Of all the shows to win the “Best Musical” Tony in the current century so far, this is easily the weakest. This is another second-rank show to rip off Hairspray, only this one rips off the serious elements of Hairspray and was probably inspired more by the mediocre film version than the Broadway show.
It’s the story of a white radio DJ, a black female singer, and their forbidden romance during the dawn of rock’n’roll. The book plays like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week, with stock characters and shallow treatment of the issues, and the leading man is the most annoying and unappealing main character in a Broadway show since The Drowsy Chaperone‘s ‘Man in Chair’. He’s portrayed as an ignorant, juvenile and hypocritical redneck stereotype, and we’re expected to forgive all of that just because he’s not racist.
The songs, including the emotional ballads “The Music of My Soul” and “Memphis Lives In Me” for the leading man, the proto-Motown pastiche “Someday”, the lively “Everybody Wants To Be Black on Saturday Night”, the bluesy power ballad “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls”, and the stirring finale “Steal Your Rock ‘N’ Roll”, are pleasant enough, but they’re also quite generic, not really showing us anything we haven’t seen before in a hundred other shows. Also, apart from the dark, intense “Colored Woman”, they’re essentially Pop tunes with little emotional or dramatic resonance.
The music was written by the keyboard player from Bon Jovi, and it sounds quite a bit like that band’s music…tuneful, energetic, and emotional, but also conventional and kind of trite. The thing is, that formula actually works really well for middle-of-the-road Rock music, but it isn’t nearly as effective for expressing the emotions of an ostensibly serious story, and just makes the book seem even more shallow. If this melodramatic story really needed to be told as a music, it needed music dramatic enough to match its emotions, and this assemblage of vaguely pastiche-flavored Pop-Rock songs doesn’t cut it.
Also, as someone who actually knows something about the music of the time, I have to point out that the show misrepresents music history to reinforce the point it’s trying to make. It takes place in the mid-fifties, but it suggests that the music of the era consisted only of R&B by black singers and white Easy Listening acts in the vein of Perry Como. Seriously? This was the era of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol albums—trust me, there was plenty of great jazz, real jazz, being sung by white singers at the time.
That said, I get why this show was a hit. The lightheaded book does at least provide some good blood-and-thunder melodrama. The score, as I said, is enjoyable enough for what it is, and the dancing is terrific—all the numbers play much better in performance than they sound on the cast album. The show isn’t really any worse than most mediocre second-string hits like Rock of Ages the same year…it just didn’t deserve the prestige treatment it got that year, and certainly didn’t deserve to win the Tony in the year that brought us Fela and American Idiot.