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It’s a Great Time for Roots Music on Broadway

Jun 10, 2024

It's a Great Time for Roots Music on Broadway

Utter the phrase “Broadway musical” and most folks are likely to assume you’re referring to the jazz-hands-inspiring works of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein; the emotionally manipulative drama of Andrew Lloyd Weber; or the inventive playfulness of Steven Sondheim. But folk and roots music have a long legacy on the great white way — and a bit of a folk boom has been happening in those storied theaters lately.

Granted, Broadway producers have long presented shows that pull in the music of roots-informed artists. Folk-pop singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik delivered a stunning musical score for the groundbreaking Spring Awakening, cementing the careers of Broadway stars Lea Michelle and Jonathan Groff back in 2006. Let’s not forget brief runs of musicals that pulled from the catalogs of Dolly Parton (2009’s stage adaptation of 9 to 5) and Bob Dylan (Girl from the North Country, which debuted in 2020).

Of the shows currently occupying midtown theaters, Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown has run the longest, having just passed its five-year mark. With eight Tony Awards from its 2019 debut, the musical pairs the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with that of Hades and Persephone. Though its original cast has scattered to other projects, beloved folksinger Ani DiFranco spent a bit of her winter and spring this year offering a stunning run as Persephone.

It's a Great Time for Roots Music on Broadway

Ani DiFranco and Anaïs Mitchell outside the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Fans may know DiFranco trained for many years as a dancer, even as she was building her singer-songwriter street cred. She proves to be a triple threat in the role, embodying the storied arbiter of summertime with a deeply rooted, empathic swagger. And though her June 30 departure feels like the end of an era for the musical, her latest album Unprecedented Sh!t (released May 17 on Righteous Babe Records) charts some new sonic territory via her political POVs.

Further, it’s hard to mourn DiFranco moving on when it was recently announced that British country favorite Yola will replace her in the role of Persephone, beginning July 2.

Hadestown was briefly joined last year by fellow roots musical Shucked, which came and went too soon. Awash in silly corn puns and Tampa-centric storyline, its earworm score was penned by Nashville mainstays — and Grammy darlings — Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally.

Last month, Illinoise opened at the St. James Theater on 44th St. Pulling tracks from Sufjan Stevens’s sprawling, ambitious 2006 album of the same name, the show reorders the songs to depict a group of friends sharing stories around a campfire. There is no dialogue. Instead, a 12-piece band and a trio of vocalists in magical butterfly wings perform the music in the background.

Upstage, Illinoise tells its stories through exquisite choreography that runs the gambit from lyrical contemporary to hip-hop, some sweet Broadway jazz, and even one number (“Jacksonville”) with a lightning-fast tapper in pinstripes. Dancers touch on love and loss, fear and transcendence.

“Zombies” becomes a scene about the immigrant experience, as dancer Jeanette Delgado (“Jo”) tries to outrun the ghosts of America’s founders, whose complex legacies still haunt the present day. “The Man of Metropolis” becomes a comical superhero-themed character romp. And former Billy Elliot star Ben Cook (“Carl”) delivers a heartbreaking and inspired series in Act II to track an emotionally complex love triangle.

By show’s end, there is a pervasive sense of the opportunity art grants us to transcend our selves and build a better world together. It’s no wonder the show was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. If it wins, it will be the first time a dance musical has won the prestigious award.

The Outsiders, meanwhile, is running now just one block away, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. It sets to music the novel by S.E. Hinton, which was immortalized in a 1980s film by Francis Ford Coppola. Produced in part by Angelina Jolie, with a book by New York theater fixture Adam Rapp (Wolf in the River, The Sound Outside) and music by Americana mainstays Jamestown Revival, this musical version unfortunately doesn’t measure up to the other two roots musicals in the neighborhood.

Granted, perhaps it doesn’t have to. The Broadway League and American Theater Wing don’t seem to be anything less than impressed, having nominated the musical for a whopping 12 Tonys this year. It may not translate seamlessly to the Broadway stage, but The Outsiders is a story that has been beloved by numerous generations. It was a treat to witness members of Generation Alpha giddy with excitement to take in the narrative arc of Ponyboy and the other Curtis brothers — a story that feels to this writer as though it’s rooted in Gen X sensibilities, despite being set in the 1960s.

Choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman was athletic and stunning — plenty of leaps and jumps and long, denim-clad legs spinning in the air like human helicopters. The Kuperman brothers’ martial arts background comes through even beyond the inventive dance-fight scenes. There is water on the stage, somehow, and it splashes up from time to time, for some reason. It doesn’t matter why. The effect is properly dramatic.

Brent Comer, who plays “Darryl,” steals the show with his powerful Zac Brown-reminiscent twang. He has some of the most compelling solos, embodying the exhaustion of a stay-at-home-mom as he folds clothes and laments his lot in life, “somewhere between brother and father” since their parents died. Jason Schmidt as “Sodapop” matched his rootsy musicality with the second-act heart grabber, “Throw in the Towel.”

But it is Joshua Boone’s “Dallas” who is perhaps the show’s greatest revelation, with his Bill Withers-esque vocals on solos like “Little Brother.” Brody Grant as Ponyboy seemed a bit lacking during the matinee performance this writer recently caught, but it could have been an off moment. Eight shows a week requires almost superhuman amounts of energy reserve.

Or perhaps it was a side effect of Grant being in his 20s while his character is supposed to be 14. Indeed, despite the electricity of The Outsiders’ score and choreography, the script doesn’t feel as authentic as its emotional realities demand. Hinton’s book offered readers a revolutionary view of teen struggles, written by a teenager. Perhaps the Broadway show should have brought in some teenagers to consult.

Regardless, both Grant and Boone were nominated for Tonys (as was Sky Lakota-Lynch, who delivers a haunting performance as Johnny). For folks just interested in what Jamestown Revival did for the show’s score, an Original Broadway Cast Recording is available now.

All told, there is no indication Broadway is going to break its love affair with roots music anytime soon. The Avett Brothers are set to make their Broadway debut with shipwreck-themed musical Swept Away this fall. The show has previewed in California and Washington, D.C., and has received critical praise already. Swept Away’s score is drawn from the Avetts’ 2004 album, Mignonette, plus four other songs from their canon — a treat for the band’s incredibly loyal fanbase and Broadway subscribers alike.

Further on the horizon is an adaptation of the classic labor movement-inspired film Norma Rae, with music by Rosanne Cash. In an email, her manager indicated a possible 2025 opening. One can only hope. And, just last week, Dolly Parton announced an upcoming original musicalHello, I’m Dolly, set to arrive on Broadway in 2026.

The 77th Tony Awards will be held on Sunday, June 16, 2024 and will air on CBS. Find out how to watch here.

Playbill images courtesy of Playbill.com

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It's a Great Time for Roots Music on Broadway
It's a Great Time for Roots Music on Broadway