My dirty love affair with the jukebox musical

In Features, London theatre, Musicals, Opinion, Regional theatre by Emily GarsideLeave a Comment

My friend Nicole wrote such a fascinating post about the jukebox musical I practically begged her to let me share it… so here it is. If you enjoy it please let me know, I’d love Nicole to share more of her theatre thoughts with the world. 

Let me start with a confession: When Mamma Mia!, the mother of the modern jukebox musical, opened in 1999, I was the first one to declare how much I hated the idea of using existing pop music for a ‘new’ musical. I was certain that Mamma Mia! would not last long and I’d pick up some deeply discounted ticket a few months in to take a look at just how bad it was.

Well, we know how that went. Mamma Mia! became a smash hit and I was eventually persuaded by a friend who liked the show to fork out for a full-price ticket. I was greatly entertained, had a wonderful evening and came out of the Prince Edward Theatre with a big grin on my face and still humming ‘Dancing Queen’. I didn’t feel an urgent need to return, but I could understand why people liked it so much.

Next came We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre, which I felt so sceptical about that we opted for standing room behind the stalls. Again, I found myself liking it almost against my will. The power ballad ‘No One But You’ still stands out as one of the most marvellous moments I have ever had in a theatre. I will never forget the magical atmosphere during the finale when, from our vantage point behind the stalls, we could see everyone clapping and bopping along to Queen’s perennial favourites ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are the Champions’. Yet WWRY received so much negativity from musical lovers and I felt ever so slightly dirty for liking these jukebox musicals, that I never returned either, despite its very long run.

Jukebox Musicals were here to stay
With Mamma Mia and WWRY taking the West End by storm, it’s no surprise that a glut of jukebox musicals followed: “Our House”, using the songs of Madness, even managed to tell a somewhat compelling tale, while “Tonight’s the Night” based on the songs of Rod Stewart, flopped before I got to see it. I came to the conclusion that while I might well despise the laziness in using existing pop songs rather than composing a new score, at least these shows spun new tales. Sometimes these stories were rather clunky and the songs shoehorned in badly, sometimes they were actually engaging.
Why, I wondered, was this considered so much worse than adapting, say, a movie and throw a dozen hastily written and often uninspired songs at it? Sure, there was new music, but nobody had bothered to come up with a fresh and interesting tale. A few musicals based on movies managed to create something new and fresh – “Billy Elliot” stands out in my mind here – while others bored me rigid because it was really just the movie 1:1 slapped on stage (I’m looking at you, “Ghost”). Not much later things finally reached their nadir with the combination of existing movie and existing music: “Dirty Dancing” (which could have been a wonderful stage musical if given a new score that actually lets the characters sing), “The Bodyguard” with Whitney Houston’s biggest songs and of course “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” using famous disco tunes.

The beginning of a love story
It was here my problems really began because, dammit if I didn’t love “Priscilla” – the exuberance of the show, the imaginative costumes, the snotty Aussie humour and of course the glorious songs. While I normally don’t return to see shows more than once in the West End because there are always so many new things to see, I ended up seeing Priscilla three times in the West End, the second and third times to drag friends along. Later I dragged my mother all the way to Amsterdam when the UK-Tour stopped there, because I also wanted her to see and enjoy it. There would have been a fifth visit in France, if the French tour had not been cancelled. Alas.

The final jukebox musical that broke my resistance once and for good was Jim Steinman’s “Bat out of Hell”. The moment this was first announced for Manchester (with a London run still uncertain at that point) I knew I had to see this. Meat Loaf along with Springsteen and Bon Jovi was the holy trifecta of early 80s rock for me and the music that I still consider, more than anything else, the soundtrack of my youth. And Steinman’s epic Wagnerian rock especially just seemed made for the stage. So I went to Manchester and had a fantastic time. I staggered out into the interval physically winded by the sheer mind-blowing spectacle of the first act-finale “Bat out of Hell” and bopped along with everyone else when all pretense of a story was abandoned in the second act in favour of just rocking out to some of Steinman’s greatest tunes. But once again, I felt like I shouldn’t really be liking this so much. It was “only jukebox” after all, wasn’t it? Never mind the epic stage set, the timeless music and the fabulous cast. Nope, I hardly dared confess how much I had enjoyed this.

