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Jukebox Musicals


 

Jukebox Musicals
by Ken Lyen

Jukebox or compilation musicals are constructed around popular songs, usually written or sung by a single artist or by a group.

A good example of a jukebox musical is Mamma Mia! (1999), which uses the songs of Abba. The musical was immensely successful commercially, earning over $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide, and it spawned a multitude of copycat jukebox musicals.

It should be acknowledged that even before Mamma Mia!, jukebox musicals were already in existence. These included musicals featuring music by the Bee Gees: "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), Buddy Holly: "The Buddy Holly Story" (film 1978, stage musical 1990), Louis Jordan: "Five Guys Named Moe" (1985), Hank Williams: "Lost Highway" (1987), Ira and George Gershwin: "Crazy for You" (1992).

After Mamma Mia! came the following musicals. Billy Joel: "Movin' Out" (2002), Queen: "We Will Rock You" (2002), Mama's and Papa's: "Dream A Little Dream" (2003), Tammy Wynette: "Stand By Your Man" (2003), Rod Stewart: "Tonight's the Night" (2003), The Beach Boys: "Good Vibrations" (2005), Elvis Presley: "All Shook Up" (2005), John Lennon: "Lennon" (2005), Frankie Valli: "Jersey Boys" (2005), John Denver: "Almost Heaven" (2005).

Jukebox musicals are controversial, often attracting derisive and scathing reviews. Why? It is because the songs are written for a different reason, and in a totally different context. They were never intended to be compiled into a musical. When coerced into musical theater, the book tries to accommodate the songs. But it often has to undergo appalling contortions in order to do so. The nett result, more often than not, is a contrived inorganic plot.

The fundamental problem about jukebox musicals is that it is an expression of the relative poverty of original musical ideas by the creators of this genre. Producers take the easy way out. They hijack the hit songs of a successful composer, singer, or group, and build a musical around them. I concede that, yes, of course it takes originality to weave a plot around songs. But half the job, namely the composing of songs, is already fulfilled.

There are several advantages for the producers. The songs and the performers are already very well known, with an established fan base. This potential audience is very large, and many would watch the musical just because they want to hear the songs again, as they might in a concert. They do not care two hoots about the story. Another advantage is that the producer often does not need to fight with the composer over the songs. The songwriters, if alive, are more than delighted to have their songs resurrected.

Producing a musical is a high risk venture. Producers are afraid of losing money, and with jukebox musicals, the track record is perhaps better than that of putting on a brand-new original musical. Baby boomers are the target audience, and they are still worth tapping into.

However, recently, there have been a series of flops. Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations", Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up", and "Lennon" all fared badly on Broadway. Luckily, the recent show, Frankie Valli's "Jersey Boys", seems to be reversing the trend and is doing quite well, raking in the profits.

Buoyed by this success, more jukebox musicals are being planned. Johnny Cash ("Ring of Fire"), Bob Dylan, and Neil Sedaka are all in the pipeline.

As for myself, where do I stand? I'm afraid I don't care too much for these jukebox musicals. I regard them in the same way as revivals. They occupy theaters that should be showcasing new works. Without a healthy infusion of new musicals, in the long run, musical theater will slip further into decline.

11 November 2005