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THEATER : Break a Leg, Mr. Hyde : Just when you thought that musical extravaganzas were starting to be washed up, pop musicians are creating a whole new batch. The latest gig: that old tale of two personalities.

August 20, 1995|Jan Herman | Jan Herman is a Times staff writer

'Jekyll & Hyde," an ambitious new musical opening its national tour at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, is helping to bring back an old Tin Pan Alley tradition: putting pop in the theater.

The show's producers are betting millions on doing what "The Who's Tommy" did for rock opera and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" did for Lieber and Stoller's golden oldies: capitalize on the appeal of popular composers.

It's a high-risk venture designed to revive an ailing theater industry badly in need of new musicals that speak the language of the young.

"If you remember," says "Jekyll & Hyde" composer Frank Wildhorn, "Gershwin and Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein were the popular songwriters of their day. Their route was the theater. The shows gave rise to the songs. The music industry promoted their songs to sheet music. And the songs became calling cards for their shows."

Today's exemplar, of course, is Andrew Lloyd Webber. His tunes have become pop standards and have built an audience for his musicals as nobody else's have. Gregory Boyd, the director of "Jekyll & Hyde," likes to quote what he calls "the best thing Lloyd Webber or anybody ever said" on the subject: "I don't want people coming out of the theater humming the songs. I want them going in humming the songs."

Wildhorn, 36, who is also creative director of Atlantic Theater, a new label being developed by Atlantic Records, wrote Whitney Houston's mega-hit "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" and roughly 150 tunes sung by artists as varied as Kenny Rogers, Jeffrey Osborne, Peabo Bryson, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Moody Blues.

Remarkably, his "Jekyll & Hyde" has already spawned two albums under two record labels before getting to Broadway.

"The Romantic Highlights from 'Jekyll & Hyde' " was released in 1990 by RCA before the show had a production at all, a rare event twice achieved by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice with "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." And last January, when "Jekyll & Hyde" had a $3.5-million pre-touring production at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars, Atlantic put out a double CD, "Jekyll & Hyde--The Gothic Musical Thriller."

The RCA album is reported to have sold 100,000 copies. Meanwhile, Atlantic "has done very well," according to its president, Val Azzoli, who said that 32,000 albums have sold domestically--25,000 in Houston alone--and that in Australia the album has hit the charts at No. 18.

"I look at 'Jekyll & Hyde' like a rock show," Azzoli said by telephone from New York. "When a rock record goes out and there's a tour, we basically follow the tour. We did that with Michael Crawford's record 'EFX.' He was on the road for almost a year playing two weeks in every town. We sold 750,000 albums. That opened my eyes.

"Radio is not out there to play this type of music, not like it used to be. So the vehicle is touring. When the show is playing a town for a week or two, we just inundate the market. We do television, morning programs, afternoon programs. We do in-store signings. We saturate that market totally. That town is our universe."

If all goes as planned, the producers of "Jekyll & Hyde" (Pace Theatrical Group and Fox Theatricals) expect it to reach Broadway in the spring of 1996. By then it will have toured to 37 cities, including Dallas (where it just had a two-week preview), Sacramento, Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami, St. Louis, Chicago, Denver, Cleveland and Baltimore.

Presumably, the show will sell many more albums. And if it succeeds in New York, a third recording--the Broadway cast album--will be next on Wildhorn's agenda.

When Wildhorn sits down at the piano in his Woodland Hills living room to play a couple of his recent theater tunes, the native New Yorker looks suddenly transformed from a voluble song-plugger into an intense and private artist.

His eyes close. His powerful torso--he's built like a young Yogi Berra--sways gently. Everything he has been talking about nonstop for the past two hours drops away: his formative years at USC; writing his first musical in 1979; dropping out of school and getting his first songwriting contract in 1983 from Sam Trust, who ran ATV Music, which owned, among other things, the Beatles catalogue.

What emerges under the spell of Wildhorn's melodic touch are "Living in the Shadows," the 11 o'clock number he has just written for Julie Andrews in the Broadway-bound musical "Victor/Victoria" and "A New Life," one of several power-pop ballads for Linda Eder in "Jekyll & Hyde."

He is not the only popular composer shifting his attention to the theater. Paul Simon has been laboring for years on a musical called "Capeman." In 1993 he teamed with Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, to write the book and lyrics.

"They're going into a workshop in the next few months," Simon's assistant, Vaughn Hazell, said from New York. "Paul has demo tapes prepared, and he's almost done."

"Capeman"--the title could change--is expected to open in Chicago in November, 1996, before heading to Broadway.

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