burn-out due to his descent into drugs, and then bring it full circle by closing with how he wound up back in Cambridge, damaged by his pharmaceutical dalliances but once again painting. Now, if someone could just convince Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Partridge to collaborate on the score and book, I’d totally go see that show.