In Defence of Jukebox Musicals?
Updated: Sep 8, 2019
It’s a debate as old as time, or at least as old as Beauty and the Beast (Disney on stage version, not the original fairytale, obvs): Are Jukebox musicals any good? There appear to be two firm camps (although I’d call them fortresses as they seem as immovable) – they’re either fabulous, why would you even question it; or they are the devils work and should never be contemplated. I fall rather untenably in the middle and say: they can be good.
Some of the backlash is due to Mamma Mia which is one of the earliest of the genre. Mamma Mia is mediocre at best yet has become of the longest running shows in both the west end (20 years) and Broadway, has become of the most successful box office movies of all time and his recently inspired a sequel leading to Cher’s world tour. So it’s not exactly low key. Yet it has a questionable story line and feels like the songs have been crowbarred in most of the time. When you mention this to people the response is “but isn’t the music great”. And therein lies the problem. The music is great yet you don’t need a weak musical to enjoy it. I don’t really help this, having seen the show twice (the second viewing is a long story involving an ex so hopefully forgivable). And I admit if I hadn’t seen it before the film this would have pushed me to the theatre to view it thinking it couldn’t be that bad - fortunately it’s not. At least the show has avoided stunt casting – why they ever thought releasing Pierce Brosnon’s singing upon the world was acceptable is beyond me.
It has driven an (often failed) ambition to recreate that success using the songs of other artists. Son of a Preacher Man is a notable example of something that fell flat.
However, when it’s done well it can create some overlooked theatre gems.
Priscilla was, to quote the show, a journey to the heart of fabulous, that managed to grow it’s popularity through word of mouth after a slow start. Being based on drag queen’s it was the perfect setting for a jukebox musical and it had more freedom as it wasn’t restricted to any one artist. Given this, they were able to choose songs that fitted the mood and what they wanted the song to say rather than force a song in which wasn’t right for that moment. Incidentally they had originally planned to have the leads fawn over Abba as per the movie but given Mamma Mia was already on they didn’t want any competition over the Abba shows and so they couldn’t get the rights to use any songs (personally it benefited from the Kylie theme but then I am biased).
One that managed to use the songs of one band superbly was the Madness musical, Our House. This felt like the songs had been written for the musical, especially the opening title song which already had lyrics designed to be sung by different characters while telling a story. It would be great to see this return.
Something that’s been common is to use the music to tell the story behind it, such as Jersey Boys and the new Tina. Although these can be popular it is often more the nostalgia that drives the audience, though that’s not to say they can’t be enjoyable. Though I prefer them to be driven by a new story, which I feel tends to work better.
And personally I really enjoyed the fun and energetic Desperately Seeking Susan before the critics sucked the life from it.
There are a number of jukebox musicals which are great theatre and a number which are better best forgotten. The moral here is that jukebox musicals aren’t necessarily bad, there are many fabulous ones but it rests on the entire production, especially getting a good story. Too often the producers rely on the music drawing people in and regarding the story as secondary. And just being a traditional musical doesn’t mean they will be good (‘Too Close to the Sun’ anyone?). If something is good and enjoyable then it should be celebrated, regardless whether the music is new or not.
But it would be nice if we were celebrating 20 years of an excellent musical rather than something mediocre.