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“It’s a lot harder than making an album,” says Dan Gillespie Sells, singer and songwriter for the chart-topping rock group The Feeling. “There is so much more to consider,” says Jake Shears, frontman of Scissor Sisters. “It’s a completely different beast. But it’s more difficult.”
What both find much more difficult than making an album is writing a musical. Gillespie Sells and Shears both developed parallel careers writing for musical theater alongside pop stardom. Gillespie Sells composed the music for the West End hit Everybody’s talking about Jamie, whose film premiered on Amazon Prime Video on September 17, and he’s involved in a few other projects. Shears co-wrote the music and lyrics for Armistead Maupin’s musical Tales of the city and works with Elton John on a show about televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.
While venturing into musicals is sometimes seen as the star’s overbreadth that is never denied – think Paul Simon The Capeman, which opened on Broadway in 1998 to terrible reviews and closed 68 performances later – in recent times it has become a legitimate path for musicians. And these aren’t jukebox musicals – where an artist’s catalog hangs on a fragile plot – but real shows, sold for their quality. Think of the Tony-winner Kinky Boots (music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper), the sold-out national theater Here is love (by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim), the international hit Waitress (by Sara Bareilles) or Everybody’s talking about Jamie himself.
The first shock for pop artists who get into musicals is that every beat, every word has to make sense. There’s no need to keep a line because you like words or keep a sound just for aesthetic appeal. Each writing must pass a test: does it serve history?
“There is no room for poetry,” says Shears. “Real estate is precious. So it’s amazing how specific you have to be to get in there and scalp things to convey certain information that changes as the series is written.
“The great thing I learned about the difference between a pop song and a musical theater song is that a pop song is slightly in the background,” says Gillespie Sells. If you take the audience away from the plot for an issue and the issue doesn’t advance the plot, “that’s pointless and the audience is sitting there thinking, ‘Can we get back to the story now, please. please ? There is a kind of precision in writing a musical that I had never put into pop music until now. “
The first real rock musical was Hair, which opened in 1967, then a flood: the early works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Gods, Fat, Reinette apple, and without forgetting the “rock operas” like Tommy. A shift in audience tastes in the 1980s led to a resurgence of more traditional musicals, but since Jonathan Larson’s premiere To rent in 1996, the rock musical once again became a staple in the theater. In 2010, the four nominees for the Tony Award for Best Musical were Rock Musicals and the winner – Memphis – was written by the keyboardist of the hair-metal band Bon Jovi.
These 1970s rock musicals – especially on screen – were how Gillespie Sells and Shears from different sides of the Atlantic entered musical theater. Both liked The Rocky Horror Picture Show and praised Ken Russell’s overworked film from The Who’s Tommy. “It’s just a phantasmagoria,” says Spears. “It’s just the story of Messiah with the best glam rock you’ve ever heard. . . Tome, Tommy was the mix of performance and visuals and the glamor of it. It’s such a glam movie. This is what really spoke to me.
You’d think pop stars might feel the death of ego to retreat from the spotlight to the writer’s room, but no. “Getting the job done is the best thing to do,” says Gillespie Sells. “I think it’s really healthy to be in a position where you’re just helpful instead of being the center of attention. With The Feeling, I felt the pressure was on me to write the next song and have the next hit. With musical theater, it’s like you’re part of something much bigger and you all have to come together to make it work. . . Musicals and ego don’t go together at all, ”says Shears. “It’s not just about standing in the spotlight, it’s about being a part of this much bigger creature.”
But where will the pop musical evolve next? Lin-Manuel Miranda In the heights and Hamilton brought him to hip-hop, a genre whose storytelling gene makes it a very good choice for musical theater. But Gillespie Sells notes that many of the musicals that have hit the scene have relied on pop forms from the 1970s and 1980s, rather than something more current.
“Modern pop music is harmonically quite stagnant,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of modulation. There aren’t many fancy chords – normally these are the same four chords in different iterations. . . I love 70’s and 80’s pop music because it’s so musical. He uses a fruity language, he uses fruity accords. I’m hardly Sondheim, but at least there’s a little more musicality, and I’m not ashamed of it.
Musical theater remains time consuming, labor intensive, and more likely to fail than to succeed. It takes thousands of good decisions and none of them bad. Everyone must understand each other’s roles. It’s not like ordinary theater; it’s not like a rock show either. But what does it do when things are going well?
“The first time I saw Tales with an audience, sitting in the crowd, I was crying every night at the start of the show, ”says Shears. “I have never felt anything like this before. Working on something for so long and finally seeing it take shape is a feeling I’ve never experienced. And that makes all those years of work worth it, and you realize it in that moment. And I will never forget it.
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is on Amazon Prime Video. The original soundtrack album is available now. Jake Shears’ New Single “Do the Television” Now Available