||HE IS THE DARLING AND THE DESPAIR OF BROADWAY. A theatrical Jekyll and Hyde, if you will.
Bway Music Man, blared the April 21 entertainment section of the populist New York Daily News. Frank Wildhorn is the theaters hottest composer.
The jagged type seemed to crown the puckish, perennially baseball-capped Wildhorn as heir-apparent to Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.
On March 23, the talented Trojan made Broadway history when the curtain rose on his latest musical, The Civil War. With the first preview performance at the St. James Theater, Wildhorn officially became only the second American composer to have three shows running simultaneously on the Great White Way. His musical retracing of the nations bloodiest conflict took its place alongside Wildhorns romantic caprice, The Scarlet Pimpernel (in its third year and going strong at the Neil Simon Theatre), and his unstoppable Gothic bodice-ripper, Jekyll & Hyde (which has passed the 1,000-performance mark at the Plymouth Theatre).
The day after this theatrical triple-play was duly entered in the Broadway book of records, the streets around Times Square magically filled with French aristos and republican canailles, fashionable Regency fribbles, repressed Victorians and Thameside drunks and doxies. All converged on the St. James to join their comrades-in-arts Yanks, Rebs, slaves and abolitionists in a bash featuring 95 singers, dancers and actors from Wildhorns three musicals. The tribute was appropriately titled This Is His Moment an inevitable twist on Wildhorns biggest song from J&H, This Is the Moment, which had climbed the pop charts a few years earlier, establishing itself as a favorite theme of pageant queens and figure skaters, as well as a triumphant anthem to rally crowds at the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl and the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
But ask Wildhorn what he thinks of Broadway, and the likable composer is liable to snap. He bristles at the mere word.
Its theater! Its not Broadway, he rebuked a hapless interviewer from the Minskoff Theatre (where The Scarlet Pimpernel first opened) after she had breathed the B-word with reference to his lifelong romance with the stage. Broadway, Wildhorn crisply informed her, is a few blocks between a couple of avenues. I believe theater is a national and international world.
The feted composer openly disparages the venerable Big Apple institution as elitist, narrow-minded and short-sighted.
The Great White Way! he scoffs a venue for dead white guys.
No diabolical brew is responsible for these outbursts. Like the brilliant-but-unconventional Dr. Jekyll of his musical, Wildhorn has good reason to dislike the old-guard cultural bosses.
Sure, Broadway has heaped enormous success and not insignificant wealth upon Wildhorn, but it has heaped an equal measure of abuse. Collectively, his three shows have received a scant five Tony nominations. No awards have materialized.
Critics routinely savage his work. The New York Times dashed The Civil War as one bland stream of dentists office pop, and a New York Magazine critic actually scolded the audience for liking it. Newsday called The Scarlet Pimpernel galumphing, dunderheaded, and the New York Times called Jekyll & Hyde leaden, solemnly campy. Out-of-town critics have hardly been less brutally anti-Frank: in August, The San Francisco Chronicle slammed the touring production of J&H as lazy, gaseous and reproached Wildhorn for writing music that hyperventilates and wriggles. The San Diego Union-Tribune called the show dreary Gothic gruel.
Under attack, the composer remains composed, and why not? His adoring fans have made his shows virtually critic-proof. Approximately 2 million people have already crossed the turnstiles to see one or another Wildhorn musical. Jekyll & Hyde alone between Broadway, the national tour and a half dozen current international productions reportedly reaches 40,000 theater-goers a week.
All the kings horses and all the kings men cant kill the guy, Newsday critic Linda Winer lamented in a recent 60 Minutes II segment on Wildhorns meteoric rise. One of the composers harshest critics, Winer marvels that the in-crowd to which she belongs ignore him, totally shun him from the usual operation of Broadway. And he keeps coming back with more Broadway shows to the point where he has to be acknowledged.
The personal snubs and vicious notices dont ruffle Wildhorns feathers, but they do reinforce his grave doubts about the strange birds running Broadway. Instead of supporting, encouraging and inspiring new talent and new voices, he complains, the industry is filled with disdain and cynicism. A very small, envious, jealous, back-biting, strange world, he once called it.
As much as possible Wildhorn keeps his distance from this strange world, championing instead a multi-ethnic, West Coast-inclined, pop-infused theatrical ideal.
Why shouldnt the Great White Way become the Great Rainbow Way? he challenges.
Remarks like these have earned Wildhorn the reputation of a bomb-thrower, at war with Broadways snobbish aesthetes, as a recent Los Angeles Times article put it. His plain-speaking has made him the vanguard for a new mass-appeal theater movement that doesnt squirm under the pop label. Like-minded colleagues have compared him to the first wave on the beach at Normandy, taking the worst artillery fire to establish a beachhead.
Im called That Pop Guy, Wildhorn told the L.A. Times, clearly puzzled by the intended put-down. What do they want me to be? The Unpop Guy?
he pop guys road to Times Square has been a long and winding one. It took 17 years to bring Jekyll & Hyde to Broadway. The journey began in Hollywood.
Hollywood, Fla., that is. Wildhorn grew up in the popular snow-bird destination. A self-taught musician, he played in bands from the age of 15, trying his hand at jazz, rock, R&B, pop whatever was hot and incorporating the styles into his own material.
The 40-year-old composer cant re-member a time when he wasnt scribbling songs. Writing was always as natural as playing, he says.
Uncertain about his goals, Wildhorn went to college for a year at nearby Miami University before transferring to USC in 1978. Studying history and philosophy by day, he gigged and made music industry contacts at night.
Then came an epiphany. Benched by the flu one weekend, Wildhorn passed the time by watching a musical double-header on television: West Side Story and Jesus Christ Superstar. After the five-hour showtune blitz, the sophomore songsmith knew he wanted to write for the stage.
In short order, he banged out his first theatrical opus: Christopher, a messianic musical that Wildhorn describes as a different take on Jesus Christ Superstar.
I dont think youll ever see Christopher on Broadway, laughs Chuck Wagner 80, the student-actor who sang the title role in USCs 1979 mainstage production and went on to breathe life into other Wildhorn characters, such as the good/evil doctor in the 1990 Houston premiere of Jekyll & Hyde and the protagonist of Wildhorns second musical, Svengali, in 1991. There was no book, no real story. The whole thing took place on a different planet, a kind of Star Wars-y galaxy far, far away, Wagner recalls.
Christopher was not a mature work, agrees erstwhile Wildhorn collaborator Steve Cuden 78, the master electrician who worked the lighting board during that memorable two-week run at the Bing Theater. Yet the pop opera was extraordinary in many ways. For starters, it launched three flourishing theatrical careers:
Wagners performance scored him a role on the TV soap General Hospital, and other TV series followed. The booming baritone with a linebackers build eventually moved on to major roles on Broadway. Wagner played the shaggy protagonist of Beauty and the Beast, the relentless inspector Javert of Les Misérables and the fickle prince in Sondheims Into the Woods, among others.
Christopher diva Madolyn Smith 79 went on to a film and television acting career. She played Debra Wingers rival for John Travoltas affection in Urban Cowboy (1980), and got prominent parts in 2010 (1984), All of Me (1984), Funny Farm (1988), The Super (1991) and Sadat (1992), plus many roles in TV movies and series.
Wildhorn himself came away from Christopher with a music publishing deal with Chrysalis Records, which launched his 20-year pop songwriting career and, ultimately, his theatrical career.
USC is very good at turning out people who do well in the business, says Cuden. But to have two people come out of a show and have wonderful careers. And then Frank! Thats unique.
That Christopher was produced at all is a wonder, and proof of Wildhorns abundant gifts and ferocious will.