Are Musicals the Mom Jeans of Rock and Roll?
Damon Albarn is writing music for 'wonder.land,' a musical adaptation of 'Alice In Wonderland.' I liked Blur. I loved Gorillaz. Damon Albarn is an amazing talent.
But I hate musicals.
Okay, I'll cop to a couple that I really dig. 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' remains awesome in its awfulness, and Brian De Palma's 'The Phantom of the Paradise' is nearly as bad-good. If you want to call the Who's 'Tommy' and 'Quadrophenia' or Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' musicals, I'm on board with those, too.
Tom Waits wrote some brilliant music for theater pieces, including an interpretation of 'Alice In Wonderland' ('Alice') and 'The Black Rider.' The latter play was co-written by William S. Burroughs, so come on -- that means some serious cool points:
The history of rock and roll is littered with cruddy musicals.
Overall, though, the history of rock and roll is littered with cruddy musicals. The two have been conjoined like a sideshow act since the dawn of the rock era, when Elvis Presley's conscription into the Army was fictionalized in 1960's 'Bye Bye Birdie.' That's about all it has to do with early rock and roll, though. From there it's all warbling vibrato, jazz hands and people bursting into expository songs for no apparent reason.
'Hair' came along in 1967, followed by 'Jesus Christ Superstar' in 1970. These were the twin towers of rock musical credibility when I was a kid, annually trotted out by high school choir directors hellbent on earning hepcat bona fides:
It all sounded so corny to me. Rock and roll was supposed to be raw and dangerous, not some staged, choreographed production. You know -- like Kiss and Alice Cooper.
By the end of the decade we saw Michael Jackson in 'The Wiz' and the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper' turned into a movie featuring both the Bee Gees and Aerosmith. The '70s were a very strange time, and not even the songs of my beloved Beatles could bring me around on this musicals junk. Don't even get me started on 'Grease.'
Here's where it gets interesting, though. In 1981, a brand new cable station began broadcasting mini-musicals no more than 5 minutes long. Some of them were straight performances, but the best of the lot were complete stories. The network didn't call them "mini-musicals," but rather music videos:
Now this I could get behind. This wasn't rock and roll playing on somebody else's terms, but the music I loved in what felt like its own natural habitat. Parents and teachers didn't like it, weepy people in tuxedos weren't handing out awards for it, and you didn't have to sit in an overpriced theater to watch it.
You know what happened next -- music videos were shoved aside for reality shows -- so let's skip ahead to the new millennium. Queen's 'We Will Rock You' was the opening volley in the "let's turn the music of your youth into a stage production" sweepstakes. It should be a perfect fit -- after all, they didn't come anymore Broadway than Freddie Mercury -- but it was just more warbling vibrato and jazz hands:
The show did well, though, so we got shows from landed gentry like Phil Collins ('Tarzan'), Elton John ('Billy Elliot'), and Sting ('The Last Ship'). Bono and the Edge, once the two coolest guys on the planet, somehow found themselves in the middle of 'Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark.'
There's even a genre for turning a band's catalog into a show: jukebox musicals. Billy Joel's 'Movin' Out' is a jukebox musical, as is Abba's 'Mama Mia.' Also a jukebox musical? Green Day's 'American Idiot':
Sweet Sid's padlock, what is this? Punk rock, why hast thou forsaken me? The most proletariat, in your face, anti-establishment, do-it-yourself sub-genre in the history of rock and roll, sanitized into a Tony award-winning musical.
People eat them up, though; these safe, artificial experiences designed to make the well-heeled feel edgy for an evening. It reminds me of a Patti Smith reading I once attended. She hosted a short Q&A afterward, and an audience member asked what she thought of plans to open a CBGB replica in Las Vegas.
"I think it's stupid," she said. "What are they going to do, have supermodels come in and piss all over the walls to make it smell authentic?"
And that's the difference, summed up in one malodorous quote. This music that we love, whatever your choice, belongs to its own environment. Transplanting it to a new setting isn't impossible, but it's tricky business and it rarely works. It's like caging a tiger and teaching it to balance on a yoga ball.
I wish Damon Albarn nothing but luck. I want his 'wonder.land' to be as great as Tom Waits's 'Alice,' but I don't have much hope. The rock musical genre is just a big pair of mom jeans: an easy-fit, comfortable attempt at hanging with the kids that comes off awkward and, honestly, a little sad.