Frank Wildhorn is the Rodney Dangerfield of musical theater. Like the late comedian, Wildhorn "don't get no respect" from theater critics, especially those in New York. Last year, he had two Florida-spawned flops on Broadway, Wonderland and Bonnie & Clyde, and there was a nasty personal edge to some of the coverage that pummeled the shows. But that hasn't stopped the prolific composer.
"Millions of people have seen my shows, the people I write them for," Wildhorn said recently when asked if he thought that critics had it out for him. "Because there are a few vanguards at the gate that seem to have a problem with me? No, c'mon, you can't even go there. You can't wake up in the morning and be the best you are if you're thinking about what people are going to write about your work. How could you get up and have the freedom to create if you felt like that?"
Indeed, Wildhorn is resilient. His most popular musical, Jekyll & Hyde, has a new production that is on a tour that opens an eight-performance run Tuesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, which produced Wonderland, with disastrous results, as the show lasted only a month on Broadway.
The Straz Center, under its president and CEO, Judy Lisi, put a lot into Wonderland, including more than $3 million from a bay area investment group. The show had two pre-Broadway runs in Tampa, as well as another at the Alley Theatre in Houston. But Wildhorn and his collaborators, director Gregory Boyd and book author Jack Murphy, never managed to come up with a coherent take on the Alice in Wonderland story to go with the catchy pop-rock score.
"A lot of good intentions there didn't come together the way they should have," said Wildhorn, adding that he has not been in touch with Lisi since the musical closed in May 2011. "I am ever grateful to Judy for what she gave birth to, the chances she took to do it and put her neck on the line."
Wildhorn, speaking from Los Angeles, where the Jekyll & Hyde tour had a tryout in September, was reluctant to divert attention from that production, which is scheduled to go to Broadway in April. But he did venture a thought on what went wrong with Wonderland.
"You know how eclectic that score was, right?" he said. "Well, that was on purpose. I wanted to write an eclectic score, because my attitude was that once you get to Wonderland, you have that freedom, and I loved having that freedom as a composer. If I was starting the show again today, knowing what I know now, I'm not sure I would have written as eclectic a score as I did. I'm not sure I wouldn't have made it in one style. I think it was hard for some people to get themselves around such an eclectic score."
If it's any consolation to supporters, Wonderland is going to be staged in Tokyo, opening Nov. 18. "The story of Wonderland is still to be written around the world," Wildhorn said. "It's going to have a life, those songs are going to have a life. People in Tampa should be proud of it."
Away from Broadway, Wildhorn has developed an international market for his shows, such as Cyrano, The Count of Monte Cristo, Tears of Heaven and others, in Europe and Asia.
Bonnie & Clyde, which had a pre-Broadway production by Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, didn't run any longer in New York than Wonderland, but at least it did receive a couple of Tony Award nominations. Its director, Jeff Calhoun, is also directing the Jekyll & Hyde revival, which has American Idol finalist and Rock of Ages star Constantine Maroulis in the schizophrenic title role.
Jekyll & Hyde was Wildhorn's first and most successful musical, originally playing on Broadway from 1997 to 2001. It has enjoyed remarkable success on disc, with five recordings made, three of them featuring the composer's muse and ex-wife, Linda Eder. The latest recording, released in September, features Maroulis and Deborah Cox as the prostitute Lucy. (Tampa teenager Shannon Magrane, an American Idol contestant last season, sings the part of Nellie on the album.)
"I wanted it to be dangerous and sexy," said Calhoun, who has changed Jekyll & Hyde from an essentially all-sung musical, in the pop-operatic style of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, to one with more spoken dialogue between the songs.
"I've jettisoned a lot of the recitative that was big in the '80s, when this show was first written," Calhoun said, using the operatic term for sung speech. "When you get rid of the recit, it really frames these wonderful songs better. Nothing muddies them. Your ear doesn't get numb with music. When a song happens, you listen differently."
And the songs are the thing in Jekyll & Hyde, which includes several that have been pop hits, notably This Is the Moment. The song — it occurs in the musical as Jekyll prepares to take the potion that turns him into Hyde — has been covered by many performers, from the Moody Blues to Donny Osmond. Olympic figure skater Paul Wylie did a routine to it.
"This Is the Moment has a very different take in this show, because Constantine is a high tenor," Calhoun. "We usually associate Jekyll, if you listen to all the albums, with high baritones."
Calhoun, whose Broadway resume includes the current hit Newsies and revivals of Big River and Grease, is baffled by Wildhorn's treatment as the critics' punching bag. "It just breaks my heart the lack of respect that people with pens give him," he said, calling from London where he was staging Dolly Parton's 9 to 5: The Musical in the West End. "I don't for the life of me know why, because very few people can write songs like Frank."
He marvels at the composer's perseverance. "He has an indomitable spirit. Like most people who are brilliant at what they do, he just keeps going. With a Frank Wildhorn show, the only people that like the show are the audience. You can write whatever you want about him, but you're not going to rob him of his God-given talent."
Even with his dismal track record, Wildhorn continues to find a home for his shows. This month, Zelda: An American Love Story, the latest incarnation of his long-in-development musical (it had a workshop at Tampa's Broadway Theatre Project in 2003) based on the relationship of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, is playing at the Flat Rock Playhouse in Asheville, N.C. (Zelda died in a fire at a mental hospital in Asheville in 1948.)
Wildhorn believes he will ultimately be redeemed.
"The most an artist can ask for is the chance to be heard," he said. "Producer after producer and record company after record company have given me the chance for my voice to be heard. I'm very grateful for that. Look at Bizet. He went to his grave thinking that Carmen was a total failure. Time has a way of working things out."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.