Frank Wildhorn – the Broadway composer who never gives up

Marti Pellow in the UK touring production of Jekyll and Hyde by Frank Wildhorn. Photo: Simon Fowler
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Frank Wildhorn is a curious Broadway anomaly as a composer: he's scored no less than six Broadway musicals since his solo composing debut there in 1997, and contributed additional songs to one more two years before that, making him easily Broadway's most prolific provider of new musicals of the last 20 years.

In 1999, he became the first American composer in 22 years to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway. Yet none has turned a profit, and not one has transferred to the West End.

His first original musical to reach Broadway was Jekyll and Hyde in 1997, which chalked up a run of some 1,543 performances in a run of over three and a half years, but its dismal revival last year, by contrast, managed just 30 performances. I've seen every single one of his Broadway entries, including both productions of Jekyll and the two versions of The Scarlett Pimpernel that played Broadway consecutively (it was shut down and re-opened in entirely "revised" version at the same theatre), which could be said to be a triumph of hope over experience; but there's also something deeply compelling about Wildhorn's resilience and populist repertoire.

And also about his tuneful songwriting: he may not (yet) have written a good show, but he can definitely pen a good tune. And that's no surprise: his pre-Broadway pedigree was as a songwriter for people like Whitney Houston (he wrote her number one hit 'Where Do Broken Hearts Go'), Trisha Yearwood, Natalie Cole and Kenny Rogers.

So his scores always have robust, rousing melodies, but there's also something generic and lacking in dramatic character and colour in them. They also tend to get swallowed up in the grand, invariably operatically overblown epic sweep of the productions they're written for and first heard in.

Yet I've also got an increasing and sneaking regard for him, born of seeing his shows in far more intimate settings. A couple of years ago I saw an amazing production of Jekyll and Hyde at the Union Theatre in Southwark, and as I wrote here at the time:

The surprise for me was how an apparently mediocre musical suddenly blazed with new life. (A follower immediately begged to disagree when I posted that verdict on Twitter: “There is nothing ‘mediocre’ about Jekyll and Hyde. Its one of the great musicals ever written.”) Actually, I’ve never objected to the score: the original Broadway cast recording has always been a guilty pleasure. Wildhorn knows how to write great melodies, but there’s always been a mismatch between the contemporary-sounding score, with its American Idol style ballads (not least of them ‘This is the Moment’) and its period setting. That problem is instantly solved by director Luke Fredericks by setting Morphic Graffiti’s production in the here and now too, giving it a real intensity and amplifying both its clarity and feeling. It is also greatly helped by the calibre of performances in this tiny space.

Those performers included Tim Rogers and Madelena Alberto, the latter of whom is now to be found headlining the current tour of Evita, which re-opens in Oxford tomorrow.

And last night, I caught some stars of the future in Wildhorn's Bonnie and Clyde, when I saw its British premiere at ArtsEd in Chiswick being presented by its amazing third year musical theatre students. Again, a change of scale did real wonders for a show that was horribly overblown when I first saw it during its short-lived debut on Broadway two years ago in December 2011.

It had opened there in the immediate wake of another Wildhorn flop Wonderland, and as a New York Times feature at the time articulated, its producers had trouble raising the financing as a result. Kathleen Raitt, its lead producer, told the paper,

Wonderland just kneecapped us, in a way I’d never seen spill over from one show to another. I couldn’t blame investors for having cold feet, given Frank’s experiences on Broadway, but his music for Bonnie & Clyde is so good that we were able to finally raise the money.

As the New York Times commented,

 If ever there were true believers in a polarizing artist, they are Ms. Raitt and her partners on Bonnie & Clyde. This is Mr. Wildhorn’s seventh Broadway musical since 1995, a track record largely lacking in critical admiration and Broadway profitability, though investors have made money on international productions of his shows. Still, the Bonnie & Clyde producers stood by Mr. Wildhorn this summer and fall as Broadway executives and musical aficionados kibitzed, on blogs and over drinks, wondering why anyone would put money into another Frank Wildhorn musical. The answer, several of the producers said, was that if they sat and listened to the Bonnie & Clyde music and did not know the identity of the composer, they would be ready to write checks for a production. Learning that the composer was Mr. Wildhorn, then, involved facing down self-doubts in their own taste and steeling themselves against reflexive naysayers.

So Wildhorn's reputation is now, paradoxically, his biggest handicap. As Jerry Frankel, another producer of the show, commented,

 A lot of veteran producers didn’t want to join us because of Frank’s reputation, and thought I was crazy to. But producers put money into show music they have an emotional reaction to, because they find themselves humming it and imagining audiences will. All of us heard this show’s music and had to choose between trusting our gut and fearing bias against our composer.

Wildhorn himself was ever-hopeful at the time, telling the paper:

 I think this show could be the one, I really do. Usually my assistants look out for me and say, ‘Frank, you don’t want to read the press, you don’t want to read the blogs.’ But so far they’re saying, ‘No, it’s O.K., read it.’

However, it turned out to be yet another failure, running just 36 performances. But the great thing about the theatre is that the end is not necessarily the end, just a new beginning. And last night I saw Bonnie and Clyde claim a new life – not at the end of a shotgun, as its title characters blast a murder-strewn path across Depression-era Texas, but thanks to a creative team led by director Shaun Kerrison and choreographer Bill Deamer who lend it a detailed intensity and vigour and rigour, as opposed to the dramatic torpor that quickly set in on Broadway.

The ArtsEd cast perform it, too, as if their lives depended on it; you could say that their careers do, since of course they will be seen by many industry professionals and casting agents in it. But the utter professionalism of this company yet again shows how great the training here is. (To declare an interest, I teach at the school myself – though I've not taught the 3rd year students!)