Get Off Broadway 

The Billy Joel travesty Movin' Out proves rock and theater don't mix.

Recently, while decrying the terrible state of the rock concert industry -- ticket prices way up, ticket sales way down -- an NPR commentator pointed out that rock is now the province of "anyone under the age of seventy." That figure, which sounds ludicrous on first hearing, is in fact a conservative estimate: After all, Elvis Presley released his first single, "That's All Right, Mama," in 1954, and it's not inconceivable that even a few thirty-year-olds enjoyed it at the time. The elderly nature of rock's fan base surely explains why this year's youth-obsessed Lollapalooza got canceled, but another sign that its audience is practically senile can be seen in Movin' Out, the Tony Award-winning dance cycle based on Billy Joel songs that's still burning up SF's Golden Gate Theatre. Clearly, rock's oldies have fled the sheds for the more staid confines of the theater district, and who can blame them? While ticket prices, even in this age of $100-plus Rod Stewart tickets, are comparably sky-high, the comfort level of an old Palladium is far, far superior to, say, Concord Pavilion.

Movin' Out's presence at the Golden Gate Theatre in some ways makes rock more respectable, and yet, since theatergoers are notoriously aged -- 44 years old on average, according to a recent Broadway survey -- the popularity of these quality-free confections merely reinforces the changing role of rock in society, from the voice of rebellion to the voice of your Grandpa Joe.

Grandpa Joe may enjoy Movin' Out. You will not. You're not supposed to.

Of course, youth isn't everything, but let's face it: Youth is the quality America associates with excitement, relevance, originality, and change. These are not qualities that abound in musical theater nowadays -- certainly Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera was edgy by 1928 standards, but by 1963, when Bob Dylan roamed Greenwich Village, it seemed unlikely that he and Joan Baez would drop by Broadway to see a West Side Story matinee. That would be the equivalent of, say, Dan the Automator and his girlfriend going to see, say, Movin' Out.

Dan has the right idea: Honestly, nothing but sheer age-induced absentmindedness (or seen-it-all ennui) would explain why people would willingly sit through this travesty of a high-concept so-called "story-ballet" without throwing tomatoes at the stage.

Movin' Out really has nerve, since, unlike its conceptual forebear Mamma Mia (which jammed Abba songs into a silly plot about a Greek vacation), it purports to be social commentary. Set during the Vietnam War, Movin' Out uses Joel hits such as "Just the Way You Are" and "Uptown Girl" to tell a story of love, loss, and post-traumatic stress syndrome, and amazingly, the music isn't even the worst thing about it. Since the tale is told in dance sequences, it lacks a script (good or bad). The narrative is cobbled not from Joel's lyrics (which barely match the action), but from a hazy mélange of clichés about America in the '60s. The costumes are hideous. And the choreography, by the normally inventive Twyla Tharp, is uninspired.

All this would make for your mere run-of-the-mill lame show, but the sight of effete male dancers pretending to be killer Marines while high-kicking to the upbeat tune "We Didn't Start the Fire" is laughable, if not downright offensive. Rock -- even lousy rock like Joel's -- is about raw individuality, teen angst, and escapism. To couple it to the historical past, particularly an event as troubling as Vietnam, is to turn both the music and the history into parody, or worse. It's hard to see what differentiates Movin' Out from a Saturday Night Live skit. Nevertheless, this type of production -- one that raids rock's coffers for prewritten musical material -- is doing extremely well on Broadway right now.

Stuart Malina, musical director of Movin' Out, explains that both rock and theater are looking for new markets: "Broadway is sort of its own genre, so I think there are people who aren't familiar with [Joel] who might come to a show like this and discover they like him, while there are Billy Joel fans who might say, 'I never thought I'd go to a dance production.' It's really good for everybody -- it gives us all a broader audience."