I tried to file it away under “seen and done” and just followed the show’s development through the successful run at London’s Coliseum to Toronto, where finally, ,the return to London was announced. In the meantime a cast recording had been released and I soon found myself playing the thing to death. I’d scroll through the playlists on my phone and usually, inevitably, my thumb would alight on “BOOH” for a good dose of classic rock. And the more I listened to it and these new versions of Meat Loaf’s great classics, the more defensive I grew about liking this. Why the hell not, I kept thinking, this is my music and these are some of the greatest rock songs in rock history, given a new lease of life with new arrangements and split across solos, duets and company numbers, why should this be worse than the banal unimaginative new showtunes being churned out on either side of the Atlantic with their forgettable “heard a thousand times before” music and clunky lyrics?
A new personal record
When bookings opened for BOOH’s run at the Dominion, I booked just one ticket initially, “just to revisit the show and see what’s changed since Manchester” because I knew they had worked on the show in Toronto. Then the disappointing casting for “Chess” was announced for the Coliseum run and I found that I really didn’t want to waste my last free “slot” for this London trip on it. So I ended up booking BOOH again. For the first time ever in nearly 30 years of travelling to London I would see the same show twice during one trip – so great was my excitement to see it again. And more: I realized that the first booking period ended in late July and I wondered if that was when the original cast would be leaving, considering they had been with the show for one and a half year then since the first Manchester run. So I booked again for the last performance in case it will be their last performance and I wanted to say goodbye. And then decided to book another ticket just for the hell of it and just in case the show would be a flop this time and actually close that weekend. So I ended up with four tickets to the same show in three months, something I’ve never done before. But I realized that I didn’t care anymore about the negativity towards jukebox musicals. I was finally ready to admit to my dirty love affair with jukebox musicals in public. I loved this thing, I had had a wildly entertaining evening in Manchester and I was gonna be back for more.

The jukebox musical vs the biography musical.
Now excuse me, while I go off on a tangent. This kind of jukebox musical – existing songs shoehorned into a new story (or in BOOH’s case, actually forming the basis of the rather bizarre and convoluted “Neverland” musical Jim Steinman tried to write in the 60s before giving the music to Meat Loaf) is of course just one side of the jukebox story. The other side, which had been around way before “Mamma Mia” is the biography musical, that simply tells the story of a certain famous singer or band. “Buddy”, about Buddy Holly, stands out in my memory as the most successful of them playing 14 years in the West End. Broadway came up with the massively successful “Jersey Boys”, the story of the Four Seasons, which also had a great run in London.

Admittedly, I feel far more lukewarm about these than about the other kind. I feel that these are far more geared to the fans of a certain group/singer but if you have little interest in that person, why would you watch? I tapped my foot along to “Buddy” and “Jersey Boys” when I saw them each, but I had little interest in Buddy Holly or the Four Seasons and it’s not my music style at all. Many other shows I didn’t even bother to see because the artist in question and his/her music left me cold. Granted, I’m still half-tempted by the much-maligned “Thriller Live” that seems to have become the Icon of Evil for those who dislike jukebox musicals, partly because Michael Jackson was also part of the soundtrack of my 80s youth and partly because I think I would enjoy the dancing. For whatever you think of Michael Jackson, he was an incredible dancer and I’m sure I’d enjoy songs like the iconic “Thriller” performed live on stage. Yet, I haven’t had the heart yet to actually see this show for myself, because it still feels dirty to like it.

Does it seem like there is a glut of this kind of biography musical? Yes, it does. It’s obviously an easy way to make money. Just as with the movie-to-musical-adaptations that only required existing songs being thrown at an existing plot, it’s fairly easy to tell the existing tale of a performer along with the performer’s greatest hits. There are some musicals currently running or announced which I don’t care for at all – “Beautiful” (Carole King’s story) being a point in case or the newly announced musical about Cher, because I have zero connection to either singer. Others I’m mildly interested in, such as the Tina Turner Musical, because Tina was also part of my 80s soundtrack, though just as with Michael Jackson, not to the same extent as my own personal 80s rock music favourites. Still, I can’t blame people for wanting to see either jukebox or biography musicals anymore. For me it was BOOH that made me scream “That’s my youth on stage there!” and wanting to see it over and over again. For others it may be Tina, the Four Seasons, The Kinks or even the Spice Girls. Why shouldn’t producers try to cash in on it?
Which leads me to the last question I want to get to in this text: Why, apart from the nostalgia factor, are people so keen on hearing familiar stuff on stage instead of something new? And for me, the answer is sadly: Because musical theatre has failed them.
A “Memory” for the new millennium
Why am I saying this? Two recent things have brought me to this conclusion. The first: Hamilton. The second: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Unmasked” biography. Let me start with the latter. I became a musical fan through ALW’s 80’s blockbuster shows: “Starlight Express” and “Cats” were my first loves in musical theatre and ALWs early output (well, let’s draw the line at 1993’s “Sunset Boulevard”) is still among my favourite musical theatre. Reading the biography now, it brought back so many memories (no pun intended). How “Jesus Christ Superstar” was well-known even in my shitty little home town in the 80s and how a local choir had had a great success with staging it several times. How “Don’t cry for me Argentina” was one of my mother’s favourite songs despite her never having seen a musical in her life. How a German version of “Take that look off your face” was a huge chart success, soon followed by the first German version of “Memory” when “Cats” opened in Vienna in 1983. These songs were everywhere. And whether it was “Cats” finally opening in Hamburg in 1986 or “Evita” or “Jesus Christ Superstar” coming on tour, people would flock to it, because they knew the songs and couldn’t wait to see them performed live on stage.

