"Be careful what you wish for," one of our readers wrote in reference to our "Compilation Musicals From Hell" contest. That warning is well taken. On January 10, we announced the contest in an article that included several examples of the kind of ideas for pop compilation musicals that we were looking for, including a Bruce Springsteen musical called Glory Days. Only a week or so later, we read reports that a rock opera incorporating the Boss's songs, titled "Drive All Night," is going to have a reading in New York next month. And just the other day came official notice that a Billy Joel musical called "Movin' Out"--another one of our tongue-in-cheek suggestions--will open on Broadway in October 2002 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (It turns out that this project has been in development for quite some time, but only one person on our staff had heard of it. The editor who came up with the idea for us thought it was his own concept--and he wants royalties.)
Anyway, the response to our contest was gratifying. When we offered up a free pair of Mamma Mia! tickets to the TheaterMania reader with the best idea for a new compilation musical, we hoped that suggestions would pour in--and they did, from the wildly imaginative to the sublimely subtle to the rather unsettling. The crack TheaterMania contest-review board assembled in our top-secret Chelsea headquarters, and it was apparent to all that our decision would not be an easy one.
Would we choose as the winner our reader Amanda's Thriller: Black or White, featuring the songs of Michael Jackson stuffed into a show about his ongoing identity crisis? Or would the garland go to John Connors' Death of An Irishman: The U2 Musical, in which a "naïve and aimless Irish lad" (Neil Patrick Harris) is seduced, sequentially, by violence ("Bullet the Blue Sky"), love ("With or Without You"), and non-violence ("Peace on Earth")? Naturally, there was an Elvis Presley musical in the running: Titled Love Me Tender, William Voigt's show would tell "the story of a successful steakhouse restaurant manager in Memphis." Voigt got extra points for his brilliant casting suggestion for the lead role: "Elvis, found living on Long Island, will play himself."
We had to disqualify some entries because, though highly entertaining, they skirted the rules of the contest in one way or another--for example, Scott Logsdon's musical about The Brady Bunch, titled It's a Sunshine Day: Bradys in Arms. Others were great ideas but not sufficiently fleshed out: We'd love to hear more about Cat!, the Cat Stevens musical in which "Grizabella sings 'Moonshadow' as she ascends into the sky on a giant guitar pick." Contestant NeilActs envisioned that the Winter Garden Theatre, former home of Cats, would be "transformed into a giant acoustic guitar" for this production--but we're guessing that the Winter Garden will be home to Mamma Mia! for quite some time.
DavidCats, working overtime, came up with two priceless suggestions: 12 Angry Men: The Musical, starring N*Sync and The Backstreet Boys, plus Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Eminem. (Get it?). David Fenn was inspired and/or deranged enough to posit a show with music by Lawrence Welk in which a young boy, horrified by his parents' taste in music, "kills himself with the edge of a broken vinyl record. Polka music plays. This show lasts three and half hours."
Ultimately, of course, only one entry could win, and a choice had to be made. When it came right down to it, the best compilation musical we received was from our reader Audrey Fusco. She took the hit tunes of the champions of American college rock, R.E.M and, taking a cue and from one of their late '90s hits, envisioned a musical with the same title about CBS-TV's Dan Rather. The result is laugh-out-loud funny and slyly clever musical featuring some great songs and a whole lot of loopy plot twists. But, hey, if it's good enough for Mamma Mia!...
WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?--THE DAN RATHER STORY
This epic musical, directed by Trevor Nunn, takes us through the dynamic life and career of Dan Rather, national news icon. From his youth in Texas ("Texarkana") to his days in Houston Radio ("Radio Song"), the musical charts the ups and downs of Dan's career through the dramatic use of R.E.M.'s music. The first act features such career turning points as Dan's coverage of Hurricane Carla in his home state of Texas ("South Central Rain"), which first brought him to national attention. It also charts his rocky course through the 60 Minutes days--[including] his crisis of faith number, "Losing My Religion," as well as the comic number "(I Am) Superman" for Mike Wallace. The first act closes with the infamous 1986 attack [on Rather] by the muttering William Tager ("What's the Frequency, Kenneth?").
The second act charts Dan's rise to pre-eminence in TV journalism and his classic coverage of such landmark events as the Gulf War ("It's the End of the World as We Know It") and his short-lived teaming with Connie Chung ("Shiny Happy People"). The 11 o'clock number comes when Dan makes a traumatic 2001 guest appearance with David Letterman ("Everybody Hurts") but the musical ends on an upbeat, patriotic note as Dan continues to bring quality journalism to America in tough times ("Stand"). Starring Jeff McCarthy as Dan Rather, Lea Salonga as Connie Chung, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Ed Bradley, Ron Rifkin as Mike Wallace, and Mark McKinney as Dave Letterman, with Michael Stipe making his Broadway musical debut as William Tager.
Congratulations to Audrey Fusco, whose free orchestra seats to Mamma Mia! have already been mailed to her. To all our contestants, thank you for your time and imagination. And please do remember to be careful what you wish for...