The Fall and Rise of the Jukebox Musical

MTAS Blogger Dawn Bush (@Dawnydancer) discusses her revelation about jukebox musicals…

With seat prices making a visit to the theatre a special treat, I will confess I have never been tempted to see a Jukebox musical. In fact, I found myself wondering why they are so popular. There are many things I would choose to see, if money were no object; but these musicals would be firmly at the bottom of my list. However, recently I bumped into my former line manager, a man more interested in classic cars than musical stars; more vintage than vignette, you might say. He is fascinated by my switch of career, from double entry bookkeeping to treading whatever boards I can get my character-shoe-shod feet on, and took delight in telling me he had taken his wife to see Sunny Afternoon on tour.

“And,” he explained in a surprised voice, “I really enjoyed it. I knew all the songs, and it was really well done. I came away singing them.”  He paused for a second, then said kindly: “it’s about the Kinks, you know.”

I refrained from telling him that not only did I know of the musical, but I had tried for the role of understudy. Instead, I smiled politely, congratulated him, and changed the subject.

When I got home later that day, there was a Facebook post from another non-musical minded friend, who had been to see the same show, and was extolling its virtues. She used the exact same phrase “I knew all the songs.”

This set me thinking about Jukebox musicals in general, and I went away to do a bit of research in order to write this blog. Big mistake. Big. Huge.
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Looking up Jukebox Musical, I uncovered a minefield of disagreement. Of the dictionary definitions, Wikipedia goes into the most detail –
A jukebox musical is a stage or film musical that uses previously released popular songs as its musical score. Usually the songs have a connection with a particular popular musician or group — because they were either written by, or for, the artists in question, or at least covered by them.
-whilst other dictionaries have one liners, usually claiming it’s a derogatory term. A little further reading uncovered a whole can of worms – people flatly disagreeing with the Wikipedia definition, people arguing heatedly over what is or isn’t a Jukebox musical.

My eyes were opened. In vain I wished I could close them again.
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Mistakenly, I had believed that Jukebox musicals were bio-musicals – like the story of Carol King (Beautiful) or the Jersey Boys, (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) or the Kinks one mentioned earlier. Frankly, I thought the idea of them lazy, a cop out, unimaginative. I had puzzled over whether Mamma Mia (which I saw and loved) was one, and decided it wasn’t; but my ignorance knew no bounds, as not only was that one placed firmly in the Jukebox camp, but someone has made a case for Cats being there as well – since the lyrics were previously known as poetry. Also, I had thought them a recent fad brought about by people trying to jump on the Mamma Mia success bandwagon; but the truth is that they go back into the mists of time, with Buddy and Al Jolson being part of them.

There’s no doubt though, that the reverberating success of Mamma Mia has caused the number of these musicals to soar. For every one that enjoys a long run in the West End or on Broadway, there are many others that don’t make the cut. My daughters, for instance, bought tickets to Loserville, which they described emphatically as “dreadful!”, despite the music being well known. Perhaps it lived down to its name.

Lennon and Good Vibrations were both flops, defying my previously held view: that good music, stuffed into the bones of a biography and dressed in bright colours, is all that’s needed to make a Jukebox Musical a success.

First question, then. Am I guilty of Musical Theatre snobbery? I had accepted without argument that the term Jukebox was derogatory, not understanding that at least two of my favourite musicals might be put at least partway under that heading. Oh dear. Further uncomfortable questions followed. Who am I to look down on musicals that draw non-theatre goers into the theatre, to enjoy a form of what I so love? Who is to say that, having enjoyed Sunny Afternoon so much, my former manager might not be prepared to invest in a trip to see Wicked, or Harry Potter?

Even as I write, I am wondering what made me hold that attitude. Why would it be somehow less impressive to base a musical on popular songs, instead of a well-known story? Very few musicals these days are built around stories or songs that are relatively unknown, or completely original. That’s partly why the ones that succeed are such a glorious surprise. Hamilton looks set to be a success, but the story is a new one to us in the UK; we don’t really learn about American history in our schools. The music is new. The style is new. The casting is forward-looking. It’s the exception that proves the rule, though.

I mean, look at the lists of musicals on in the West End at the moment:-
Wicked – a new take on an old story – a prequel, if you like, with original music.
Lion King, Aladdin – Disney stories both, one of them much older than the other.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate factory, all based on well-known books.

The list goes on and on, with few exceptions – I can think of two off the top of my head, that are currently in the West End: Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots, both original stories with original music. I’m sure there are people who can think of some others, but there aren’t many.

In the end, with the extortionate price of good seats, the producers need a hook that’s going to pull people in. I love musicals, but even I am reluctant to spend money I can’t easily spare on something I might not enjoy. We can’t blame people if, given the choice, they land on something they recognise. Whether that hook is a well-known story, a revival, or much loved music from a band or singer is irrelevant, surely, if it gets people through the doors.
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So here I sit, humbled, with pie on plate and confession on my lips. I am no longer a Jukebox Musical snob. I quite fancy Jersey boys, actually. Tickets please!

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