Seattle Repertory Theatre has commissioned a new musical set in the grunge scene in 1990s Seattle, featuring an original, fictional story told with pre-existing songs of the era by acts such as Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.
Some or all of the tunes for the project, currently untitled and targeted for a developmental workshop late this year, will be drawn from BMG’s publishing catalog, which includes the work of Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins.
The question raised by this Variety report is not "how terrible will the grunge musical be?" We all know the answer to that one. Any such show will of course be indescribably terrible—no matter how talented the creators, how noble the intentions—because it will try to make musical theater out of rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll is not merely an aesthetic challenge for musical theater, it's the opposite of musical theater. They are incompatible. They are Thunderdome. Two forms enter, one form leaves. This isn't a value judgment (though I tend to prefer rock, I'm not totally immune to the charms of the odd musical); it's simply a thing that's true.
(The one successful example of the merger I can think of, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, relies on a few mitigating factors: 1) works better in a bar than on a stage, 2) band actually plays live on stage which affects the volume at which the singer sings, which affects everything, 3) glam was the closest rock ever came to theater in the first place, 4) who can predict when genius will happen?)
The original storyline is set in the Seattle music scene in the early 1990s. Wendy C. Goldberg, the artistic director of the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference, conceived the project and will co-create with playwright Matt Schatz, who’ll write the musical’s book. Goldberg will direct.
The grunge movement that emerged from the Seattle music scene in the 1990s has proven enduringly influential. The recent death of Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden frontman who was a significant figure in grunge, recently brought the era back to the spotlight and elicited new appreciation for its music and its key players.
It’s still early days in the musical’s development, with creatives still formulating the wish list of tunes they hope to use to tell the story. From a licensing perspective, the writers of the songs will be counted among the authors of the theatrical production, since the lyrics are being used to tell the story. Final rights approval will come from each song’s copyright holder, often a publisher or a manager.
Grunge songs, even the very good ones, will suffer in the context of the legitimate stage. And not just because people will finally be able to hear the words.
Stage actors' voices are unsuited to the material—physically, procedurally, spiritually. Though musical theater singers tend to be more technically skilled than your average rock vocalist, they also, as a direct result of that technical skill and the demands of their chosen idiom, tend to be nowhere when it comes to the abandon that rock music eventually demands.
I promise I'm not arguing for "realness." I'm in no way suggesting that hard rock music is pure and authentic and can't be acted because it can only be lived, felt, meant, etc. That is simply not true. Rock'n'roll, even punk (and especially metal) is just as much a performed construction as every other piece of art on every other stage.
It's just a different kind of performance, one you can't really do in a theater because it's too loud and unruly, and too constrained. Rock musicians are penalized when you can see them act, because their job is only to play themselves.
More to the point, these songs may not be true in the literal sense, but they're not written for actors. They're written to be sung by the person who wrote them. That person's perspective, faults, values, humor, sorrow, etc. are often the real subjects. In many ways the songs act as delivery devices for the singer's persona, which often engaged in an intriguing dance with his/her "real" self, divided by their work as a performer and a recording artist and a celebrity. And, much of the time, crucially, as a guitarist.
Which is to say that when Kurt Cobain sang "aqua seafoam shame" it mattered—a lot—that every line he'd ever even considered writing had been exhaustively wrung out by the significance police for every minute of the previous two years. The line is a response to that, and to the rockstar's impulse toward profundity, and to the audience's hunger for it, and to his confused desire to satisfy both, and to his ultimate belief in mischief as one of rock'n'roll's key ingredients.
An actor will never, ever be able to resist the urge to act the line, to wring significance or sincerity from it. An actor will always try to make you see the aqua seafoam, to let you know she feels the shame.
Acting these songs out will result in an unqualified, colossal disaster.
Break a leg, though.