There is no contemporary musician who has approached the same level of success Frank Wildhorn has across two fields of music: composing for the theater and writing pop hits.
With “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “The Civil War,” he was the first composer in 22 years to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway, and that record has since been unbroken. Wildhorn wrote Whitney Houston’s mega-hit “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and roughly 150 tunes sung by artists as varied as Kenny Rogers, Natalie Cole, Trisha Yearwood, Patti LaBelle and the Moody Blues.
“But I’m a piano player; that’s how I started,” he says. “And I miss being the piano player. It’s great therapy for me, it gives me great joy and it’s something I really enjoy doing.”
The internationally popular composer brings “Frank Wildhorn & Friends” to the deJong Concert Hall Oct. 3 as part of BYU’s Bravo! Performing Arts series.
“With the concerts, after my years as a writer for theater and in the pop world, I can also explain how I taught Sammy Davis Jr. this and Liza Minnelli that and Whitney Houston this,” he adds. “People seem to enjoy listening to those stories. So the combination of playing with a band again, which I love to do so much, and being able to share those stories has led to this new thing in my life, with ‘Frank & Friends.’ ”
Though a variety of soloists have appeared with Wildhorn, making each concert unique, the BYU performance will be unlike the preceding outings. “This will be the first time for a bunch of things,” he says, including:
- The first performance where he was hired directly by a university to perform, instead of through a commercial booking agency.
- The first time “Into the Fire,” the stirring breakout anthem of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” will be sung with a large chorus of men’s voices at his concert.
- The first time works from his latest show “Excalibur,” which will open in Switzerland in March, will be publicly performed.
- The first time songs will be included from “Bonnie & Clyde,” his last-seen-on-Broadway musical.
While “Jekyll & Hyde” ran for four years on Broadway, his subsequent musicals have struggled to duplicate the long-running, widely sold out success. Wildhorn is highly popular with audiences, but he still gets the cold shoulder from some New York theater critics adverse to his pop pedigree.
Wildhorn is aware that “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is immensely popular in Utah and he lights up to learn that “Bonnie & Clyde” will receive its state première when Utah Repertory Theater Company produces the fan-favorite musical Nov. 8-23.
“I’m so excited that Utah will be able to see ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ ” he says. “The show is very much a bit of Americana and something I’m very proud of. There’s been an enormous reaction to the show across the country. I know ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ is going to have a long life.”
After tryouts in La Jolla, Calif., and Sarasota, Fla. — where it enjoyed large, enthusiastic audiences and received encouraging reviews — the 2011 Broadway production starred the two hottest performers in musical theater, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes, alongside Utah native Claybourne Elder as Clyde’s loyal brother Buck. “Bonnie & Clyde” has received praise for its hauntingly melodic compositions, with rockabilly, jazz and country influences.
And soloists adore his compositions. “This Is the Moment,” the strongest of the songs from “Jekyll & Hyde,” has been recorded 1,000 times by everyone from Johnny Mathis to Dennis DeYoung of Styx and was performed by Jennifer Holliday at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and at the 1994 and 1996 Olympics. Julie Andrews personally called Wildhorn and asked him to write songs for the Broadway adaptation of “Victor/Victoria” after Henry Mancini’s death.
“Somewhere along the way the word ‘pop’ became a bad word when it came to theater,” he says. “When pop music or rock music became the music of the youth of America, every other medium embraced that music except for theater. Of course, there’s always the exception. Once in decade, there’s a ‘Hair,’ but Broadway has generally rejected that music.”
Wildhorn fans, on the other hand, are so legion that they have formed cliques: “Jekyll & Hyde” enthusiasts call themselves Jekkies, the “Scarlet Pimpernel” community is The League and “The Civil War” fans are TCWFans. There are a number websites devoted to his individual works and followers proudly count the number of times they have seen a production, with many numbering well into the hundreds.
“I’m very lucky and grateful,” he says of his following. “When you work so hard for each show, putting your heart and soul into the show while you’re doing it and you have wonderful memories of that show, it’s great to have the shows so widely admired.
“The fact that I’ve been able to have this career of doing theater all around the world and writing songs for such great singers, when I started as a self-taught musician, playing the piano for a living — I don’t know how it happened, but it did.”
If you go
What: Bravo! Performing Arts’ “Frank Wildhorn & Friends”
Where: BYU Harris Fine Arts Center deJong Concert Hall
When: Oct. 3
How much: $10-$20
Tickets: byuarts.com or 801-422-4678
Frank Wildhorn’s “Friends” at BYU concert
The “& Friends” soloists composer Frank Wildhorn will be performing with at BYU’s Bravo! Performing Arts series are:
Jackie Burns launched the first national tour of “Wicked” as Elphaba and then performed this lead role on Broadway. She was in the original casts of the “Hair” Broadway revival and “Rock of Ages.” Burns can also be seen singing parts of “Defying Gravity” for the “Wicked Ultimate Encore 2011.” She received the Connecticut Critics Circle Award for "A Grand Night for Singing."
Darren Ritchie holds the distinction of originating two Broadway roles in Wildhorn musicals: Jonathan Harker in “Dracula” and White Knight/Jack in “Wonderland,” after first playing the part in its Florida world première. Other Broadway credits include “The Little Shop of Horrors” as Orin Scrivello, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” ensemble/Jimmy Smith understudy and his Broadway début as Babet in “Les Misérables.”
Adrienne Warren made her Broadway début as Danielle in “Bring It On” and appeared opposite Ashanti and LaChanze in the Encores’ production of “The Wiz” and was in the tour cast of “Dreamgirls.” She has been the lead singer for Trans Siberian Orchestra and The Dream Machine and plays the role of Dina in the TV series “Orange Is the New Black.”