Jukebox Musicals: Do You Have a Quarter Ready?
In the last decade or so, there has been an ongoing effort to fashion musicals around the songs of a certain singer. musical group or musical period. These are not musical revues that I speak of, but rather book musicals that try to create a story with a through-line hinging on the radio hits that are already familiar to audiences. I may not be in the majority here (or perhaps I am), but I find this the lazy road to creating musical theatre. Yes, there have been occasional hits along the way: Jersey Boys, Movin’ Out, Mamma Mia, and Beautiful come to mind, but, in general, haven’t these jukebox ventures been mostly failures? I often wonder why this trend persists. Is it the off-chance hope of hitting gold like the aforementioned titles?
Let’s take the recent season for example. Escape to Margaritaville and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical were both a part of the offerings, neither of which exactly set Broadway on fire. Past flops include Leader of the Pack, Good Vibrations, All Shook Up, Lennon, Ring of Fire, Disaster!, Come Fly Away, The Times They Are a Changin’, Baby It’s You! and Hot Feet, all failing to find a long-term audience. There are countless others that fared worse. Is it that all of these jukebox musicals were actually bad, or is this brand of musical simply not speaking to the typical Broadway musical theatregoer? If so, what IS the audience for the jukebox musical?
I spend a lot of time reading what the chat pages have to say about Broadway trends, and one point seems clear: most people who love Broadway musicals are underwhelmed by the jukebox musical phenomenon. It is often maligned, discussed with venomous distaste for what it has (or rather, doesn’t have) to offer. Not every jukebox musical is horrendous and some offer a good, escapist time for people who prefer to enter the theatre knowing the score from frequent hearings on the radio.
It’s hard to knock a piece of musical theatre when it works, and occasionally jukebox musicals DO work. American Idiot may not have been a runaway hit, but there was much to recommend in its staging and how the Green Day music helped to underscore a compelling story. On Your Feet! was buoyed by its relentless and infectious choreography that fluidly masked the show’s book issues. Million Dollar Quartet has certainly found an audience, both on Broadway, and all over this country with its collection of popular tunes and opportunities for performers to inhabit some of music’s great personalities.
Still, I cannot help but feel I’d rather save my quarter than spend it on the jukebox. For me, there will always be something richer about the scores that grow out of the careful thought and construction of the musical theatre composer and lyricist. A song written with a certain character in mind, in an effort to advance the plot or underscore some emotional shift, will always be more-satisfying to me than existing songs sandwiched into a story. I’m less-likely to take the risk. So, as Head Over Heels and The Cher Show (and most-assuredly Moulin Rouge and Jagged Little Pill) make their way toward Broadway houses, I will wait and watch. Maybe they will surprise us all with theatre’s new revelation. Until then, that quarter is for the parking meter.