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Interview with Frank Wildhorn

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Frank Wildhorn is no stranger to the music world and neither are his tunes. His music has been heard all over the world on stages, at national and international special events, and on all-star recordings by such artists as Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Kenny Rogers, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minelli, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, and Pattie LaBelle. And the list goes on.

In 1999, Wildhorn became the first American composer in more than two decades to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Civil War.

Born in Harlem, he moved to Hollywood, Florida, at fourteen. Three years later, he called both California and New York home, traveling back and forth continuously.

His first taste of writing lyrics came in 1977, when he turned up at USC wearing a baseball cap and toting an audio tape recorder, for his first production, Christopher. He was nineteen years old at the time and he's been writing ever since.

Now, the day before full cast rehearsals for his fourth Broadway show, which is scheduled to open this summer, we caught up with a very busy and happy Frank Wildhorn.

Pati Buehler: I have heard you refer to your self as an "ex-jock" who loves his family and writing music. Does that sum it up well?

Frank Wildhorn: That's about it!

PB: Frank, what is the creative difference between writing for theater and writing for a recording artist?

FW: Well, when you are writing for an artist you are trying to get into that artist's point of view. What does that artist want to say? What do they care about? And musically, you want to show off that artist. So, if I am writing for Julie Andrews, that's a very different hat than if I am writing for Whitney Houston. For instance, what kind of rhythm and vowels are they most comfortable with? So I try to make them look as good as I can, and then they'll make me look good, as well.

Writing for the theater is a whole different can of fish. The music now has the responsibility of so many things. The plot could be giving you different views of the character; the emotional highlights of a moment. The music takes on all different jobs and hopefully is part of telling the story. Each song has to be a story unto itself. It's a very different set of muscles.

PB: Some have the opinion that you seem to lean toward the dark side of emotions with some of your work. What do you think about that?

FW: I'm not sure I agree with that. Certainly, I love the gothic literature. It always has such great stories with characters bigger than life and the stakes are always high. And because there's always a wolf at the door, the emotions are high; the romance, the sexuality, friendships, and relationships. You don't know if the guy kissing you one minute is going to bite you the next, or in the case of Jekyll & Hyde, the obvious. This heightens all of the sensibilities and emotions, and therefore, it sings to me. And that's where the music comes from.

But Scarlet Pimpernel was a musical comedy and Civil War was a song cycle about the reason this country is what it is. So I would say I enjoy the kind of characters that allow you to write the dark stuff. I love Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and when I'm writing for Dracula or Jekyll & Hyde, I get a chance to use that vocabulary.

PB: Jekyll & Hyde was really your brainchild from about 1980, long before Phantom of the Opera. How do you feel about the journey it's taken since then?

FW: It's amazing. I wake up every morning and still cannot believe it. It's the gift that keeps giving. There have been almost 30 productions around the world. MTI has licensed about 300 productions in the US. There have been 9 recordings in 7 different languages. This August 24th, the first English tour starts in England, starring Paul Nicholas, the original Jesus Christ Superstar. The music keeps getting recorded and the fans around the world seem to respond the same. As you know, we are starting a whole new world tour with this Jekyll & Hyde in Concert in June. I've never taken this gift for granted. It's a wonderful thing and it's taken care of my family, and then a lot of other people.

PB: Frank, you've been quoted as saying, " I write for theater, not Broadway." Explain that statement, please.

FW: I wrote Jekyll & Hyde and Scarlet Pimpernel mostly in LA and Houston. When I was writing them, I was just trying to write the best theater I could write. I was trying to write with the same kind of accessibility and pop sensibility that I did when I was writing pop stuff. The fact is that Broadway is the major leagues in the Yankee Stadium of theater. I respect that immensely. Don't get me wrong; I want my shows to go to Broadway so each has that flagship saying it's from Broadway. But it's just as important to me, for my show to reach people that don't necessarily come to those five blocks in New York City. And it's very important to reach people internationally, as well. There's a tendency for people in New York to think the world exists between the East and the Hudson Rivers, and I don't share that opinion. To me the world is a big place and I try to reach people everywhere. Listen, if I'm nothing else, I feel I've been a man of the people. I'm not going to pretend to be one of those snobby New York theater people. [laughing]

PB: Are you a Pop Composer for theater, as some have labeled you?

FW: Well, it's all semantics. If Pop Composer means popular then I love it. It's the highest compliment you can give me. It's about sharing your craft with everyone. So if Pop means popular, then I am happy to take that title as a compliment.

PB: Success is a relative word. Do you view your work as a success? And why?

FW: I feel my work is a success in so far as I get to wake up every morning and do what I love to do more than anything in the world. When I was a teenager in a band playing, everything was great. I still don't feel any different. I still wake up with the same love and passion as when I did this with the band. Because my life in music has let me live the kind of life that I've loved, and I've been able to share it with others and take care of the people I love, in that regard, yeah, I feel that we've been a success.

PB: With so many projects you seem to thrive on at one time, how do you know which to focus on, and when?

