Pyramid Scheme

These songs, derived from an as-yet-unfinished musical that pops open the Verdi opera, are only putatively set in Egypt. Nor, despite being financed by Disney, whose president is directly compared in lyricist Tim Rice's liner notes to Verdi's 1871 patron the khedive of Egypt, do they exist in the Magic Kingdom (though that's getting warmer). Rather, every jewel in the box emanates from the celebrity domain of Elton. Sting, LeAnn Rimes, Tina Turner, the Spice Girls, Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, Shania Twain, Lenny Kravitz, James Taylor, Kelly Price, and Dru Hill appear on this sequel to The Lion King, adapting John-Rice originals, because their presence is enhanced by being admitted into Elton's presence.

Sir E's fame has become its own destination. He led the top-grossing U.S. tour of 1998: a paltry, for his bank account, $46.2 million in receipts. Radio makes a yearly pilgrimage; he's been in the top 40 every annum since 1970 and the Rimes duet, "Written in the Stars," Aida's first single, broke the record for most adds in a single week nationally. Media fawns: of late, two days on both Oprah and The Today Show, the Valentine's Day Simpsons episode, an offer to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 2000 Super Bowl turned down as not starry enough. Aida, I'm told— pop culture rotted my mind long ago, so don't ask me about the opera— concerns a Nubian slave and an Egyptian princess competing for the love of a prince. Small change, really, when even Princess Diana wanted to be Elton?

In this landmark for all things pseudo— an assemblage of brand names convened to build anticipation for a show that hasn't even opened for an extended run— every reference to pharaohs comes off as an allegory of celebrity privilege. Sting jokes, in "Another Pyramid": "Put five thousand slaves on standby/Build another pyramid!" "Elaborate Lives," the show's original title track, complains: "We all lead such elaborate lives/Wild ambitions in our sights." Fans thinking of attending the Elton-Tina Millennium show at the refurbished Caesar's Palace (tickets an arguably reasonable $100­$600), or reading about Elton's Oscar party with Leno, Whitney, Pamela Anderson, and Goldie (most assuredly not the jungle DJ), can only hope that Aida's lyrics are laughing with them.

Needless to say, the theater piece at the record's core is overwhelmed. Songs are presented out of the order they appear onstage, and listeners must infer which tunes represent which protagonists. What's offered is a patchwork: frequently maudlin but sometimes playful dramatic verses, in that operetta style I, dumbed-down as I am, associate with Little Shop of Horrors. Music that's bouncy on the light stuff but mostly works off Elton's generation-long facility with the megaballads that come and go through our lives like heavy waves: is that "Up Where We Belong" or "Almost Paradise" being evoked in "Written in the Stars"? Familiar voices one already feels a forced or chosen kinship to, providing an emotional surrogate for plot wrenches that haven't been experienced. And, not least, venerable pop musicians who can do far more diverse things with sound than any pit orchestra.

Aida almost pulls it off, making the world a brighter place for you and me: the opening rattle-and-throb of Sly & Robbie's rhythm section toughening Sting, Angelique Kidjo exoticizing Tina Turner, homey James Taylor, the gospel exhortations of Kelly Price, Dru Hill, and Boyz II Men. Broadway music has become culturally inconsequential because its authors and performers needn't survive the pop gauntlet, as the stars of this Aida have; they're not battle tested in the marketplace. Elton's chosen are the mildest of the mild: mainstreamers who project enormous personability and know how to deploy their auras. When the Spice Girls romp through "My Strongest Suit," an ode to overconsumption, they bring to it a history no actor could. No accident that the more traditional showstopper "Elaborate Lives," sung by Aida (and previously Lion King) cast member Heather Headley, is the only number where the song sings the singer rather than the reverse.

The irony is, oddities like Aida, or the three Elton-sung versions appended to the five actor-sung John-Rice originals for the skimpy but multiplatinum Lion King soundtrack, are attempts to bully the marketplace: they maintain Elton's top 40 streak by giving his songs something more than their own virtues and the name of their aging singer to stand on. That something more being cross-media synergistic tie-in value, of course, gussied up in the gentility that still accrues to theater, even animated Disney films. Elton is hardly at his peak; if these songs end up sticking in your head it'll be because they've been drummed in.

For songs that generate their own theater, I'd suggest the fully contemporary R. Kelly, who's just come out with the transcendent "When a Woman's Fed Up," the musical and video sequel to his protégé Sparkle's "Be Careful," as well as the patchier Life soundtrack, for which he and Wyclef Jean wrote and produced thematic songs for an equally big cast of characters. As for the celebrity domain of Elton, word is he and Rice have already completed 10 tracks for another Disney cartoon film, he's done a score for an Albert Brooks movie, and there's a Bernie Taupin collaboration under way. True stars don't burn out: they just feed forever off their natural gassiness.

 
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