How Do You Solve a Problem Like Frank Wildhorn?

Frank Wildhorn's new Broadway musical Bonnie & Clyde opened last week to enthusiastic panning by critics. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, for example, seemed to take great pride in tearing the show apart by mentioning all of Frank Wildhorn's other Broadway musicals. This is the introduction of his review:

'Bonnie & Clyde' isn't the worst musical to open on Broadway in the past decade. It isn't even the worst Frank Wildhorn musical to open on Broadway in the past decade. (That would be "Dracula.") It is, however, quite sufficiently bad enough to qualify for the finals of this year's What-Were-They-Thinking Prize. Why would anyone not obviously deranged put money into a show with music by a composer whose last three Broadway outings tanked?

That reads like Teachout was looking forward to eviscerating Frank Wildhorn for being Frank Wildhorn again. I can see the motivation for it. His last Broadway outing, Wonderland, was a messy flop that did so poorly that lead actress Janet Dacal had to fly in from a brief vacation after playing every performance in previews and the first few weeks to close the show. Not a single Frank Wildhorn-composed show--going all the way back to his contributions to Victor/Victoria--has turned a profit on Broadway. His shows, as a rule, do very well in Europe and Asia (Dracula was a mega-hit overseas) and work better as cast recording than they do in the theater.

It looks like Bonnie & Clyde will be going the way of Wonderland and The Civil War before it: gone in under two months. Before the reviews came out last week, the show had tickets available to purchase through March. Now tickets are only available through 30 December. Pulling ticket blocks that were previously available is never a good sign.

So what could a musical theater enthusiast like Frank Wildhorn do to turn his Broadway reputation around? That's a hard thing to discuss. Critics have long-reaching memories. Stephen Sondheim is still known as an intellectual artiste whose shows don't turn a profit. Kander & Ebb are the odd subject matter, great singable music guys. And poor Stephen Schwartz is just the pop musical writer whose songs lack depth or wit. Do composers never change throughout their careers? Of course not. If you only knew them from reviews, however, you might think they were music-writing robots.

Wildhorn has a knack for character songs and power ballads. Take, for example, "In His Eyes" from Jekyll & Hyde. In it, Lucy Harris--a gentleman's club dancer--and Emma Carew--Dr. Jekyll's fiance--sing a love song about the man they've fallen in love with. They are oblivious to the other's existence. It's a stunning composition.

Even with a score filled with songs like that, Jekyll & Hyde closed 1.5+million dollars in debt. The show did not have the kind of reviews that you can throw up under the marquee to grab casual theater goers and survived as long as it did on word of mouth and group/discount ticket sales.

Every time Wildhorn comes to Broadway, he brings a new style of music. There's always a pop sensibility to his scores (he worked for a record label for years). What changes is how he frames it. Bonnie & Clyde is a country/folk musical. Wonderland was a riff on genre as character, ranging from Golden Age of Broadway to Latin to Boy Band. He'll throw in period appropriate details to blend with setting of the show but still maintain his voice as a composer.

A common thought is Wildhorn being failed by his book writers. I think that's a dangerous strain of thinking. In six Broadway outings, Wildhorn has not had a hit. He's not received good reviews--save for the occasional "the score is great, but" logic--and he's yet to recoup a budget on Broadway. There's something about his process that is failing the material.

My guess is the big issue is Wildhorn's mindset. He writes a series of songs based off of a story, records a demo with actors/singers he likes, and then goes about finding a collaborator. Story is secondary in these shows. Unless Wildhorn is willing to commit himself to a sung-through musical, this approach will fall short. Someone on BroadwayWorld put it like this: Frank Wildhorn is writing his own original jukebox musicals. Someone else is brought in to piece disparate songs into a flimsy book and throw it on the stage.

So what, exactly, can Wildhorn do to get a Broadway hit? I can think of a few options. I just mentioned a sung-through musical. That would require him to actually write the book while writing the songs. He'd have to connect everything with music and make sure the story was clear. It'll give the critics what they like about his shows--the music--and force them to evaluate the songs as the context of the show, not within the context of the book.

Another option would be to step away from the stage. Why wouldn't someone like Frank Wildhorn be able to write a great movie musical? Unlike stage musicals, a less than sound screenplay for a razzle-dazzle big screen musical can be forgiven as a traditional element of the genre. Critics don't complain about the screenplay in a musical unless the story makes no sense at all. The focus is always on the music, acting, and production values. Great reviews for a film could boost his artistic clout and maybe rewire some theater critics' thinking patterns when they hear Wildhorn.

Perhaps the most reasonable approach would be for Wildhorn to let someone write the book first. He could come up with the idea of the show and work with someone to get what he wants, but he would be working within stricter confines for the score. Let the book writer dictate where songs absolutely have to go for narrative purpose and work from there. Wildhorn gets to write his songs based off of the story like he prefers to. He just knows from the start where the story actually needs the songs.

Then there's this possibility as well: Broadway isn't the only theater town in the world. So what if your shows don't play well in NYC? Here's a sampling of critically acclaimed shows that didn't make it half a year on Broadway in the past six or so years: Caroline, or Change, [Title of Show], Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys. Are Jeanine Tesori/Tony Kushner, Jeff Bowen, Michael Friedman, and John Kander/Fred Ebb bad composers because their shows didn't recoup? No. The creative team behind The Addams Family musical said it best recently (paraphrase): Broadway is not the end of a show. Art needs time to develop and change is essential for a show to stand the test of time. You learn from your mistakes and you never give up.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Play It: Love's Cadence

The Link Rally: 6 December 2011