Thus the Abba-themed Mamma Mia has enjoyed huge success, as has the Queen vehicle We Will Rock You, which will make its touring debut at a Las Vegas casino later this year. The Beach Boys Broadway musical debuts in early 2005. Movin' Out, meanwhile, has enjoyed rave reviews and won numerous awards. And even in a economy famous for killing a number of Broadway shows, the Joel debacle has run on Broadway for the last two years. Malina points out examples of this rock-as-theater trend will only multiply -- he mentions Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Joe Jackson as possible future muses, while a John Lennon musical is near completion -- because "it's an easy idea, and it's been really successful." But he adds that doing musicals with prewritten material has both good and bad elements: "The potential upside is that the songs are known and beloved, but the potential downside is huge." In the case of Movin' Out, he explains, "If it had sounded like a musical-theaterized version of Billy Joel songs -- you know, a chorus of voices, a pit band with new orchestrations -- that would have been a disaster. It would have sounded like elevator music."

Instead, Movin' Out uses a Billy Joel impersonator -- Irish Boyzone coconspirator Darren Holden -- to sing 27 Joel songs pretty much exactly as you know them on record, with only subtle tempo and arrangement changes made to accommodate the dancing. But that only solves one problem: Additionally, as Malina says, "There is no plot except what the dancers convey. We needed to make a connection between the words and the emotions -- strike a balance between a literal and a figurative approach."

What the show's brain trust sought to avoid, he says, was the effect of those early music videos, wherein a singer lip-synchs the words while the song's action is acted out in the background. It takes a little adjustment, he adds, for the audience "to listen to the songs and not think about them literally. At the same time, it helps us that [the audience] sees Brenda and Eddie [two characters named in the song "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"], and knows who they are already."

On paper, this may sound like a reasonable proposition. It's only when translated to the stage that you see the catch: When performed by actors, dancers, and ballerinas, the essential sincerity of rock gets swallowed up by the essential falseness of theater. Movin' Out is a case in point: With its truly inflated sense of high-art-meeting-blue-collar rectitude, it inadvertently proves that rock has no business placing itself outside the context of the radio, the iPod, or the concert arena. Indeed, you could argue that the juxtaposition of rock 'n' roll music with theater -- be it musical comedy, drama, or ballet -- is a sure sign that rock, once a powerful cultural force, has become a bourgeois art form. Even today, the theater is a venue of social power, whereas the nightclub, arena, or stadium is still idealized as the gathering place of the powerless proletariat. In that sense, rock's leap up the social scale may signify a transference of that power, but it does so at the cost of aesthetic judgment.

This doesn't mean that rock has no place in the theater -- it's just that its place isn't exactly musical. Greil Marcus, whose book Lipstick Traces was turned into a play by the theater group Rude Mechanics, posits that the reason rock theater is so bad has more to do with the unspoken bond between audience and performer. "Theatrical theatricality and rock 'n' roll theatricality are completely antithetical," he says. "One can't be translated into the other. You can see this on American Idol, where the gestures are theatrical, not rock." At the theater, he concludes, "The audience is not trusted at all to get anything, so everything is spelled out for them."

Conversely, rock bands and their audiences are on the same wavelength -- they're in on the joke, or the message, or whatever. Meanwhile, these musicals beg the question of what rock music -- if any -- would make a good musical. Mamma Mia, though flimsy, wasn't offensive, and by all accounts We Will Rock You, which features the antics of characters named Scaramouche and Fandango, is good for a few yuks. So, clearly, a kitschy quality is a necessary ingredient in these types of productions: Def Leppard might work (hell, yes, it might work: See page 62), as might Aerosmith or Boston or Morrissey or Britney Spears. The danger signal flares up only when the pilfered music actually means something to people. Joel is on the cusp of being this type of artist, which is why the success of Movin' Out is so frightening: Now the culturally relevant songs of Springsteen, Dylan, Steve Earle, and Johnny Cash could, and probably will, fuel the librettos of upcoming musicals.

For younger fans, Prince, Metallica (!), and even Radiohead could probably eventually suffer the theater treatment, and one waits breathlessly for the first rap musical. (Tupac seems particularly appropriate.) None of these possibilities are desirable: I hate to sound like a purist, but collaboration with other oeuvres has never been rock's strong point. So let's keep Radiohead offstage.


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