If any pop star was destined to write a Broadway musical, it probably wasn’t Paul Simon. His score for last year’s calamitous ”The Capeman” was typical Simon — textured, esoteric, and very introspective. You didn’t leave the theater humming so much as scratching your chin. Elton John has no such qualms about giving a theatrical audience exactly what it wants, at least judging by Elton John and Tim Rice’s ”Aida,” an album of select songs from the duo’s latest Disney-funded musical.
”Aida” the stage spectacle, which premiered to decidedly mixed reviews in Atlanta last October (and is reportedly set to lumber onto Broadway in 2000), featured a huge, spinning pyramid and numerous dancing Egyptian slaves. Aida the album makes a spectacle of itself too. Rather than use the show’s original cast, John has called upon old cronies (Sting, Tina Turner, James Taylor) and trendy new talents (Spice Girls, Dru Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain) to sing most of the songs, making the album a pop-chart-designed event. What, they couldn’t make room for the Backstreet Boys and Brandy?
Aida shares a title and plot with Giuseppe Verdi’s 1871 opera; it’s an old-fashioned, wrong-side-of-the-Nile story about the ill-fated romance between Egyptian general Radames and a Nubian slave girl, Aida. Yet the songs that John’s odd lot of singers are called upon to perform aren’t at all operatic. Nor are they steeped in rock (à la the Great White Way production of the Who’s ”Tommy”) or a savvy ethnomusicology class (”The Capeman”). Rather, John and Rice have aimed for something much more traditional — an old-fashioned family musical, complete with showstoppers and belted-to-the-chandelier set pieces.
On those slim terms, Aida succeeds in much the same way the duo’s slick score for ”The Lion King” did. The bulk of the album is given over to unrequited-love ballads, each aiming to be to ”Aida” what ”Memory” is to ”Cats.” For pop fans, the good news about ”Aida” is that it doesn’t play like a cast recording; there’s no between-song dialogue, for instance. It isn’t so much a collection of Broadway tunes as it is a festival of soft rock.