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You May Have Heard the Songs Before, but Not the Story

August 06, 2000|PATRICK PACHECO

"A massive jigsaw puzzle" is how producer Judy Craymer describes trying to sculpt a book around an existing song catalog, a musical theater device that appears to be an increasingly attractive proposition.

The phenomenal success of Craymer's "Mamma Mia!," which does just that to nearly two dozen songs by the '70s Swedish rock group ABBA, is likely to encourage the process.

Producers should be forewarned, however. Critical response has been decidedly mixed to such shows as "The Celebration of the Lizard," created out of the Doors songbook; "Play On!," which married Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" with Duke Ellington songs; and "What the World Needs Now," the Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical. The latter two premiered at the Old Globe Theatre; "Lizard" bowed in May at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

"It's all about getting the story across. We were very rigorous about jettisoning any song that didn't work," says Craymer, adding that she felt the songs by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus were accessible love stories within themselves, little "soap operas" that lent themselves to a book musical. "Besides, Benny and Bjorn would never have given permission for a tribute or compilation show." Nor would they write new music for the show because then, says Craymer, "they wouldn't have been ABBA songs."

The producer says it took writer Catherine Johnson two years to come up with a book from which numbers from the ABBA catalog could be woven integrally.

The simple story of "Mamma Mia!" revolves around a young woman who on the eve of her wedding attempts to find out who her real father is. That her mother was once a free-spirited pop singer, who in the course of the musical is reunited with her two backup singers, appears to have given Johnson some latitude, as does the arrival of three former lovers.

"The material lends itself to very big emotional moments," Craymer says. "But we aren't dead serious. We took a very tongue-in-cheek approach. 'Winner Takes It All' is very much 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina.' "

According to The Times' theater critic Michael Phillips, the pitfall of treating the material too seriously was not avoided on "Lizard," which marries librettist Joel Lipman's apocalyptic story to 33 Doors songs. "For all the great, good and less good music heard in this 2 1/2-hour fable . . . 'Lizard' is at this point a reverential wallow in Doors mythology," Phillips wrote. He added, however, that "it's fun to hear the music again"--which, of course, is the strong appeal of such hybrids.

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That's certainly what inspired the creators of "What the World Needs Now," the panned musical carved out of the Bacharach-David songbook. The problem, says Tom Hall, then managing director for the Old Globe, was "that the songs were so disparate that it became impossible to logically tell a single story with them; the book really felt shoehorned in."

Though it flopped on Broadway, "Play On!" was a big hit in its premiere at the Old Globe and has had a successful post-Broadway life in regional theater.

"Duke Ellington and his collaborators told stories through their music; it was just a great pairing with Shakespeare," Hall says. "Sheldon [Epps, the director] did a lot of research and work on the songs before he ever brought Cheryl West in to write the book.'

Two Broadway producers who hold the options on other songbooks are mulling divergent approaches. Edgar Dobie plans to produce a traditional revue with his option on the Bacharach-David songbook. But Barry Brown is considering a different tack with his catalog of pop hits by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann ("Soul and Inspiration," "He's So Shy," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling").

"It's very hard to pull off. The reason 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' worked so well is because they didn't try to construct a book around it," Brown says. "But the songs are as smart as they are theatrical; they could lend themselves to specific dramatic situations."

The producer says he isn't sure what the final form of the musical will be but figures it could land somewhere between a "book musical and a revue." A revue-sical?

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