Pete Townshend and The Who did it. Phil Collins did it badly. Duncan Sheik did it brilliantly. Billy Joel sort of did it. And Elton John does it every other day.
Now it’s time for Ben Folds to make the leap and write a Broadway musical.
The 42-year-old Folds should be a massive pop star, up therein the pantheon with piano men Joel and John, but because the world is the way it is and the music industry is the way it is and radio is the way it is, Folds has to be content being a superstar to millions of geeks, dweebs and sensitive rockers.
Folds performed Thursday night at the Warfield in San Francisco (read Jim Harrington’s concert review here) to support Way to Normal” his third solo studio album since leaving his trio the Ben Folds Five, and the concert offered even more proof that it’s time for Folds to put his considerable songwriting skills in service of telling a story.
From the dawn of the Ben Folds Five in the mid ’90s, it has been clear that Folds has the troubadour gene. He’s a showman (just watch him bash his piano, climb on top of the piano, manipulate the piano strings and lead the audience in horn section sing-alongs) and he has a penchant for character songs.
Even his titles are littered with character names: “Julianne,” “Where’s Summer B?,” “Alice Childress,” “Uncle Walter,” “Kate,” “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” “Eddie Walker,” “Emaline,” “Tom & Mary,” “Jane,” “Annie Waits, “Zak and Sara,” “Fred Jones Part 2,” “The Ascent of Stan,” “Losing Lisa,” “Carrying Cathy,” “Gracie,” “Give Judy My Notice,” “The Secret Life of Morgan Davis,” “Dr. Yang” and “Kylie from Connecticut” to name just a few.
In that group above, Folds has even written a show tune. Just listen to “The Secret Life of Morgan Davis,” an obscure track off a CD single, and visions of lights in Times Square twinkle, and you can just imagine a guy in a top hat dancing in front of glittery show girls. Except if you listen to the lyrics, that wily Ben has written the tale of a degenerate man who spends his nights ingesting drugs, cavorting with sex workers, vomiting on himself and then slipping home in the wee hours so he can put on a tie and go into the office.
But that’s Folds in a nutshell. He’ll conform to a style only to bash it from the inside out.
Which is all the more reason he should write a musical. Reportedly Folds is collaborating with British novelist and music writer Nick Hornby on an album. That’s exciting, but they should have been the ones to turn Hornby’s High Fidelity into a Broadway musical. The version that actually opened in New York (by Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and David Lindsay-Abaire) was exactly the kind of musical that the characters in the show would make fun of and loathe. Hornby and Folds would have invented the real thing because they get how funny, emotional and snarky music can be – all at the same time.
Folds has succumbed to the Hollywood thing without much success. He contributed songs to the computer animated Over the Hedge, and neither his work, nor the movie itself, was anything more than minor. It was all so constrained, and the family friendly aspect of it removed all of Folds’ bite. He even sanitized his great satirical rocker “Rockin’ the Suburbs” for the movie, and it’s just silly (even with the vocal contributions of Folds’ friend William Shatner).
To make his debut on the Great White Way Folds doesn’t even have to start from scratch. He can take his first solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs, and build a song cycle about people in the ‘burbs from its 12 tracks. The album contains two of Folds’ most heartfelt ballads (“Still Fighting It,” a love song to a firstborn child, and “The Luckiest,” a truly great love song) and some of his most arresting character work. Throw in some tracks from Songs for Silverman (“You to Thank,” “Jesusland”) and Way to Normal (“Cologne,” “You Don’t Know Me”) and you’ve got the basis of a really interesting show.
Billy Joel’s musical consisted of Twyla Tharp stringing songs of his together and using dance to tell a story, but that wouldn’t work as well with Folds. His songs require actors and back story and goofy intensity that’s not quite up to the grace and power of dance. Whatever show Folds eventually writes will undoubtedly be funnier than The Who’s “Tommy.”
Folds is at that point in his life and career – he’s on his fourth marriage, has two kids and can continue making records and touring for as long as he wants – where he can make some choices. In addition to the Hornby project, Folds is reportedly putting together an album of a cappella groups from around the country.
But a Broadway musical would give him an entirely new experience. He would get to invent his own version of the form and, if successful, the show will continue generating income for decades as regional and community theaters perform it well into the 21st century and possibly beyond. And what aging pop star doesn’t want a little respectable immortality?
Here’s Folds with the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra performing “Zak and Sara”: