Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn brings life to hit manga ‘Death Note’ on stage

by Matthew Hernon

Special To The Japan Times

Frank Wildhorn, the man responsible for bringing a batch of literary classics to the stage (“Jekyll & Hyde,” “Dracula,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel”), is taking on the popular manga series “Death Note” as his latest project.

A gothic tale of murder and deceit, it’s the kind of story that’s made for the 55-year-old composer.

“Until I was approached to do it, I’d never heard of ‘Death Note,’ but I was immediately intrigued,” Wildhorn tells The Japan Times while visiting the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory in Tokyo. “My son told me I had to do it as it would be the coolest thing I’d ever done. As I started looking through the material, I soon realized what he meant.”

For those who don’t know “Death Note,” the Tsugumi Ohba manga centers on a high school student who owns a supernatural book that has the power to kill. It was first published in December 2003, soon selling tens of millions of copies. The success led to numerous spin-offs including a short novel, TV series, video game and three live-action films — the first of which topped the Japan box office for two weeks. Wildhorn is hoping for similar success with his musical adaptation, which is being directed by Tamiya Kuriyama and stars Takeshi Kaga and Teppei Koike.

“It’s a dark and edgy story that asks great questions about our place in this universe and the way we can be corrupted by power,” he says. “It reminds me of a modern version of ‘Jekyll & Hyde.’ The characters are larger than life and there’s a fantasy element thrown in as well with the shinigami (death gods), which is really exotic for me. It’s the kind of show I love to make and I think I do this kind of thing well; I’d hire me to do this.”

Wildhorn rose to prominence in the 1980s writing music for the likes of Natalie Cole and Kenny Rogers, as well as the Whitney Houston hit “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” In the ’90s, he turned his attention to the stage. His shows have gone on to become major worldwide hits and earned him four Tony nominations, yet for a large number of aficionados in New York he says he will always be a “pop schlock composer.”

“I’ve taken a lot of shots for being the pop guy on Broadway and some critics have been particularly cruel about me,” Wildhorn says. “Their basic philosophy is if it’s commercial and doesn’t challenge you intellectually it can’t possibly be good. Well I’m not trying to show you how clever I am, what I do is visceral, it comes from the soul. I hate it when they tell you the way theater should be in New York.

“Don’t get me wrong, Broadway has been great for my career — I had three shows running there simultaneously — it just feels like a goldfish bowl at times.”

Things are different in Japan. As the first non-Japanese to write an original score for Takarazuka, Wildhorn is highly respected in this country. However, “Death Note” was a new challenge.

“It’s my first Japanese story for a start,” he says. “It’s also my first attempt at (adapting) a manga so I’m not sure how fans of that genre will react. I hope they’ll like it and it will attract a new generation of theater-goers who will see that musicals aren’t just for their parents.”

“Death Note: The Musical” runs April 6-29 at Nissay Theatre in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. For more information, call 03-3503-3111 or visit http://deathnotethemusical.com/eng.