Tori Amos, the red-haired fairy godmother of alternative rock, has enjoyed a 20 year long career, earning eight Grammy nominations for her 13 studio albums. Although the chanteuse could easily have continued to churn out hits, she has challenged herself to go where few musicians have successfully gone before (“successfully” being the key word): musical theater. Amos has been working with London’s National Theatre on The Light Princess, a musical adaptation of the 19th century Scottish fairytale about a girl who is cursed with no gravity unless she comes into contact with water. After the girl falls in love with a prince while swimming, her spiteful aunt sets out to deplete all of the water in the kingdom.
Originally scheduled to premiere as the centerpiece of the 2011 spring season, the piece was “shelved” indefinitely, due to the creative team’s fear that it was not ready for the public. This announcement sent the press into a Spider-Man-style tizzy, as yet another rock star’s musical was being delayed in order to make time for more workshops to perfect the piece.
The established-musician-writes-a-musical trend is a controversial one. All Bono jokes aside, there has been a recent trend of music industry leaders entering the realm of musical theater. In 2010, Green Day brought their hit concept album American Idiot to Broadway, while EltonJohn has been churning out musicals from The Lion King to Billy Elliot the Musical to Aida for years. Most famously, Bono and The Edge of U2 wrote the music for the $65 million Broadway press circus that is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
But this trend is only one facet of the wider phenomenon of pop culture infiltrating theater, with big names such as Scarlett Johansson and Andrew Garfield doing play revivals and Mike Tyson doing a stand-up show (yes, you read that correctly). This celebrity influx has caused some to mourn the death of theater: Producers now seek big names as the difference between a profit and a loss. Steven Chaikelson, a professor in the School of the Arts and co-founder of Snug Harbor Productions says, “If there is a familiar musician attached to the piece, it’s going to make it an easier sell to producers, investors, and theatergoers. If it’s based upon something that’s familiar to people, it might be easier to sell it. It’s certainly easier to raise money for it.”
But theater purists’ mourning may be premature. Christina Macchiarola, a graduate student who is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in theater management and producing from the School of the Arts, explains that the presence of such artists in the industry is mutually beneficial: “One of my professors often used the expression, ‘high tides raise all ships.’ If these artists can add new and innovative work to the musical theater canon and, in doing so, help raise the profile of the musical theater, I believe that their interest is ultimately beneficial to the industry at large.”
Still, the larger question—whether this work is at all innovative or new—remains. Naysayers scoff at the infiltration of pop culture into theater, claiming it has led to the proliferation of jukebox musicals that simply string schmaltzy dialogue in between the hits of ABBA (sound familiar?), or spectacle-based shows such as Spider-Man.
But established musicians have also brought some of the most exciting work to Broadway in recent years. American Idiot chronicled the frustrations of a post-9/11 youth in America; Duncan Sheik wrote the music for the eight-time Tony-Award-winning Spring Awakening, which tells the tale of kids experiencing their sexual awakening in 18th century Germany. These musician-penned musicals aren’t necessarily total crap, so long as artists aren’t only adding their names and a few lyrics to a musical adaptation of a popular film or television show, but are honestly building the show from the ground up with a distinct vision.
This is where Tori Amos may set herself apart: She has been working on this show for many years to deal with the unique creative challenges it presents. “The trick has been to have a fairy tale story on one hand, but on the other hand, that it’s a 21st century story for teenage girls and young women, and it has to resonate and be valid with what women are going through today. Marrying those two up has been a great challenge,” Amos told the BBC, proving the extent to which she actually cares about the substance of her show and its relevance to a modern audience.
In order to avoid the pressure on the average musical, Amos has surrounded herself with a team of experts, including Sir Nicholas Hytner, who, according to Amos, has been a driving force in the production. Hytner, the National Theatre’s Artistic Director, famously told Amos, “making a musical is a glorious nightmare. But this one can’t just be good. It has to be better than good,” indicating the mounting pressure put on these “big” names as they enter a foreign field.
As if artistic pressure weren’t enough, Amos also faces the burden of a multi-billion dollar industry. Macchiarola explains, “Musicals have to dance the fine line between art and commerce. At least 80 percent of shows do not recoup their investments, so producers are constantly looking for material that ignites an audience’s affection. With continually increasing ticket prices, there is a mentality in this industry that consumers want to see their money onstage, be that via spectacle or star power.”
Amos seems keen to make her first foray into theater a successful one, focusing on her craft to ensure that The Light Princess is ready for audiences. While she could easily have written up a few tunes set to the screenplay of Twilight and called it a day, she’s aiming to do something different—something that might rejuvenate the rock-penned musical.
Allowing for the possibility that Amos could spread her wings creatively while simultaneously filling seats, Macchiarola echoes the hope of the theatre industry: “As long as the inclusion of existing pop culture into musical theater writing does not deter artists and producers from also taking a risk on wholly original material, I believe that this trend has the potential to bring new waudiences to the theater.”