Thursday, April 11, 2013 8:17 am
Composer Frank Wildhorn bridges pop and Broadway
By KELLI KENNEDYAssociated Press
He even noticeably brightens when Steely Dan's "Do It Again" comes across the speakers. "I played this every night in the `70s," he says, grinning.
There's no doubt that Wildhorn knows a good song - he's written enough of them himself. He first found success as a pop and R&B songwriter, penning Whitney Houston's ballad "Where Do Broken Hearts Go," and has since had his tunes sung by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Trisha Yearwood.
But despite his impressive resume, Wildhorn is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde figure himself. Adored by singers, he still gets the cold shoulder from some New York theater critics who seem adverse to his pop pedigree.
"A handful of New York critics give me a hard time. You've got to take that with some perspective," Wildhorn says. "That's not who I write for. I write for the people who pay for the tickets."
The nagging outsider label seems almost ironic given Wildhorn ruled Broadway in the late 1990s when he had three shows running simultaneously, a nearly four-year run for "Jekyll," "The Scarlett Pimpernel" and "The Civil War," which all were nominated for Tony. Julie Andrews also personally called Wildhorn and asked him to write songs for her in "Victor/Victoria" after Henry Mancini's death.
But Wildhorn has had a tough time on Broadway recently, with back-to-back shows that struggled. His 2011 musical "Wonderland," an updated telling of "Alice in Wonderland," was poorly reviewed and his "Bonnie & Clyde" closed early last year, although it was nominated for a best score Tony.
He's been well received internationally, with several shows currently running, including "Dracula" in Europe and a lengthy run of "Carmen" in Prague. More than 100 productions of "Jekyll" have run around the world in Germany, Austria, Spain, Japan and Australia with 32 international recordings in 28 different languages.
The unassuming 54-year-old says his international success has given him more creative freedom outside the Broadway clique. In turn, he's given artistic directors in each country the freedom to interpret his shows to fit their own culture so the shows aren't cookie cutouts. "The Count of Monte Cristo" in Switzerland, for example, plays with a 50-piece orchestra and 30-piece choir.
"Theater isn't looked at that way in America. There's six blocks in New York and nothing else counts. I kind of take a much more global vision of the whole thing," says Wildhorn, who says his pop background taught him to write for the world. He still struggles to understand why the Broadway world often thumbs its nose when a theater song has commercial success.
"This Is the Moment," one of the standout songs from "Jekyll," has been recorded 1,000 times by everyone from Johnny Mathis to Dennis DeYoung of Styx , and was performed by Jennifer Holliday at Bill Clinton's inauguration and at the 1994 and 1996 Olympics. A duet recorded by Peabo Bryson and his ex-wife Linda Eder "You Are My Home" from "The Scarlett Pimpernel" was also a Top 40 Adult Contemporary hit.
"He's just got this knack for this romantic ballads and lyrical sort of melody," said Constantine Maroulis, who stars in the "Jekyll" revival. "Some people have had maybe an issue with some of his composition in the theatre world but every singer out there wants to sing Frank Wildhorn songs."
Wildhorn credits South Florida with cultivating his musical roots. He spent his days working as a lifeguard on Hollywood beach and his nights playing the piano in jazz, rock and R&B cover bands, performing at places like the Kaleidoscope in Coconut Grove, and testing out his own music.
He caught the theatre bug as a history major at the University of Southern California, where he wrote several musicals, including a few songs that would later appear in "Jekyll," and caught the attention of the Los Angeles music industry.
"It's not so much what I wanted to do, it was wherever the music took me," he said.
His versatility as a composer is perhaps best captured by those who have performed his music, including everyone from country crooners Kenny Rogers and Trisha Yearwood to Patti LaBelle and Natalie Cole. He's also written several songs for Eder's solo albums. She starred as "Lucy" in the original production of "Jekyll," opposite Robert Cuccioli.
"He's an incredibly tuneful composer. I was relieved to hear melodies again in songs. I feel like there was a period when the theatre was sort of drifting away from that," said "Newsies" director Jeff Calhoun, who collaborated with Wildhorn on "Bonnie and Clyde" and the "Jekyll" revival.
Always eager to draw a younger audience, Wildhorn cast "American Idol" finalist Maroulis, who received a best actor Tony nomination for his performance in "Rock of Ages," and Grammy-award nominated R&B star Deborah Cox as the leads in the "Jekyll" revival, which just wrapped up a 25-week national tour in South Florida.
"He has an indomitable spirit, one that cannot be broken. I think it's been out of necessity but also a great lesson for the rest of us to see somebody so strong who just keeps on marching and doing what he was born to do," said Calhoun.
The ever-optimistic Wildhorn is predictably romantic about the looming reviews from New York and prefers to focus his attention on several new projects.
"You have to feel a little bit like Don Quixote fighting the windmills," he says. "I love having the mountain to climb every day."