Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Wildhorn

Frank Wildhorn.

The composer of musicals such as Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Dracula, Bonnie & Clyde... The composer I love to hate and hate to love. I rave about his musicals and watch them time and time again. I travel to foreign countries for them. And if you ask me, I will let you know that I detest them, loud and clear.

In this post, I try to explain what is going on with this love–hate relationship.


I've been a musical fan for about eight years. For most of that time, Frank Wildhorn's shows have had a place in my collection of cast recordings.

I can't even remember when I bought my first recordings of Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula and Rudolf, it's been such a long time. For years, though, I only enjoyed them as music. I popped the CDs into my player every now and them, hummed along Facade or Zu ende, but didn't ever bother finding out what the musicals are about. They were enjoyable showtunes for me, nothing more.

It was the closing of the first Finnish production of Jekyll & Hyde in 2014 that finally pushed me over the edge. Trying to fill the hole the production left, I delved deep into Wildhorn's work and actually started watching his musicals.

After marathoning through a slew of bootlegs, me and my friend compiled the bingo you can see above.

Frank Wildhorn has collaborated with multiple lyricists and writers. So how is it even possible all of his shows feature the exact same clichés and weaknesses? Whatever source material he works with will be mangled beyond recognition as the creative team removes layers of depth and characterisation to make way for a forced love triangle.

There is a lot to criticise when it comes to these shows, but my least favourite thing is Wildhorn's women.

Wildhorn's musicals aren't the only works of musical theatre that feature stereotypical portrayals of women. But the way these musicals depict ladies is especially egregious – all the women ever talk about is the leading man. Talented actresses often do wonders with the roles, but the material they have to work with... The character may be called Emma, Mina, Mary or Marguerite, but since all she does is pine after her man in a generic manner, it feels like we're seeing the same character again and again. Boo.

It's annoying how fond Wildhorn is of depicting love triangles. Whether it's a lady trapped in between a bad guy and a good guy, or a dude who gets to choose in between two shades of bland, Wildhorn's musicals are always certain to feature half a dozen boring love duets. So boring they're sometimes literally interchangeable in between musicals. (See: Only Love from The Scarlet Pimpernel / Only Love from Rudolf)

Lucy and Hyde ready to duet. Jyväskylän kaupunginteatteri, 2015.
Photo by Jiri Halttunen.

Love duets aside, the music is the saving grace of these musicals. When Wildhorn's music is good, it's fantastic.

One of my favourite musical songs of all times is Alive from Jekyll & Hyde. You don't even have to listen to the words. The joy of being alive, the feeling of being Edward Hyde, is all there in the melody. Many of Wildhorn's faster-paced tunes are amazing like that: full of energy, telling us all about the character and their outlook on life. I love his energetic villain songs and rousing ensemble tunes. Sometimes, the whole score soars. Listen to Dracula for an hour and a half of perfection.

What's more, I often like the subjects Wildhorn picks. His musicals are oftentimes based on classic works of literature, on stories that are full of drama, memorable characters and fascinating themes. There are plenty of intriguing aspects to these musical adaptations, even if they often turn out a bit garbled.

For me, a part of the charm is imagining how the shows could be made better. There are plot holes and silly clichés, but often, it seems like just removing a song or adding a line or two of dialogue could do wonders. The scripts of many Wildhorn shows have indeed been edited multiple times. With five or six script editions out there, Jekyll & Hyde has been work in progress for the past 30 years.

But even without rewrites, there is so much potential to these musicals. If the cast and crew really put their hearts to it, almost any Wildhorn musical's positive qualities can and will outshine the bad. (I say almost – I'm unsure if Rudolf can ever be salvaged.)


Sometimes, actors and directors can make inventive decisions that lift their production way above the source material and really make you think. See, for example, my review of the recent Danish production of Jekyll & Hyde. With imagination, the gothic fairy tale was turned into a haunting exploration of cause and effect.

For a production like that, I'll sit through a hundred of those boring love duets.

Mina and Dracula ready to duet. Theater Pforzheim, 2012.
Photo originally from the theatre's Facebook.

My least favourite Frank Wildhorn musical is Rudolf – Affaire Mayerling. It's awful, depicting double suicide as the height of romance. Focusing on Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria's death that is also portrayed in the 1992 hit musical Elisabeth, Rudolf (2006) seems like an attempt to cash in on the earlier musical's success. The plot is distasteful, historically inaccurate and illogical. As fellow blogger Laura puts it, this musical sucks.

