From Cher to Donna Summer to Tina Turner to...: Crafting a Successful Bio-Musical (Exclusive)
By Leigh Scheps
Who says no to Cher? Broadway writer and producer Rick Elice did several times when the Goddess of Pop asked him to write her biographical Broadway musical.
The timing wasn’t ideal for Elice, whose husband, longtime actor Roger Rees, had just passed away from brain cancer. “I got another call from Cher and she said, ‘It's time for you to rejoin the human race,’” Elice recalls to ET about one of their initial conversations in 2015 about getting the show off the ground. “Bless her heart. She persisted, and I found her irresistible.”
Elice flew out to California in October 2015 to spend a week with Cher at her Los Angeles home, writing down all the stories she told him: about growing up in El Centro, California; collaborating with Bob Mackie on her heavily sequined costumes; and marrying both Sonny Bono and Greg Allman. Those memories would later become the pages of the book for The Cher Show, which begins preview performances Nov. 1 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
The biggest challenge for Elice was writing Cher’s story in a way that feels as “fresh, exciting and thrilling” as her performances. “The scope of her life is so well-documented and has been for 50 years. So what could I tell an audience?” Elice asked himself as he began to transform the singer’s life into a musical that features over 30 songs from her catalog.
“You have a larger-than-life performer like Cher, with a great story and a really broad song catalog,” director Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) says, explaining why the singer’s story makes for a good Broadway musical. “It sort of lends itself to exactly the kind of show biz tale that you’d want to see.”
It’s that larger-than-life appeal that explains why many life stories about famed singers and music groups are being retold on Broadway, bolstering an ever-growing genre of shows: the bio-musical. While not a new concept, these biographical shows are a variation of the traditional jukebox musical, which takes existing (often popular) music and sets it to an original story. (For example, Head Over Heels, currently on Broadway,pairs the music of The Go-Go’s with an Elizabethan-style comedy.)
Cher joins a growing list of stars authorizing their personal stories and music for the stage, including the current productions Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and Summer: The Donna Summer Musicaland a number of past shows, most recently about the origins of Motown (Motown: The Musical), Gloria and Emilio Estefan (On Your Feet!: The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan) and the biggest hit of them all, Jersey Boys.
About the formation and eventual breakup of The Four Seasons, Jersey Boys opened on Broadway in October 2005 at the August Wilson Theatre and ran for more than 4,600 performances before closing in 2017. The show was adapted into a 2014 Clint Eastwood-directed film, has toured all over the world and is now playing Off-Broadway at New World Stages in New York City.
“I would have been happy if it was just a successful play for whatever the length of time most plays last on Broadway,” Frankie Valli, the lead singer of The Four Seasons, says humbly. “I never in a million years would have dreamed that it made the impact it did today.”
Elice, who co-wrote the Jersey Boys book with Marshall Brickman, believes it was the group’s untold story that made the show a juggernaut. “There was a lot of surprise for the audience, who would come because they loved the music,” he recalls. (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” are some of the group’s recognizable hits featured onstage.) “Nobody had an idea about what a show about The Four Seasons would be. They would leave having been told a great story.”
“When [audiences] come to Jersey Boys, they're kind of reliving something that they think they know but the story is filled with all kinds surprises,” adds director Des McAnuff. “Most people probably don't know anything about [members] Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi. If they know The Four Seasons, they probably know Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, because he wrote the songs.”
After Jersey Boys, McAnuff turned to directing Donna Summer’s story on Broadway; the Tony Award-nominated production is currently running at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. “There’s a benefit to being able to use the highlights of an artist’s career, because you have fantastic material to work with,” McAnuff says of the 100-minute production, which ends with “Last Dance,” usually getting audiences up on their feet as they sing along to the final number. “A combination of fantastic songs, story and people celebrating their own lives -- that's a very powerful concoction.”
Unlike Jersey Boys, which is told in a more traditional linear narrative, “[Summer] jumps from one period to another, and they're not necessarily consecutive,” McAnuff says of the show, which features three actresses portraying the singer at different stages in her life. The current cast includes LaChanze as Diva Donna, Ariana DeBose as Disco Donna and Storm Lever as a young Duckling Donna. “It’s sort of a no-brainer, especially when it comes to these legendary artists that have so much material and so much storytelling,” says book writer Colman Domingo of the three-actress format.
The Cher Show also uses this model, with Micaela Diamond as the youngest, Babe; Teal Wicks as '70s Cher, Lady; and Stephanie J. Block as a later version, Star. “All three Chers are on stage the whole time. You're getting the useful point of view of the time it happened and you’re also getting the point of view of the 50-year-old Cher, who has wisdom,” Moore says of his approach.
While the familiar sound of these famous artists’ music may be why these bio-musicals get produced, it’s the “emotional connection” that resonates with millions of fans when they step into the theater, explains Elice.
“It's just wonderful to see how great music affects any generation,” Beautiful book writer Doug McGrath says of watching countless audiences respond to the songs. “I'll be in the back of the house and one of the love songs will start. You see husbands and wives taking their hands as opposed to reaching for each other's necks.”