FW: I get bored so fast. If my life is not crazy and complicated, then something's wrong. I'm happiest when it is, and the fact of the matter is, it's what keeps me fresh. When you have so many projects to nurture, one or two get real excited and raise their hands. The reaction from it tells when it's time and where to go. I usually have about a half a dozen titles in development; researchers researching and people doing cover. I'm exploring musical vocabularies I want to explore, different genres, and constantly reading things. They have a way of taking on their own life. The ones that seem to be ready…they let you know they're ready.

PB: Please give us some details about Dracula.

FW: Well, it's my fourth show in seven years. It previews on July 19th. Yesterday, I went into the Belasco and I just kind of sat there in the balcony as I like to do when a show become real for me on Broadway. It's wonderful! The theater is so gothic. It matches the sensibility of the show. It's also very intimate. The audience is very close to the performers. The show is scary and the scary stuff always works best with an intimacy with the audience. And the show is erotic, and I think erotic always works best when it's close to the audience, as well.

We start rehearsals with the entire cast tomorrow. So you've gotta ask me this question in a couple of weeks again. We're rewriting and tweaking; doing what we do. I'm the junior member of this creative team. Christopher Hampton and Don Black are both Academy and Tony award-winning writers, and I'm just a kid doing my songs, you know.

PB: Have you made a lot of changes since the LaJolla run?

FW: Yes! I would say more than two thirds of changes have been made. And just like Jekyll & Hyde in Houston, to the time we got to Broadway, you just go through the changes. It's just part of this beast. But it's been the same with all of my shows. It's the one thing some people don't quite understand in this change process. The shows in Houston or LaJolla are the very first workshop of that show and we'll work on it until opening night. That's the way it goes. The casting is complete and a new website is up and running. I feel very lucky. Thank God, the material I've written now, and in the past, has attracted some very wonderful and talented people.


DesMcAnuff, Frank Wildhorn, Don Black, Christopher Hampton

 

PB: I interviewed Matt Bogart who told me that Camille Claudel was some of your best music ever.

FW: Matt is a sweet guy and that was a wonderful thing for him to say. We're still working on Camille Claudel, and I still believe it will have a wonderful life as other shows will have in time.

PB: Any plans for Havana or Svengali?

FW: Svengali, I would have to say, is on the shelf for now, only because it's too close to some of these other gothic things. Havana, I have big plans for, but like the commercial, we will serve no wine before its time. Havana is a real challenge because it's not based on any book or movie or source material. It's a totally original piece, and as you can imagine, it' hard enough when it is based on a something. So we're working very hard to make it right.

PB: This is a question from our readers. Dance of the Vampires folded fairly quickly. How have you constructed Dracula for a successful run?

FW: The source material of Dracula is based on the book; a book that has never, ever, been out of print. The popularity of that character is evident in the life it's had in movies and TV. The material is so strong, and that's why it is the godfather or brand name of anything in that genre. Anything other than Dracula in that genre is always a crapshoot. That's one of the reasons I decided to do Dracula. Like Jekyll & Hyde, built into the book was such great source material that I was really excited about it and wanted to write for it.

I don't know what Dance of the Vampires was based on, perhaps that Roman Polanski movie.

PB: Jekyll & Hyde in Concert. What is this all about?

FW: We've kind of re-invented something here, and to tell you the truth, until we put it up in front of people, it's not easy to describe. But I will tell you that Leslie (Bricusse) has done something with Gregory Boyd, the original director, and it's very cool. We're doing it with Rob Evan, as you know, Kate Shindle (Miss America and Lucy on Broadway), and Lauren Kennedy…some of my favorite singers.

The thing I'm so excited about is, yes, it's a concert and, yes, you will get all the big hits. And in fact, you'll get songs you didn't see on Broadway and I think you'll be very happy that I put them in.

The great thing about this is that you can still tell the story even in a concert form. So Leslie, Greg, and I wrote a script that literally tells you the same story from Broadway, but from the very personal point of view of those three characters. So you'll go to see a concert of Jekyll & Hyde, but I think you're going to come out with the emotional impact of getting the story told to you. I think that's the thing that's going to surprise audiences. It's kind of the ambition of this piece. How do we do the concert and at the same time tell the story? We've re-invented this show for these three characters.

We're planning on this having a fantastic international life. What that life becomes or how it works, I cannot tell you because it's in the very embryonic stage right now. I know that the stars that have played this in Vienna, Cologne, Madrid, Bremen, Barcelona, and Tokyo, all want to do the concert. So we do know it will be an international thing. So that's it. We've just started.

PB: My final question may seem a bit silly. But if you and your lovely, talented wife, singer/ actress Linda Eder, for those few who may not know, were not involved in this industry, what might you explore?

FW: Opening a veterinarian clinic! For Linda, the music is something that helps feed the animals.

PB: That doesn't surprise me. That's great! Frank, thanks so much for making time to share some exciting things with us. We look forward to all of your projects.

FW: Thank you much. Take care!


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