And yet, and yet... I haven't one but two dream casts for Rudolf, all depending on the turns my imaginary direction takes. I can't stop thinking which of my favourite actors would be perfect for the musical's roles.

Rudolf's music is gorgeous, and despite (or because of?) all its awfulness, it's so much fun thinking of how the show could potentially be improved. I sincerely hope no theatre in a thousand-mile radius as much as thinks of producing the musical. Yet in my heart I know if it ever comes to that, I won't hesitate boarding a plane and flying to any of the neighbouring countries to see the musical's Nordic premiere. 

And indeed, the best thing about being into Wildhorn's musicals is that they take me on adventures.

Sometimes, literal adventures: soon, I've traveled to Germany twice to see them. Sometimes, they brighten up my life in other ways: I have first encountered some of my all-time favourite actors via Wildhorn's musicals. What's more, the shows are such a fun subject to diss and discuss with likeminded friends, to dreamcast and to speculate about, to blog and to draw fanart about. It feels so good to be passionate about something.

For me, despite all their faults, these musicals are inspiring.

Two women duet about loving a man. Bingo!
Det Ny Teater, 2016. Photo by Miklos Szabo.

I still haven't listened to all of Wildhorn's recorded musicals.

When it's good, it's brilliant, but a little of Wildhorn usually goes a long way. So I'm saving treats such as the demo recording of Svengali and whatever Sound of Music decides to add to their Frank Wildhorn shop next for the right moment. It's a special sort of mood I need to be in when delving into a new Wildhorn show, a mix of excitement and calm, curiosity and patience.

When I have familiarised myself with a new show, however, I tend to listen to it lots. So, to finish off this blog entry, I've compiled a little playlist of my Wildhorn favourites for you.

Ranging from unironically gorgeous to nonsensical-yet-entertaining, from pure musical perfection to awful-in-content-but-beautiful-in-tune, each of the songs on the list has some quality that I admire in Wildhorn's work.

Starting here:



I want to end with two questions to all readers who are familiar with Frank Wildhorn's work.  

What are your favourite Wildhorn musicals and songs? Do you have some show or tune you (love to) hate?  

Please share your thoughts with me in the comments!

Related reading: My Top 5 Frank Wildhorn Disappointments, The Beginnings of Jekyll & Hyde

4 comments:

  1. I've only seen two Frank Wildhorn musicals, though because of your love (love-hate?) for them, I'm eager to go if there are ever any near me. I especially would like to see Jekyll and Hyde again, because I'm certain it can be done better. The one I saw... made me feel like I was being dragged into Hell. And that's not a compliment. I'd love to see it done in a smaller theater; I tend to like those better than the big theater productions. I did really like Bonnie and Clyde.

    I like your playlist! "Falcon in the Dive" is one of my favorites, too. I'd also include "I Need to Know" from Jekyll and Hyde. The one that Anthony Warlow sings. Gets the blood pumping.

    Speaking of listening to recordings, have you heard the Jekyll and Hyde concept album with Colm Wilkinson? I found it at a used book shop a few years ago, and really couldn't resist buying it. I really like it, and I could share if you want.

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    Replies
    1. Heheh, glad to spread the love(–hate)! ;)

      Do I remember correctly and you saw Jekyll & Hyde US tour with Constantine Maroulis? I've seen some video of that, and ooooh boy, no wonder you feel like that. They made a lot of really baffling decisions. Hope you'll get to see another, better production someday!

      Thanks! :) I'm not wild about "I Need to Know" because I think it slows down the beginning of the show (though it's a good tune) – but I do like Anthony Warlow. That concept recording featuring him is fantastic.

      Yes, I have listened to it! I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it's interesting, showing the show's evolution. On the other hand, I just can't see Colm Wilkinson as Jekyll/Hyde – his voice is so unique, it just doesn't match my vision of the character. But it's an interesting recording nevertheless!

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    2. Yes, the US tour is the one I saw. Bluh.

      Haha, I don't know if I can see Colm Wilkinson as Jekyll/Hyde either, honestly. But I like listening to him sing the songs. Some of those songs... he doesn't even sound like himself.

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