With the opening of The Civil War, his third musical in three years, Frank Wildhorn officially becomes the most successful composer on Broadway. How on earth could this happen? By process of elimination. The wait for Stephen Sondheim's next work is growing Kubrickian; Andrew Lloyd Webber's last musical never even reached New York; and the musical theater's most promising young composers have not yet created the kind of emotionally direct, melodically accessible shows that can fill 15,000 expensive seats a week. Never mind that Wildhorn has never encountered a dramatic conflict he couldn't bulldoze with a power ballad, or that each May, Tony voters sift the season's rubble apparently desperate to nominate something, anything, other than a Wildhorn show: The guy sells tickets.
If nothing else, Wildhorn's latest musical may get more help from the Tonys than his others did; yes, it's been that bad a year. Like his Jekyll & Hyde, The Civil War began as a concept album, for which the nothing-if-not-shrewd composer/producer recruited stars as diverse as James Garner, Maya Angelou, Betty Buckley, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Trisha Yearwood. Mounted on Broadway, with bare-bones sets, head mikes on its overamplified actors, and just the flimsiest scraps of plot linking two dozen unrelated contempo-country-pop songs about slavery, freedom, battle, patriotism, and the brave boys of the blue and the gray, a concept album is what it stubbornly remains: Frank Wildhorn's Fascinatin' Schism!
What's so dispiriting about The Civil War is its ferocious determination to burnish every cliche of the Ken Burns era. Will it surprise you to hear just five minutes into the show that the split between North and South has pitted brother against brother? That the African-American cast members have to sing a hand-clappin' roof raiser called ''River Jordan'' that may have you tapping along until you realize that its rhythm is as generic as the theme song from The Jeffersons? That during the underpopulated battle scenes, the fresh-from-the-gym cast of soldiers goes into agonized, strobe-lit slo-mo as if Debbie Allen had choreographed them in Glory! The Musical?
The Civil War is performed with full-throated conviction, but nobody in its valiant cast can overcome the fact that every number offers one simple idea, then reiterates it unto the kind of dictatorial, overwrought, arms-skyward, how-long-can-I-hold-this-glorious-note climax that a friend of mine refers to as ''On your feet, people of Bayonne!'' That's deeply unfair, but only to Bayonne; these songs practically bitch-slap the audience into giving an ovation. Even easy applauders, however, may want to sit on their hands for the finale, in which black and white cast members unite to sing lyrics implying that what the Union and the Confederacy were fighting for was pretty much interchangeable.
Seeking to understand Wildhorn's popularity, I checked out his other two musicals, starting with Jekyll & Hyde, a show that overcame scathing reviews to survive into what the marquee calls its ''3rd Killer Year!'' Even if you like the show's bombastic, Michael Bolton-goes-to-the-Olympics anthem ''This Is the Moment,'' this is decidedly not the moment to see J&H, which is desperately in need of a tuneup. On the night I saw it, many performers stood dully around the stage, maintaining only a casual relationship to both their English accents and the notes of the songs. The audience watched in glazed quietude until the last showpiece number, when it was ''On your feet, people of Osaka!''
By the time I got to The Scarlet Pimpernel, I wasn't hopeful. But what I saw was a pleasant surprise, a corny, enjoyably overblown musical that's fun in a Radio City French Revolution Spectacular way. Handsomely overhauled, recast, redirected, rechoreographed, and rearranged since its opening in 1997, Pimpernel offers the most pleasurable of Wildhorn's three scores, possibly because its subject matter derring-do, heaving-bosomed romance, and so on defeats any attempt at musical self-seriousness (almost: There are still a handful of songs that will provide ample material for future Star Search contestants).
The lavishly appointed 41-actor Pimpernel will close May 30, 1999 then reopen in a downsized 29-actor version in September; by year's end, all three shows will be on tour nationally as well and Wildhorn is also developing musicals, based on, among other things, Dracula, Casanova, and, so help me God, Blade Runner. In other words: Off your butts, composers of America! If you don't want Frank Wildhorn to be the only game in town (and please, please say you don't), you have work to do.
The Civil War (TC): C-
Jekyll & Hyde (TC): D
The Scarlet Pimpernel (TM): B