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Can Pop Musicals Bring New Audiences To Broadway?

Pop singer Sara Bareilles (right) shares a moment with Jessie Mueller, star of the new Broadway musical <em>Waitress</em>, for which Bareilles wrote the score.
Pamela Hanson
Courtesy of the artist
Pop singer Sara Bareilles (right) shares a moment with Jessie Mueller, star of the new Broadway musical <em>Waitress</em>, for which Bareilles wrote the score.

Pop music is having its moment on Broadway. The hip-hop musical Hamilton has been a smash hit, and two new shows with original scores by pop stars are opening this week: American Psycho, whose score was written by Duncan Sheik, and Waitress, whose score was written by Sara Bareilles.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and star of Hamilton, points out that a few generations ago, people listened to covers of Broadway tunes on the radio.

"Musical theater in the 1940s and '50s was the popular music — it was jazz," he says. "You would go hear a Cole Porter song on the radio, and then you would go spend 10 bucks to buy a ticket, hear that song on Broadway that night."

Billboard magazine's Keith Caulfield says it wasn't just covers: People listened to cast albums, too. My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music and Hello Dolly! actually topped the Billboard charts in the 1950s and '60s.

"It was a normal occurrence to see musical shows on the charts," Caulfield says. "They ranked alongside Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra back in the day."

But that day has long passed. Leaving out dedicated musical theater fans, showtunes haven't necessarily been on most people's playlists in recent years. Then, last fall, the cast album of Hamilton came out.

"The album debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 albums chart," Caulfield says. "That was the highest debut for a cast album since 1961. So that already tells you something. And since then, it has sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States."

It also hit No. 1 on the Rap Albums chart. Now, for comparison, Beyoncé could probably sell 300,000 copies in a week, but Hamilton's numbers are still huge. And producers are hoping that a new crop of shows can use pop to bring in Broadway audiences.

Duncan Sheik became a pop star with the hit song "Barely Breathing" in 1996. He says pop music is a good thing for Broadway.

"It just broadens the audience hugely, and it brings younger people into the theater, which is vitally important," Sheik says. "It's how the medium will stay alive and thrive."

Sheik says American Psycho -- both the 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis and the 2000 movie starring Christian Bale — has rabid fans who are not your usual Broadway crowd. The story is about a Wall Street one-percenter and his status-obsessed friends. There's a lot of blood. Sheik admits he thought it was an odd idea for a musical, until he reread the book and was inspired by its satire and its 1980s setting.

"I also saw the possibility of doing a piece of musical theater where the score was completely electronic," he says, "and where the band in the pit, so to speak, could be like Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode."

On a completely different end of the pop-music spectrum is Sara Bareilles, who first became popular for her 2007 hit "Love Song." Bareilles has written the score for Waitress, which is based on an indie film set in a Southern diner. She says that, in a way, writing for theater is what she's always wanted to do.

"So many people that I know in my industry are people who grew up loving musical theater," Bareilles says. "For me, it wasn't an intentional left turn away from it: My career happened to go down another road. And now that this opportunity has arrived, it's like, oh my gosh — I'm so excited to be back in the theater."

And, Bareilles notes, her loyal fan base is packing the theater every night.

"That has been really satisfying for me, to get feedback online or through my fan community, of people who have never been to the theater before," she says. "And they're coming — some of them — just as fans of mine, but also curious about this new project. It's sort of outside the box for me, and they are being introduced to a whole new medium."

Having pop stars write for Broadway is not a bad idea, Billboard's Keith Caulfield says. But, he cautions: For every hit, there are several flops.

"It's not always necessarily going to work," he says. "Just because we're in this moment right now where Hamilton is doing gangbusters on Broadway does not necessarily mean that any other show that kind of has a pop feel is going to be a huge success, as well."

But even against tough odds, there are more pop stars with Broadway shows waiting in the wings — including one by Sheryl Crow, who has written a new musical based on the film Diner.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.