Many have fallen in love with Beautiful, about the life of singer-songwriter Carole King (now portrayed by Abby Mueller, sister of original star Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony Award for her performance) because the “story and songs merge in a way that makes a very inspiring and potent emotional mixture,” McGrath explains. Beautiful, which opened in 2014 and is still running at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, also focuses on Carole’s husband Gerry Goffin and the couple’s best friends, Cynthia Weil and Ben Jacoby. It features some of King’s classics, including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “You’ve Got a Friend.”
“You hear the songs not just as pop songs and nostalgia, but as the expression of real human feelings,” says McGrath. “It's not just: the story stops and there's a song and then the story picks back up.” He wanted the songs connected to what was happening on stage and blend with the action. “When Carole finds out she's pregnant, she’s afraid Gerry’s going to break up with her because of the news. He says, ‘Well, we should get married.’ She feels so rescued at that moment, and the next song they sing is ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.’”
When Gaudio saw Beautiful, he “didn’t think of it as anything like Jersey Boys.” Instead, he considers it its own piece. “If you’re going to do a similar genre, you better find the way to do it and I think they did,” he says.
In Jersey Boys, the musical numbers are performed contextually, not theatrically, explains Elice. “When it’s time for a song, the characters turn to the microphones and perform the songs as they would have performed them in the club, stadium or recording studio, which casts the audience in the role of the audience.”
“I prefer not to be repetitive,” explains McAnuff of how he directed Jersey Boys and Summer differently. “Every story is unique and therefore needs a distinct structure. I would hate for this stuff to become formula.” His next project is Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, the story of R&B group The Temptations, set to open on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre next spring.
“Each show is different because they all faced different challenges along the way while achieving their success,” says choreographer Sergio Trujillo. Ain’t Too Proud, written by Dominique Morisseau, will be Trujillo’s fourth bio-musical, following Summer, On Your Feet! and Jersey Boys, and his third working with McAnuff.
Following The Cher Show, there are a number of new bio-musical productions in the works. In addition to Ain’t Too Proud, Michael Jackson’s life and music is being adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (Sweat) with an eye for a 2020 debut. And Domingo has co-written the book for Lights Out: Nat "King" Cole, which is set to open in Los Angeles at the Geffen Playhouse in February 2019. “I want people to examine Nat King Cole, and by the time we get to ‘The Christmas Song,’ they will never think of that song the same way again because they will have to look at the price Nat King Cole had to pay in order to sing that song,” Domingo says. The goal is for the show to reach London first, then Broadway.
Meanwhile, Tina: The Musical is currently playing at the West End in London before a scheduled transfer to Broadway next fall. The show tells the story of the life and career of Tina Turner, who is portrayed by Adrienne Warren.
The actress, who once performed “Proud Mary” with Turner, speaks to the singer regularly, checking in and getting advice. “There is no trick to her trade. It’s just about doing the work and working hard,” Warren says of embodying the Queen of Rock n’ Roll.
“To actually try to be exactly like the character is a very difficult thing,” explains Valli. “You can get six actors to play a part and they’ll all add a little something in a different way.”
One potential pitfall of the bio-musical “is to make sure the actors don’t mimic the original artist,” Moore notes, adding that after attending out-of-town performances in Chicago, Cher told him: “[The actresses] all look like me and kind of sound like me. They can be more of them.” The feedback, he says, “was very empowering.”
In addition to the actors not imitating their real-life counterparts, Moore says what’s performed onstage can’t sound exactly like the original recording, or “you start to call too much attention to the fact that you're imitating.” While putting together The Cher Show, he tried to find orchestrations that varied from the source material.
Perhaps the most challenging part of telling Summer’s story onstage, Domingo admits, was not “sterilizing” her story. “We wanted to get to the source and the frailties of a real, living, breathing human being who was not only an icon but a mother, a friend, a sister dealing with very ordinary things like any other ordinary human. I think it was about making sure that we uphold her.”
Time can also be a burden for bio-musicals, because only so much of someone’s journey and music can be covered within a standard-length show, which usually runs between 90 minutes and two hours and 45 minutes. “When a director is directing something, he is carefully going through things so he can tie things and make things move,” Valli says of his experience on Jersey Boys. Much of the backstory and personal lives surrounding the four main characters were left out simply because of time constraints.
For The Cher Show, audiences’ expectations about what the show should cover poses a challenge for the creative team. “There's no lack of drama in Cher’s life,” Elice says. “You have a little bit more than two hours to tell [her] story, and more than half of that is going to be music because the music is why people are coming. So that means you have an hour to tell the story of someone who has been famous for 50-plus years.”
“People expect to see certain things, but we can’t deliver all that. We have to create what makes the most dramatic sense,” Moore says, and Elice adds, “So you hope that you choose right. You’re pleasing 10 million people for every million people that you're annoying because this song is not in it, this episode of her life is not it or this event isn't being dramatized.”
With all that said, Valli sums it up best: “Who knows what the real formula is to a success whether you’re making records, movies or plays on Broadway? Everybody shoots for the stars. Hopefully you fall somewhere in there and occasionally you get more than a little bit lucky.”