Friday, July 9, 2010

Trends of the First Ten Years: The "Idol"ization of Broadway

A little show called American Idol swept the nation this past decade, and with it came the flurry of televised talent show competitions.  It is pretty likely that the best musical show on television, Glee, wouldn't be on  if shows like AI hadn't paved the way for singing and dancing on the tube.  And Broadway has largely benefited from the show (and now seems to be giving back with Glee) with several Idol alums trodding the boards to varying degrees of success, but definitely bringing a new audience to the Great White Way.  And who knows?  Maybe a few of those newbies will become lifelong theatre fans as a result.

How much longer this trend will continue is up in the air as the show is starting to show signs of fatigue, and the Idols themselves struggle to achieve hit singles.  In fact, as I write this comes news that several of the American Idol Live! tour dates have been cancelled.

And while the theatre community has benefited from the show, I still take exception to the negative sneer of the judges who say that a singer is "too Broadway."  What exactly does that mean?  Even if all it means is that the "Broadway sound" isn't what they are listening for in a specific genre, to say it like "Ew! You have cooties!" is just wrong.  Still, they have had show tune nights, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has checked in.  How about we send in some heavy hitters like Stephen Sondheim or Michael John LaChuisa?  The judges often moan about a lack of artistry.  Having the contestants try to do one of their numbers would certainly separate the wheat from the chaff!

Then, too, there is the unfortunate by-product of the Idolization of Broadway.  The histrionic singing style that many of the Idols adapt makes for a good show in three minute bursts.  But the public now thinks that is the only kind of "good" singing there is, and they expect it from their shows - just look at Wicked or this year's Tony winner, Memphis.  But what works in a three minute burst is much harder to sustain for two hours eight times a week.  Right, Fantasia?  I wonder if that's why, by and large, the runners up can handle the Broadway grind, and the winners seem to struggle in any venue that requires more than a sound bite of exceptional quality.  (Anyone who saw Taylor Hicks in Grease! knows what I'm talking about.)

Well, for better or for worse, American Idol has definitely influenced a trend on Broadway this first decade of the new millennium.  Here are some of those Idols turned Broadway babies:

  • Fantasia Barrino - Played just over half of her contracted performances in The Color Purple.

  • Josh Strickland - Played the lead in Disney's Tarzan, to some acclaim for its entire run, rarely missing shows.  He now headlines Jerry Mitchell's Peep Show in Las Vegas.

  • Constantine Maroulis - Plays the lead in Rock of Ages, and also appeared in The Wedding Singer.  He earned a Tony nomination, does vigorous campaigning for the show, plans to head the National Tour, rarely misses a show, and still found time to father a child with one of the chorus gals in the show!  I wasn't impressed with his performance, but I gotta give the guy credit - he is sure a committed guy.

  • Ace Young - Replaced actors in both Grease! and Hair.  Everything I've seen of him says he could make it big on Broadway with just the right vehicle.  Get in line, Ace!  But stick around!

  • Diana DeGarmo - Replaced actors in both Hairspray and Hair, earning solid to rave reviews.  She is reportedly still starring in the upcoming revival of Godspell.

  • Frenchie Davis - A long-running RENT refugee, she lent a lot of style to many charity events over the years, and still managed those impossible notes in "Seasons of Love."

  • Ruben Studdard - Toured the country with Davis in a revival of Ain't Misbehavin'.  That cast recording was Grammy nominated.

  • Taylor Hicks  - According to my avid Idol fan friends, Hicks is the most dubious of winners.  And if his, um, performance as Teen Angel (how could anyone mess that up?) in Grease!  is any indication, it is no wonder.

  • Tamyra Gray - Replaced actors in both RENT and Bombay Dreams.  Shakalaka, Baby!

  • Clay Aiken - Came to Broadway in an unlikely (for his persona, anyway) vehicle, Spamalot.  He came here and came out.  Everything I've heard about him on stage has been positive.  Maybe there's a role for him in Godspell?

  • Jennifer Hudson - One of the most talented and gracious performers from the show gets honorary mention here because she took her less than top 5 finish and parlayed that into a singing and film career, including Broadway favorite Sex and the City: The Movie and an OSCAR for playing Effie in the film version of the Broadway classic, Dreamgirls.  Anytime you want to, Jennifer, please join us!

And finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the imminent arrival of Jordin Sparks (one of my personal favorites) in another of my personal favorites, In the Heights, shown here with soon to be former star of the show, Corbin Bleu.

Thank you, Simon and crew for sending your cast-offs (and a winner or two) our way.  Like it or not, American Idol, a cultural phenomenon has had its effect on a cultural mainstay: Broadway.

Comments?  Leave one here or email me at


  1. I have seen Taylor Hicks performance in Grease and it was one of the best. He has a fantastic voice and stage presence. He received great reviews in almost every city he was in. He was on the tour because he was so successful in New York that they made a special deal with him and he was able to keep the seats filled on a very long tour. Plus handling all the publicity for the show. Dominic Fontaine who played Vince thought Taylor had one of the best voices he had ever heard. Whenever Taylor was not there , sales slipped. He did an excellent job of making the role his own as it is a signature role. Just a great performer.

  2. I missed your second remark. What are you talking about? There is no harder working Idol than Taylor. He not only did the show but all the news shows in each town. Hes barely taken a day off in 4 years. Whether it was 10 years on the bar circuit or 2 in Grease, no one can handle a grind like Taylor. Oh, and Grease earned him a cool 3.5 million also. Not bad.

  3. Hi Tyrpentine!

    First, let me apologize for not posting your comments faster. I may write something that is posted everyday, but I do not monitor comments 24/7.

    I am so pleased that you took the time to respond to my blog. I cut the duplicate and posted the other three, though I'm not sure where the one is where you commented using the quote from the Washington Post is. But let me respond to that one with just two words: GLORY DAYS. The Washington Post's reviewer is largely responsible for sending that show to its one night stand on Broadway, an event so embarrassing that that reviewer issued a written retraction/apology for his hyperbole. And their 2nd and 3rd stringers have even less clout.

    As for what you have said above, I am thrilled that you find Mr. Hicks' talents to be comment-worthy. And, yes, he packed 'em in, and yes, he worked hard. But the truth is, ticket sales and hard work don't mean you are good.

    When I saw Mr. Hicks on tour, he appeared and the crowd went wild. By the time he finished, there was a smattering of applause and several -I'm not exaggerating - boos. As for the guy who introduced Hicks for his after curtain encore (the actor who plays/played Vince Fontaine is/was Dominic Fortuna), his introduction at the show I attended included your exact phrase, "one of the greatest voices I've ever heard." Who is Mr. Fortuna? What are his qualifications to make such a statement, beyond a scripted introduction? Again, at the performance I attended, most of the audience was gone by the time Mr. Hicks finished is new "hit song."

    I'm thrilled to learn that he made such cool money for 3 minutes in a show (+ an embarrassingly ego-driven 5 minute encore). It must have soothed the pain when the album he was promoting sold a whopping (as of 7/10/10) 45,000 copies, peaking on the Billboard charts at #58. Those sold-out shows did not translate to record sales it would seem.

    Thanks again for taking so much time to write me three times for this blog. As you can see, I do publish responses that disagree with my point of view. Just give me a chance to do so.


  4. Hello Jeff!! Really you are so off base as to be laughable. But whatever. I do not often reply to these sort of blogs but there was one thing about yours that bothered me more than it normally would. That was the fact that you lied. You don't like Hicks, fine by me, thats certainly your right. The Grease cast was impressed with him at his club shows that he was doing at the same time as Grease. But that was them and not you. But the thing you lied about was that anybody that saw him would agree with you and of course they do not. Thousands came to see him and enjoyed him as he is very talented, the world does not share your opinion , so that is a lie. And I think you owe someone an apology for that.
    I also think his album, sold quite well for a first time independent doing all work and publicity for himself. And if I had it to do over I would have sent you an email rather than call attention to your very unimportant blog.
    I don't know or care about Glory Days, and that was only one of many, many good reviews. I remember one that said he could teach the rest of the cast about stage presence. But I really don't care what you think , the problem is you lied.
    Oh, and Dominic is just a talented man who knows a lot about music. Certainly as qualified as you are.

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