LAS VEGAS – With productions of "The Lion King" and "Aida" running around the world — and with "Billy Elliot," a smash hit in London — Elton John (search) has become the most successful composer working in the theater.
Not since Andrew Lloyd Webber (search) colonized the globe with "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera" in the '80s has a theatrical songwriter reached as many audiences, or made as much money, as John has now.
In addition to the $1 million he's usually paid upfront, industry sources estimate his weekly royalties exceed $100,000, which is probably just enough to cover his monthly hairdo bill.
What makes his success all the more interesting is the way John has achieved it.
He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a traditional Broadway composer.
You won't find him at auditions or rehearsals or holed up in a hotel room out of town, banging out a new song for the second act.
He didn't see "The Lion King" (search) until its opening night in New York.
He attended some performances of "Aida" (search) during its out-of-town tryout in Atlanta, but that's only because he lives there.
The first time he saw "Billy Elliot" (search) was at a critics' preview.
John, it seems, can write a hit show without ever setting foot in the theater. He is Broadway's first virtual composer.
"Elton understands the process of writing a musical," says Peter Schneider, the former head of Disney Theatrical, which produced "The Lion King" and "Aida."
"But is he in the room like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Stephen Schwartz? No. He's not them."
A theater source who has worked on John's shows says bluntly: "He's never around."
It is, in fact, financially impossible for John to be around a musical in development.
He gives hundreds of concerts worldwide each year, earning tens of millions of dollars.
If he were to stop performing for several months to be in the trenches with a new show, the loss of income would be substantial.
"He's working pretty much every day," says another person involved with his Broadway shows. "He makes a lot of money, but he spends a lot, too."
Having him around would also cost producers a lot of money.
John travels with a phalanx of assistants and security guards, and because he doesn't like to sleep in hotel rooms, he usually insists, if he's in the United States, on being flown home to Atlanta in time for bed.
"You wouldn't have enough money in your production budget to pay for Elton to be around," a Disney source says.
Because he might be performing anywhere in the world at any given moment, John writes his musicals by fax, e-mail, even cellphone.
During the three-month tryout of "Billy Elliot," director Stephen Daldry would sometimes hold up his cellphone in the wings so John could hear the dialogue that set up the song he was writing.
John always writes from lyrics — they clue him into the song's emotional and narrative purpose — and he writes fast.
It takes him about 20 minutes to knock out a tune.
"If he can't find the song quickly, you have to send him a new lyric," says Tom Schumacher, the current head of Disney Theatrical.
John writes a melody, records the song on a CD and ships it off to the producers. He leaves structure of the song, its musical setting and its orchestrations to others.
"He gives you his version, and then you adapt it for your purposes," says Schumacher.
It doesn't matter to him where or how the song is used, but he is concerned about the sound.
The first time he saw "Aida" in New York, he stormed out of the theater because he didn't like the way one of his songs had been set.
For the most part, though, he is a flexible, if absent, collaborator.
The quality of the work varies.
Critics have complained that his theater songs for the Disney shows are generic pop-rock ballads and anthems.
But many theater people think John has made a creative leap forward with "Billy Elliot," creating songs that are specific to the characters and dramatic moments.
Charles Spencer, the influential theater critic for the Daily Telegraph, wrote: "Elton John has written a wonderful score that ranges from folk to hard rock, from razzle-dazzle show tunes to soaring anthems of human solidarity and defiance."
That notice was just about the best John has received yet for his work for the stage.
Broadway's first virtual composer, it seems, may also be turning into one of its best.