Word spread quickly the other day when it was announced that Sting would be performing one of the songs from his upcoming Broadway musical The Last Ship at the Tony Awards ceremony this coming Sunday night.
We’ve also learned that Jennifer Hudson, LL Cool J, Carole King, and Gloria and Emilio Estefan will be on hand at Radio City Music Hall too. These pop stars and more will be joining Broadway names like Idina Menzel, Alan Cumming, Sutton Foster, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch star Neil Patrick Harris at the awards ceremony hosted by Hugh Jackman.
But the music artists are not here just to attract viewers, although of course that’s part of the game. The fact is, Sting is far from the only pop star whose work, life story, or actual self is or will soon be treading the boards of the Great White Way.
Jukebox musicals focusing on the music of a particular singer or band have been popular for years. The first huge hit of the type was Mamma Mia!, highlighting the music of Abba. It opened in London’s West End in 1999 and hasn’t closed yet, having become the West End’s sixth-longest-running musical. The Broadway production followed in 2001, and it’s still running too.
Jersey Boys, about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, has been a long-lasting Broadway hit. Million Dollar Quartet centered on Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. Rock of Ages features the music of ’70s and ’80s hair bands. Audra McDonald is starring as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Even Steven Van Zandt’s show about The Rascals, Once Upon a Dream, had a brief Broadway run.
In the near future we’ll have On Your Feet!, based on Gloria Estefan’s life.
Then there are musicals rooted in albums. American Idiot gave Green Day’s pop-punk masterpiece a storyline, brought it to the stage, and even starred Billy Joe Armstrong at some performances. Sting’s The Last Ship sets sail from his 2013 album of that name.
Of course there’s The Who’s Tommy, a special case because the original work was popular both in album and movie form.
More challenging for pop artists is the task of creating original music for the stage. Paul Simon’s The Capeman was largely a bust. Bono and The Edge’s music for the trouble-plagued Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is eminently forgettable, though the show is to get a new life in (where else?) Las Vegas.
Elton John has done much better, composing the music for The Lion King, Billy Elliot, and Aida. Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik had a big surprise success with Spring Awakening, the highbrow musical that helped launch the career of Glee‘s Lea Michele. Cyndi Lauper wrote the score for last year’s Best Musical Tony winner Kinky Boots. Sara Bareilles has scored for Waitress, a musical based on the indie movie that starred Keri Russell.
And then there’s Tupac Shakur, the rapper who never got the Broadway bug himself – though he did study acting, poetry, jazz, and ballet – but is about to make his debut there anyway, not as a hologram, but represented by his lyrics, in Holler If Ya Hear Me.
Some pop stars take the stage themselves. Ricky Martin starred as “Che” in the latest Broadway revival of Evita. Ashlee Simpson did well in Chicago. Nick Jonas tried his hand at taking over for Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 2012. Carly Rae Jepsen is in Cinderella right now.
Theater lovers sometimes look down their noses when pop-culture figures – not just musicians, but also actors who’ve made their names in movies and on TV – attempt to establish Broadway credibility. But think about this: 75% to 80% of Broadway shows lose money, with or without help from the Bonos and Cyndi Laupers (and Scarlett Johanssons and Daniel Radcliffes) of the world. It’s a high-stakes game, and the numbers don’t lie: If you’re a producer, taking a chance on a pop star can not only make good business sense, it can make as good artistic sense as anything else too.
Think about that when you’re watching Sting sing on the Tonys Sunday night. And then bring on the night, and the matinees too.