New British musicals 'will rock you'

The last British invasion, at least of the theatrical variety, occurred roughly 20 years ago, when a wave of megamusicals premièring in the West End made their way to these shores, promptly becoming Broadway hits running for decades.

That era is now coming to a close. In New York, "Cats" and "Miss Saigon" have already closed, while "Les Misérables" is departing this spring and "Phantom of the Opera" is nowhere near the sellout it used to be.

Today, the British invasion is defined by musicals meant to appeal to younger audiences, who have little feeling for the Tin Pan Alley brand of songwriting that dominated Broadway musicals for decades. They are inspired by - and in fact heavily rely on - pop music, namely hits from such groups as ABBA, Queen, Billy Joel, and the Culture Club.

Shows that repackage established hits are attractive to producers for a number of reasons (aside from the fact that no songwriting is required). One of the most compelling reasons is the fact that the songs come with a built-in audience.

"When you have authentic rock 'n' roll involved, songs that people were raised on, there is an automatic connection even before characters are introduced," says Tony Vincent, who plays the lead in "We Will Rock You," a new musical in London's West End that incorporates songs from the Queen catalog.

The blockbuster of the burgeoning genre is "Mamma Mia," which utilizes the songs of ABBA in the service of an old-fashioned story line about a young woman's attempt to determine the identity of her father. The show, which originated in London, is a hit on both continents, and has already amassed a staggering worldwide gross of $500 million. Besides London and New York, productions are playing in Las Vegas (a rarity for a full-length musical), Toronto, Sydney, Hamburg, and Tokyo, as well as a US national tour.

Bjorn Ulvaeus, one of the original members of ABBA and a coproducer of the musical, admits that he was skeptical that the concept would work. He set several ground rules for book writer Catherine Johnson, such as not changing the song lyrics and mandating that the show not be about the group itself. Even then, he was uncertain.

"I saw it as an experiment," he says during a phone call from Stockholm. "It wasn't until the first preview in London that I knew what to expect from the audience at all." He says that the show's success, apart from the popularity of the band's music, stems from its positive qualities. "It was time for something uplifting, after 'Les Miz' and all of those."

That notion is seconded by Mr. Vincent, who plays the lead in "We Will Rock You," featuring 31 songs from the Queen catalog. Coproduced by actor Robert DeNiro, the show is a sci-fi fantasy set in a world where rock music is banned. Panned by London critics, particularly for its awkward use of numbers like "Bohemian Rhapsody" (one of England's all-time biggest pop hits), it is nonetheless attracting huge audiences, many of whom are significantly younger than the traditional West End crowd.

"We're here to present a fun and sometimes quite touching journey of two young lovers, wrapped around some of the greatest rock anthems of all time," says Vincent, who has starred in Broadway shows like "Rent" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." "How can you go wrong? And I don't know of any instance where the audience is up on their feet during the last part of any other West End show."

Predictably, the success of these shows has created a climate for more of the same. Already playing in London is "Cliff - The Musical," based on the life of British pop star Cliff Richard, featuring 60 of his songs. And this year's winner of the Olivier Award for Best Musical was "Our House," built around the songs of the pop-ska group Madness.

In New York, one of the biggest hits of the season is "Movin' Out," Twyla Tharp's modern-dance piece based on the songs of Billy Joel. Other pop-music shows in the pipeline include "Good Vibrations," featuring the music of The Beach Boys; "The Boy From Oz," about pop singer/songwriter Peter Allen and starring Hugh Jackman; and "Can't Help Falling in Love," which will include more than 20 Elvis Presley hits. Broadway productions are also expected of "We Will Rock You" and "Taboo," the story of Culture Club singer Boy George.

Mr. Ulvaeus, who swears that "there will be absolutely no 'Mamma Mia' 2," thinks that there is no shortage of music catalogs to draw from, such as the Eagles. "Their songs are also stories, like ours," he says, "and I mentioned that to their manager."

Musical-theater historian Ken Mandelbaum, author of "Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops," isn't surprised by the megasuccess of shows like "Mamma Mia."

"People love those songs," he says. "They play well in the theater. And the show has a certain sweetness in the end that makes audiences go out happy."

But unlike Ulvaeus, he's not convinced the potential is unlimited. "They're going to keep trying," he says, "but I also think that when they get around to groups like Herman's Hermits, it's going to be a matter of diminishing returns."

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