Critic At Large Ed Siegel Reflects On Broadway Musicals About Music

There’s nothing new about rock musicals, but the latest phenomenon on Broadway is musicals about music and musicians. In fact, they’re some of the best shows in New York.

Take “Million Dollar Quartet,” about Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It’s 1956 and these guys are gathered at the Sun studio in Memphis where they start jamming after the Perkins recording session where he cut “Matchbox.” Cash, apparently, stood too far from the microphone so you can’t really hear him on the original recording.

"American Idiot" cast members at curtain call on opening night, April 20, 2010 (AP)
"American Idiot" cast members at curtain call on opening night, April 20, 2010 (AP)

Whatever you think of Green Day’s music, the direction by Michael Mayer is phenomenal. This has the same energy as another rock musical he directed, “Spring Awakening.” It has similar punk choreography, particularly in the song “Extraordinary Girl,” where a soldier serving in Iraq has a midair dance with the nurse he’s hallucinating about.

John Selya, Holley Farmer, Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Company in "Come Fly Away." (Joan Marcus)
John Selya, Holley Farmer, Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Company in "Come Fly Away." (Joan Marcus)

Dancing’s as big as singing this year. Twyla Tharp who turned Billy Joel’s music into a Broadway megahit and Bob Dylan’s into a megafailure, is back with another pop music icon, Frank Sinatra. Tharp did a ballet arrangement of Frank Sinatra songs with Baryshnikov many in 1984, which was terrific.

But “Come Fly Away” does not capture the essence of the musician it’s paying homage to. This is a very antiseptic, classical ballroom treatment of a guy’s music that alternated between punching you in the face and breaking your heart. The onstage band and dancers are reacting to an echo-ey mix of Sinatra’s music and while the dancing is smart, it never takes your breath away.

But there’s another choreographer with a show on Broadway, Bill T. Jones and “Fela!,” which combines everything that’s good about these other shows into one great night of theater. It’s the story about Fela Kuti, the magnificent Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer and it has all the great musicianship of “Million Dollar Quartet” and energy of “American Idiot” combined with Bill T. Jones’ exquisite African-inspired choreography. Here we really feel as if the man’s roots are being honored and that we’re in his club, the Shrine.

Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever in "Fela!" (AP)
Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever in "Fela!" (AP)

Kuti was also a political activist who opposed the country’s military rule and fought for democracy, including in his case the right to marry 27 women, including his singers and dancers. There’s a tendency to gloss over things, like Fela and AIDS, which is what killed him, but boy do the virtues outweigh the flaws.

Interestingly, none of these shows is up for best score because they don’t use original music. But “Fela!,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “American Idiot” are all nominated for best musical, along with “Memphis,” another musical about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll which I quite liked when it premiered outside of Boston at the North Shore Music Theatre.

Inflation being what it is, these four add up to a 100 million dollar quartet, but even if they don’t make musicals like they used to, these new song and dance pieces leave you with a similar sense of exhilaration.

“American Idiot,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Come Fly Away” and “Fela!” all continue on Broadway.

This program aired on June 11, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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