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With 'Billy Elliot,' Elton John again proves he's a theatrical writer

Elton John, theater composer.

That's right, isn't it time to start considering the rocket man in the same league as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jerry Herman, Irving Berlin and other musical theater giants?

After all, John has written the scores for Broadway smashes like the The Lion King, Aida and now Billy Elliot, The Musical, which racked up more Tony Award nominations than any other production this year. But at some level, he still isn't taken entirely seriously for his show music. He'll always be most loved for Philadelphia Freedom, Crocodile Rock, Bennie and the Jets and other monster hit singles.

I think John has been writing theatrical music all along, starting with albums from his 1970s golden age, including Tumbleweed Connection, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. With a few tweaks here and there, any of these concept albums might have been turned into a musical.

Unlike most rock songwriters, John's music is piano-based, he frequently uses orchestral arrangements, and he has a Tin Pan Alley sort of relationship with his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin (there's even a lyric about the "tin pan alley twins'' in Bitter Fingers from Captain Fantastic). Sounds like a theater guy to me.

Recently, I tried out my theory on Tom Moon, author of 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, a compilation of savvy little essays on the essential albums. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is his choice from John's catalog. The double album starts with the 11-minute suite Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding).

"The way Goodbye Yellow Brick Road opens makes the argument for Elton as a musical theater thinker,'' Moon said. "Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding) is campy, and once you've heard it a few times it's not as impactful, but it's still pretty powerful. They're setting up a theme there. Before any vocals happen, there's a long instrumental. You could see that on stage.''

At some point in the 1970s, John and Taupin were bitten by the bug of wanting to do more than just crank out hits. Perhaps they were inspired by The Who's Tommy, the first successful rock opera. There was another possible influence, I think, in the now largely forgotten movie O Lucky Man!, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Malcolm McDowell as a coffee salesman. It had a terrifically inventive rock soundtrack by Alan Price, former organ player for the Animals, who functioned as a kind of Greek chorus in the film.

Moon thinks the autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy could be the most musical-like of the John-Taupin albums.

"It's probably not a clear narrative arc from first song to the last, but it's pretty close,'' he said. "And it is theatrical in the sense that there's none of that arena rock stuff on the record like Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting or Bennie and the Jets. The ballads take their time to develop. There are musical motifs that recur in weird ways. You hear little bits of melody come back from song to song.''

Many pop and rock songwriters have tried their hand at musical theater, including Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Jimmy Buffett and Barry Manilow, but only Pete Townshend, with The Who's Tommy, has matched John's success. And not all of John's shows have been hits, though even the clunkers have interesting touches, such as the droll duet by him and Newman, It's Tough To Be a God, in the 2000 animated movie The Road to El Dorado.

The Lion King is a great score for both the movie and the stage musical, and it was significant that John's partner on it was lyricist Tim Rice, who knows his way around the theater from the shows he did with Lloyd Webber. The Lion King had the benefit of additional music by South African composer Lebo M. John. and Rice also collaborated on Aida, which rocked harder but was less satisfying.

Billy Elliot was a challenge because the music had to live up to the 2000 movie soundtrack, which featured wonderful songs by T-Rex, the Clash, Style Council and the Jam, not to mention Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. In some ways, it is John's most impressive theater work, because the surprisingly modest, workmanlike pop and folk score serves the story, rather than calling a lot of attention to itself.

Of course, Billy Elliot does have some big, flashy numbers, such as Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher, a thundering denunciation of the former prime minister, and the powerhouse Solidarity. This is Elton John, after all.

Of all the rockers from the 1960s and '70s, John was not necessarily the one you would've predicted to last so long, yet here he is, still a creative force at 62.

"I think that Elton is one of those people you just can't count out,'' Moon said. "As he's reinvented himself, he's managed to find his way back to his strengths. Some of his records were not incredibly consistent all the way through, but they were still interesting records. I always want to hear what he does next.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He writes for Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

With 'Billy Elliot,' Elton John again proves he's a theatrical writer 06/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 11:33am]

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