Pop Goes the Musical: Musical Theatre Finally Turns on to the Tunes Everybody in the World Has Been Listening to for Years

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THOUGHT THAT, AS WE STEAM INTO THE 21st century, we'd have Abba to thank for rejuvenating the American musical theatre?

Whatever you think--or adore or despise--about Mamma Mia!, give this Broadway phenomenon credit. It has given musical-theatre artists and producers a creative roadmap into rarified territory: mainstream American culture. Thirty years from now, don't be surprised if Mamma Mia!, with its score fashioned from 1970s and early '80s pop songs by the Swedish songwriting team of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, receives its due for putting the "pop"--as in popular--back in theatre music.

As most theatregoers know, for much of the century just past, popular music was theatre music. For the parents and grandparents of baby boomers, music written for the American theatre and performed on stage and on screen served as their generations' MTV. It was the soundtrack to their lives, crafted by such giants as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers.

But these composers are now dead. Most of their original audiences are, too. And for mote than three decades, since the mid1960s, the place to hear a Top-40 tune has been on the radio, not on a cast album. After 1965, only the original cast recording of Hair topped the Billboard charts, hitting Number 1 in 1968. (Remember how Hair was supposed to change the musical theatre? In fact, aside from a few exceptions like Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, it has spawned a string of unpalatable flops, like Via Galactica.)

It's not that Mamma Mia!, which opened in London in 1999 and in New York City in 2001, is the first show to take a composer or group's songbook and fashion a score from it. Over the past 25 years revues such as Ain't Misbehavin' (Fats WaIler), Sophisticated Ladies (Duke Ellington), Eubie (Eubie Blake) and Smokey Joe's Cafe (Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller) have put classic popular songs on stage with some success. The Who's Tommy started life as a "rock opera" confined to vinyl LP until it made the transition to the theatre in 1993 under Des McAnuff's stewardship.

Today, the work of several of pop music's best songwriters from the post-Sound of Music era can be enjoyed in a musical-theatre format, too. The most visible example on these shores is Movin' Out, featuring music and lyrics by Billy Joel, a member of the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, who, by 1994, had as many multiplarinum albums as the Beatles. Movin' Out was conceived for the Broadway stage as a full-length narrative ballet by modern dance choreographer and director Twyla Tharp. Similar projects have been populating resident theatre stages as well. In April, Maryland Ensemble Theatre will debut Planet Claire!, an interstellar fantasy in which the garage-rock party songs of The B-52's are sung in outer space. In Seattle this past fall, the ACT Theatre produced The Education of Randy Newman, which originated at California's South Coast Repertory in 2000. The show culls 40 songs by the composer, who is perhaps best known to the American public for his film soundtracks and 16 Academy Award-nominated movie songs (" You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story, for example), or for his novelty song "Short People" that hit Number 2 on the pop charts in 1977.

This March in San Francisco, American Conservatory Theater's Young Conservatory debuts Forever Young: The Music of Bob Dylan, following on the heels of last year's Dangling Conversations: The Music of Simon and Gar funkel. Created by director Craig Slaight and Krista Wigle, the Dylan show treats each of the composer's songs as a separate mini-script. Also in the Bay Area, San Jose Stage Company originated Michael Norman Mann's Grateful Dead musical Cumberland Blues, which earned national attention, moved to a commercial run in San Francisco in 1998 and has been optioned for London's West End, with a tentative opening slated in 2004. Though rarely represented in the Top 40 (their biggest hit was "Touch of Grey," which topped at Number 9 in 1987), the Grateful Dead was continually one of the highest-grossing live touring bands throughout most of the 1980s and the first half of the '90--until lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died in a rehab unit in 1995. …