The Wildhorn Musical Family
Throwing caution to the winds, Filichia offers an appreciation of Frank Wildhorn, who's back in town with a cabaret show.
So many of them came! That includes the woman who saw Rob Evan do Jekyll & Hyde 521 times. (That's not a typo.) And even though it was 8:21, which meant that An Intimate Evening with Frank Wildhorn & Friends started a full 21 minutes late, no one cared because everyone needed the time to say hello and catch up. Some hadn't seen each other since the closing of Jekyll & Hyde or The Civil War. Others hadn't been together since the shuttering of the first, second, or third editions of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Whatever the case, it was Old (You Are My) Home Week.
As much as they squealed when they saw each other, the Jekkies, Pimpies, and Civvies (and future Draccies, once Dracula gets to town) sure still had their voices left for the actual shindig, which began with Wildhorn's entrance and his then playing a Jekyll & Hyde overture on the piano. They applauded his every glissando and would continue clapping and cheering for the next two-plus hours. When Wildhorn joked that he and Leslie Bricusse started work on J&H shortly after Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the novel in 1896, they laughed with knowing glee. And when he continued telling stories about the genesis of that show and his others, they nodded their heads at his every line as he corroborated what they already know.
They know quite a bit: Every lyric of every song in every show, and every cut song from every show. As soon as they hear the first three notes of a vamp, they're applauding in recognition. It's not that they have ESP, but they do have S.P. #1, #2, and #3 ticket stubs. When Wildhorn mentioned that he was almost talked into cutting "This Is the Moment" from Jekyll & Hyde, they oohed with umbrage to show that they would have regarded such a decision not as a cut but as an amputation.
The Internet has allowed so many people to meet and get close, but so have Frank Wildhorn's musicals. What's fascinating is that these are not teenyboppers screaming for the latest boy band; they're mostly middle-aged people with children the age of Christiane Noll or maybe even as old as Rob Evan, Linda Eder, and Michael Lanning, all of whom marched on stage to perform. The program noted that Douglas Sills would also be there but, when he wasn't on stage at the start of the evening, no one seemed the slightest bit unnerved. They'd either heard or had already figured out that Sills would later make a grand entrance, for he is the ace trump of the Wildhorn Musical Family, as the composer likes to refer to the people who've worked for him--musical director Jeremy Roberts, casting guru Dave Clemmons, et al.
But the real Wildhorn Musical Family consists of the legions of theatergoers who wouldn't miss anything--anything--that the man does. In my row, there was a woman who used a walker to get to her seat; how she got up the stairs at Upstairs at Studio 54 is beyond me, but that's a Wildhorn fan for you. Earlier, I'd spoken to Caroline from Charlotte, South Carolina, who told me: "When I heard that the tour of The Scarlet Pimpernel was happening, 'where' wasn't an issue." Even when she was told that the tour was kicking off in Grand Rapids, she didn't flinch but flew there for opening night...one of the 44 times she saw the musical.
The vast majority of Wildhorn buffs are suburbanites. Watching their eager faces take in one beloved song after another and hearing them scream with the same intensity that Sondheim fans exhibited when their hero walked on stage after Follies in Concert, I half-wondered if the rise in tolls from $4 to $6 for the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels happened because Jekyll & Hyde died; I mean, all those New Jersey theatergoers were no longer coming to town to see a Wildhorn show two or three dozen times and subsidizing the tolls. Now, the rest of us have to pick up the slack, at least until Dracula gets to Broadway.
These are people who don't know Oscar Hammerstein from Oscar Homolka, Billy DeWolfe from Billy Dee Williams, or The Girl Who Came to Supper from The Man Who Came to Dinner. But, to paraphrase John Adams in 1776, they're people and they're here--and they're theatergoers. I know I'll get plenty of angry e-mail on this from the Wildhorn bashers; I always do whenever I write a pro-Wildhorn column. Many traditional theatergoers rail, "Is this what these people think Broadway is?" Hey, at least they're thinking of Broadway, which they never did before. How well I remember the '60s, '70s, and '80s, when so many in the business were complaining, "We aren't getting the new generation as theatergoers! We missed a whole age-group!" That was true then, but we did get that generation in the late '90s when Wildhorn brought them with him. Better late than never, thanks to the man who had the magical musical ingredient to get them walking through the doors and falling in love with musical theater.
When Wildhorn announced that he and Leslie Bricusse were writing a Cyrano de Bergerac musical for Sills, the crowd gave an impressed, reverential response and immediately began figuring what expenses they'd cut to get multiple tickets for that one. When Noll was about to do a duet with Eder, she pressed her back against the diva's back, then suddenly said: "Side Show!" The place went wild at the inside joke. I could be wrong, but I do suspect that these people might not have known there was such a thing as Side Show had they not first discovered Wildhorn music through the Olympics and Miss America Pageants, which made them go to their record stores and ask for these songs, which led to their purchasing the concept albums of the man's shows, which in turn stoked their interest in seeing and hearing those shows when they reached the stage, which fired their enthusiasm for seeing other musicals.
Like another famous Frank, Wildhorn does it his way, and we now have a much wider theatrical audience as a result. Bet they'll be there next Monday night, too, when the new "Dark Night Series" Upstairs at Studio 54 plays host to An Intimate Evening with Frank Wildhorn & Friends once again.