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Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn visits Pioneer Theatre Company ahead of U.S. professional premiere of musical ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’

SHARE Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn visits Pioneer Theatre Company ahead of U.S. professional premiere of musical ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’

SALT LAKE CITY — Long before there were Jersey boys and super troupers, before Broadway shows were “Movin’ Out” and “All Shook Up,” a record producer brought a musical with a unique pop sound to New York and caused a bit of a stir.

“When I first came to Broadway, I was the ‘pop guy,’ and that was not a compliment,” said composer Frank Wildhorn. “Back then, guys like (producer) David Foster said, ‘Frank, you’re like the first wave on Normandy: You’ll take a lot of shots, but you’ll establish something.’”

That show was “Jekyll and Hyde,” a musical adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” It opened on Broadway in 1997 after a successful trial run in Texas and a national tour.

“The critics didn’t hate ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ — we had quite a few great reviews — it’s just that they dismissed it,” Wildhorn said. “It sounded pop. I was from the pop world, and the theater community didn’t like that. … Next thing you know, of all the shows that opened that year on Broadway, so many closed, and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ was still running.”

Later that year, when “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “The Civil War” also opened on Broadway, Wildhorn became the first American composer in 22 years to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway. Time magazine, Forbes and 60 Minutes were all doing stories on the “pop guy” turning Broadway on its ear while keeping his other foot firmly planted in pop music, running Atlantic Theatre, a division of Atlantic Records.

Wildhorn has always been a bit of a renegade, preferring to do things his way, “by feel and gut instinct.”

And that’s what brings him to Utah.

Wildhorn is ready to showcase “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a recent work that has played to sold-out houses abroad. Pioneer Theatre Company is staging the U.S. professional premiere of the sweeping epic, which is based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name and will run May 6-21 at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre.

“I made the decision five or six years ago. I love this show, I’m proud of this show, but it was not the right time to take this show to New York,” Wildhorn said after ducking out of a PTC rehearsal to chat. “This type of musical — big, sweeping, melodic, romantic dramas; big costume shows — is not what’s hip on Broadway right now. But it’s funny: The two longest-running musicals, ‘Phantom’ and ‘Les Miz,’ are exactly that.”

Wildhorn has grown to love his visits to Utah. He’s become a mainstay of Brigham Young University’s Bravo! series. BYU also produced the first U.S. production of “The Count of Monte Cristo” last year after Wildhorn worked with the school’s musical theater students in various workshops.

“PTC’s production is not the same as BYU’s, and it’s important for the fans and audience to know that,” Wildhorn said. “This is another chapter in the development, and I’m hoping it’s another chapter for me if Karen (Azenberg, PTC’s artistic director) wants to develop shows with me.”

“Marica (Milgrom Dodge), the director, and Karen had some great ideas,” he said. “There is no propriety to good ideas. We add things, we make cuts. They’re wonderful — they’re both forces of nature.”

Wildhorn is happy to have connections at two major universities in Utah.

“I love the energy of combining students and local professionals,” he said. “You have a nice talent pool to draw from, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. My stuff is not the easiest to sing, and I require an enormous amount of passion.”

There is plenty of that in “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The musical is a swashbuckling classic tale of romance, betrayal and revenge. The story follows Edmund Dantes, who is falsely accused and imprisoned just before his wedding is to take place. After managing to escape and secure a hidden fortune, he returns home to exact revenge on those who wronged him.

“I’m a history major and a philosophy minor from USC,” Wildhorn said. “I love historical stuff. I love historical literature. I’m not going to write ‘Hairspray’ or ‘Legally Blonde’; other people do that fantastically. I’d rather think, ‘How do I take something that’s been around a long time and make it hip for our kids?’”

It doesn’t take much time with the self-taught musician to realize Wildhorn had “hip” figured out long ago. His Dallas Cowboys ball cap and jeans are casually misleading, portraying an average joe persona — a tough gig for someone who has penned music that has seeped into American culture.

Wildhorn wrote “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?,” a No. 1 international best-selling hit for Whitney Houston. His songs have been recorded by almost every major recording artist, from Natalie Cole to Kenny Rogers and from Sammy Davis Jr. to Amy Grant. He wrote the Olympic theme “Gold” for the 2002 Winter Olympics hosted in Salt Lake City. And his song “This is the Moment” has become an anthem in its own right, recorded by numerous artists and performed at the Olympic Games, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the World Cup, Miss America pageants, the 1996 Democratic National Convention and the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

But the self-described “ex-jock who writes tunes” said he feels more lucky than anything.

“I’m very much the opposite of what you’d consider a Broadway composer,” he said. “I grew up a blue-collar songwriter working for a publisher, and if people didn’t like my songs, my kids didn’t eat. I still have moments where I stop and think, ‘What?!’ I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Content advisory:According to PTC’s website,”The Count of Monte Cristo” contains brief language, sexual innuendo, alcohol consumption and “major sword fights and other staged theatrical violence, but nothing that would frighten even young children.” The theater recommends the show for general audiences and children over the age of 10.

If you go ...

What: ”The Count of Monte Cristo”

When: May 6-21, 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees

Where:Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East

How much:$40-$62 in advance, and $5 more when purchased the day of the performance; tickets for kids in grades K-12 are half-price on Mondays and Tuesdays

Phone: 801-581-6961

Web:pioneertheatre.org

Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."