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THEATER : A Devilishly Tough Thing to Do : Commentary: The new 'Faust' would seem to be a boost for the stage musical. But aficionados know the form is demanding. So are they.

October 15, 1995|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic.

A startling thing happened last weekend. I got in my car, turned on the radio and heard a pop star, decades younger than Sinatra, singing a new song from a new musical.

This does happen occasionally--and we don't have to go all the way back to the days of Jerome Kern to find examples: Barbra Streisand crooning Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" (from "A Little Night Music") or Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn's "Memory" ("Cats") crossed over so far we got sick of hearing them.

But the song I heard a week ago had infinitely more buzz . This was Bonnie Raitt singing a bluesy number called "Life Has Been Good to Me" from the wickedly funny new musical "Randy Newman's Faust." Because it bore the distinctive stamp of Randy Newman, the song didn't carry the cultural stigma of coming from the musical theater.

For me, the incident was a stirring reminder that the world was a very different place when its "pop" songs were supplied by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser. In 1945, when the composer Arthur Schwartz wrote a tribute to Jerome Kern in Look magazine, he began by noting: "Switch on your radio any time this evening and it's 10 to 1 that within an hour you will hear the limpid, lovely strains of a Jerome Kern song." And the same would have been true at a nightclub, or at the movies, or if you just listened to what was in your head. In those days, theater music was America's music.

By 1960, when Charles Strouse and Lee Adams opened "Bye Bye Birdie," popular music had become rock music, and its agenda had nothing to do with the legitimate stage. "Bye Bye Birdie" was a great musical, a popular musical, but it was not really a part of the country's popular music. The show may have satirized Elvis, but it wasn't Elvis. And Elvis and the people who wrote the music he recorded didn't have the slightest interest in the musical theater. Nor did most of Elvis' audience.

Since then, many have tried to push the musical back into its former prominence by adopting, or imitating, the sounds of the day. That strategy worked sporadically, and one can count Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rado's "Hair" (1968) and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn's "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1971) as early successes in the battle. Lloyd Webber's achievements set off a wave of disciples. Just two months ago, the Orange County Performing Arts Center hosted "Jekyll & Hyde," a new Broadway-bound, faux-Lloyd Webber vehicle whose courting of a pop audience was so shameless that its songs made better sense when extracted as Olympic skating music than they did in the text itself.

But by far the most successful of the post-Lloyd Webber writers are Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, the composer and lyricist of "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon." These men (and producer Cameron Mackintosh) created wildly successful, lushly dramatic musicals that brought a huge international audience into the musical theater. The number of tickets sold bestowed a kind of significance on these shows, but they didn't do much for the form critically or culturally.

For years now, critics and other devotees have suggested that the musical might be saved from its perceived slide into irrelevance if authentic pop (or rock) practitioners came into the fold. This idea became even more compelling after the 24-year-old rock opera "Tommy" was adapted into a hit Broadway musical ("The Who's Tommy") in 1993. Of course, "Tommy's" success owed much to the theatrical savvy of Des McAnuff, who was able to provide a theatrical catharsis at the end of a rock opera that, arguably, did not have one before.

So, aside from Pete Townshend, which pop composers have been named as potential saviors? The logical candidates are the ones who have excelled at painting story and character in song. Among those suggested over the years: Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman, Prince. Of all of them, Newman, with his divine sense of satire, was the most exciting to contemplate.

Now Simon is at work with poet Derek Walcott on "The Capeman," about a real-life York murder, a musical that we might see in Chicago next year. And Newman has opened "Faust" at the La Jolla Playhouse, the same theater that launched "The Who's Tommy."

Newman has delivered a show that is as impossible to hate as it is to love. If "Faust" tells us anything, it is that the marriage of pop writers to the theater is not quite as logical and simple a solution as it seemed. "Faust" illustrates the profound difference between telling a story in song and using songs to tell a story. These skills may be similar, at times overlapping, but they are not interchangeable.

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