We almost got a Star Wars musical
The story of a boy, a girl and a universe almost made it to Broadway.
Considering the massive impact Star Wars has had on pop culture, it’s almost hard to believe the tale of a young farm boy with big dreams hasn’t been turned into a big-budget Broadway musical at some point.
In fact, George Lucas has tried to do exactly that.
(Twice, that we know of.)
First, a recommendation — if you’re not listening to Rebel Force Radio’s Star Wars Oxygen podcast, you should be. I came to it late, but sound designer and voice actor David W Collins and co-host Jimmy Mac’s quasi-monthly analysis of the music of John Williams has become my favourite Star Wars podcast, beating out a crowded field of contenders.
Earlier this year, the show broke from its usual format to feature an interview with musical genius Robert Lopez, the co-creator of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon and the composer of the songs in Frozen (including, yes, Let It Go).
Lopez is one of only 12 people in history (13, if you include Tracy Jordan) to complete the EGOT — he’s got an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony — and he’s also a massive Star Wars fan.
During the interview, Lopez casually dropped a bomb that seemed to go largely unnoticed at the time, but is absolutely worth discussing — George Lucas tried to make a Star Wars musical with legendary producer Harold Prince in the ‘80s.
Prince, who collaborated with musical theatre titans Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber on shows like Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, contacted composer Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic the Musical) about bringing Star Wars to the stage, at Lucas’ request.
Lopez heard the story from Yeston himself while he and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez were studying under the composer at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York City.
“[Yeston] was trying to tell me and Kristen about how some things don't go your way, but they always find a way,” Lopez told Star Wars Oxygen. “So he started off the story with, ‘Okay, so, Harold Prince calls me, it's nineteen-eighty-blah-blah-blah, and he says, ‘I just got a call from George Lucas, and we're going to do a Star Wars musical’’. I think it was the early '80s. I think it was right after Nine came out.
“So he said, 'Okay, I went right to my piano and I wrote, Look up there, way up high / One day soon, I will fly'... it was something like that, I may be butchering it. But it was that tune, right? It was Luke's 'I Want' song. So then the next day or the next week or something like that, Harold Prince called and said, 'You know what, that Star Wars thing, forget about that, that's not happening'.
“And then [Yeston] got a job for Disney, he was doing some animated movie about a pigeon, and he used that same theme... he was like, 'Okay, I got this, I got the song’. Look up there, way up high / One day soon, I will fly… And then that got shelved. And then it was, like, 10 years later that Titanic the Musical came along and he grabbed it and he was like, 'That's a good tune, I'm going to use that'. But it started out as Luke Skywalker's Binary Sunset moment, his 'I Want' song.”
The ‘I Want’ song is the moment in a musical when the protagonist sings about how dissatisfied they are with their life, and reveals their innermost dreams and desires. (The term was actually coined by Lehman Engel, the founder of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop where Yeston taught Lopez.)
“The main character, who you're supposed to get behind, they express what they want in a song,” Lopez explained. “And if it's done right, you, the audience, get behind that character. The audience invests in them. It's like Part of Your World in The Little Mermaid, or Somewhere That's Green in The Little Shop of Horrors... they're wonderful.
“I think the Binary Sunset [musical cue in Star Wars] took a very dour moment, a dread-filled moment, and turned it into the 'I Want' song of Star Wars… [Luke] awakening to the call of what he really wants, looking up at the stars like that, that is the 'I Want' song of the Star Wars musical, which is Star Wars, the movie that we know. You don't need to make it a musical because it already is one."
This line of reasoning makes sense. John Williams’ music for Star Wars is so evocative, so powerful, so iconic, that any attempt to replace it with new music would fall flat, and any attempt to add lyrics to the existing score would cheapen its impact.
But George Lucas gave it at least one more try, just to be sure.
In the late ‘90s, Lucas approached composer Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie) and lyricist Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie) to work on a Star Wars musical. The duo had already collaborated on the ill-fated Superman musical, It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman in 1966, so they went into the project with their eyes wide open.
“First of all, we were given a 90-page contract with [Lucas’] company, and my lawyer discovered a phrase in there which gave Lucas the right to say, ‘I don’t want to go on,’ so we pulled out, but Lucas gave us extra money — I remember the sum, it was $10,000 — to sign,” Strouse told The Wicked Stage in 2008.
“And so we wrote around five songs, when indeed he did call the contract. He never heard the songs, as far as I know. He decided he was going to do the sequels instead.”
Luckily, a couple of demos from this iteration of the Star Wars musical — orchestrated by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years) — survived, and have been immortalised on YouTube.
Just as Yeston ended up using elements of his abandoned Star Wars musical in Titanic the Musical, Strouse and Adams were able to rescue a song called My Star from their abandoned Star Wars project for use in Marty, their musical version of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1955 film.
Lucas never did end up getting Star Wars to Broadway — but the last film he developed at Lucasfilm before selling the company to Disney was a musical.
2015’s Strange Magic was a jukebox musical featuring new versions of pop and rock songs chosen by Lucas. It wasn’t exactly a success — reviews were almost uniformly negative and it grossed less than $15 million worldwide — but at least it scratched Lucas’ musical itch.
Of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a prominent Broadway connection — Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, co-wrote and performed Jabba Flow (the song played in Maz Kanata’s castle) with JJ Abrams.
This December, Lin-Manuel Miranda will release The Hamilton Mixtape, featuring covers and reworks of songs from Hamilton.
One of the tracks on the album, Immigrants (We Get the Job Done), features a verse from Riz MC — the hip hop alias of Rogue One star Riz Ahmed.
Ahmed even managed to drop two Star Wars references into his single verse.
Ay yo aye, immigrants we don’t like that
Na they don’t play, British empire strikes back
They beating us like 808’s and high hats
At our own game of invasion, but this ain't Iraq
Who these fugees what did they do for me
But contribute new dreams
Taxes and tools, swagger and food to eat
Cool, they flee war zones, but the problem ain't ours
Even if our bombs landed on them like the Mayflower
Buckingham Palace or Capitol Hill
Blood of my ancestors had that all built
It's the ink you print on your dollar bill, oil you spill
Thin red lines on the flag you hoist when you kill
But still we just say "look how far I come"
Hindustan, Pakistan, to London
To a galaxy far from their ignorance
Lin-Manuel Miranda, by the way, is likely to be the next member of the exclusive EGOT club — he’s already got an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony, and he could add an Oscar to his mantelpiece next year for his work on Moana.
Believe it or not, he went to the same elementary school and high school as Robert Lopez.
The Force, man. It really does bind the galaxy together.