Playwright Roger Bean mines musical nostalgia

The jukebox musical looks like it’s here to stay.

Theater snobs tend to roll their eyes when they think of shows that slap together a collection of hits — “Forever Plaid,” “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” “Mamma Mia!” — but the proof is in the pudding. This is one theatrical genre producers can literally bank on.

One reason this genre thrives is a man named Roger Bean, a playwright and producer who has made quite a nice living creating shows that employ Top 40 tunes from earlier eras. One of his creations, “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” began performances last weekend at the American Heartland Theatre.

And if history is a reliable guide, then this show — featuring a superior cast of singer/actresses under the irrepressible and often wildly creative director Jerry Jay Cranford — may turn a pretty penny for the Heartland this holiday season.

Bean, speaking from the offices of his company, Steele Spring Theatrical Licensing, said he accepts the term “jukebox musical” as a description of his work.

“I don’t object to it,” Bean said. “I only object to it when there’s a sneer in somebody’s face when they say it. I do think serious theater people and serious authors say it with a tone of disdain.

“But it is its own genre, and I think audiences love it. I think to discount something beloved by so many people is short-sighted.”

Appetite for simpler times

Indeed, Kansas City has seen its share of these shows in the last 20 years, most of them at the Heartland and the New Theatre. Last year “Buddy” was a huge hit for the Overland Park dinner theater, as was “All Shook Up,” a clever show employing Elvis Presley hits, a few years earlier. The New Theatre was also the first local company to produce “Forever Plaid.”

The Heartland, meanwhile, has also staged “Buddy” as well as “Ain’t Misbehavin,’ ” “Return to the Forbidden Planet” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”

On the mega-commercial scale, the ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!” has played Kansas City multiple times and seems destined to tour for decades. The Broadway Across America series will present one of the hottest examples of the genre in recent times, “Jersey Boys,” based on the career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, at the Music Hall next year.

And on a somewhat smaller scale, Theater League will bring “Million Dollar Quartet,” made up of Sun Studio rockabilly hits, to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

“Right now it’s economically smart,” Bean said. “With the economy the way it is in the country, so many people do want to have a nostalgic feeling for a simpler time, and this kind of musical provides that.”

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a “girl group” musical, employing an imposing list of hits from the 1950s and ’60s, from the dreamy romanticism of “Mr. Sandman” and “Allegheny Moon” to rhythmic hits like “Rescue Me” and “Respect.” In all the show incorporates all or part of 34 songs.

Bean said he directed the show’s initial production as a one-act in 1999 at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. It was so successful that the company invited him back to re-stage it as a two-act piece.

“From there I just kept taking it to little different places,” he said. Ultimately the show ran for more than a year in New York and almost two years in Los Angeles.

“I have done 12 of these shows, and six get done around the country that we license out,” Bean said.

The other shows include “Route 66,” a collection of road songs; “Summer of Love,” celebrating rock classics of the late ’60s; “Winter Wonderettes,” a follow-up to the show currently at the Heartland; and “The Andrews Brothers,” which uses hits from the ’40s.

“I enjoy writing about nostalgia and using nostalgia,” Bean said. “The memory that is brought back by the music of this era is very strong.”

Clearly, Bean employs a formula, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hard work involved. He can’t just cherry-pick the songs he wants.

“We do have to go through a process of contacting the publisher and getting permission from the publisher, and sometimes they have to go to the writer,” Bean said. “There were songs I was not able to get for the show, but every single time I end up finding a better song. There are times when I think the song is perfect, but the publisher doesn’t think so. But now that we’ve been doing these shows for so many years I know which publishers I work with, and which songs and which composers, so it certainly is easier than it was.”

Happy with his formula for now

Bean grew up in Seattle and was raised Mormon. He got his first taste of writing musicals when he and his mother created little shows for church pageants and touring shows. And, no, nobody asked anybody for permission to use the songs.

“I was 14 and had no idea that you’re not supposed to do that,” he said. “I didn’t even realize that’s what I was going to make my living at.”

There’s no way Bean was going to get out of the interview without saying whether he’d seen “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway.

“I have indeed,” he said. “I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. It was very funny. And very irreverent. And I love things that are irreverent and politically incorrect. My shows aren’t like that at all. When someone swears in one of my shows, it’s not even a four-letter word.”

As a writer, Bean might one day depart from the formula with which he has enjoyed so much success. But not right away.

“Everything is possible,” he said. “People have asked me if I will write one with my own music or collaborate with another musician, and I probably will. But when things are working so well now in my career it’s hard to shift.

“I definitely look at it as a career. This is a business. I don’t just make decisions based on those things, but it does come into play. Having so many people see my work is like a drug.

“Maybe in 10 years I’ll write a story I have to tell, and it won’t matter if just 10 people see it. But right now my shows make so many people happy.”