I re-visited “Cats” after a long long break last autumn when the UK-Tour stopped here in Cologne for a brief run and I admit that “Memory” still sent shivers down my spine and that my eyes filled with tears when Grizabella belted out her “Touch me, it’s so easy to leave me”. And I’m sorry – this kind of deeply emotional reaction, of being completely swept up in a glorious tune, is something I’ve sorely missed in virtually every new musical of the last 10-15 years. There are decent tunes, to be sure, once in a while even a song that has really good lyrics that touch me, but it’s nothing compared to how those old ALW hits of the 80’s made me feel.

Musicals and pop culture
Which brings me to the second thing, Hamilton: Hamilton is the first musical in ages that seems to have transcended all boundaries of music – much like JCS did in the 70s. Kids that have never cared for musicals at all are suddenly rapping along with the American founding fathers, there are pop singles, parodies and mash-ups and it feels like Hamilton has become part of current pop culture along with wildly different things such as Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead or K-Pop. I won’t lie: I do like Hamilton and I enjoy the freshness of the style, the music, the brilliant lyrics and the clever storytelling, but I also feel that, having seen it twice, it’s enough for me. It doesn’t matter. Hamilton has reached people, especially young people, the way JCS or Hair reached people in the 70s and the big ALW tunes like “Memory” and later “Phantom of the Opera” people in the 80s.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has achieved the nearly impossible: He brought back musical into the mainstream pop culture after a long time that felt as if “musical theatre sound” had absolutely nothing to do with “popular music” anymore. I can see it in other shows, too, such as the wonderful little gem that’s “Everybody’s talking about Jamie”, which also uses modern electro-pop sounds along with classic musical theatre ballads like “He’s my Boy” (which, incidentally, was the first musical theatre power ballad in many years that gave me a similar emotional response as the likes of “Memory” back then and gripped me completely).

So, this is for me another explanation for the popularity of jukebox musicals: The quality of the songs. To bring this back to my current favourite: Jim Steinman had written the music that later became one of the best-selling albums in pop history for Meat Loaf with a musical in mind. Whether or not the current “Bat out of Hell” musical actually has a plot or not, is debatable. It doesn’t even matter here in this argument. My point is: Steinman had – much like ALW with JCS later – written a single album full of incredibly good rock songs from power ballads like “Heaven can wait” via jaunty fun like “Paradise by the dashboard light” to the epic storytelling of “Bat out of Hell” itself. I can go and see this show and know I’ll be in for 10-12 amazing songs. The last time I had this feeling in a conventional musical was when I revisited “Les Miserables” at the Queens Theatre to see Alfie Boe live as Valjean and realized just how many great tunes were (are) in that show, a show that’s now more than 30 years old.
And apart from “Hamilton” and “Jamie” I can’t think of any current musicals that really make me want to see them again simply for the music. I often listen to a new musical CD once or twice, then it starts gathering dust because it failed to grab my attention (the few exceptions, ironically, coming from pop backgrounds as well, such as David Byrne’s “Here Lies Love” and Green Day’s “American Idiot”, which made their way into my all-time-favourites-playlist).

Where are the writers?
Maybe it’s a personal thing, maybe it’s just me reaching “midlife crisis” age and withdrawing into the music of my youth and the memories connected to it. But I can’t help thinking that – as Hamilton and Jamie prove for me – that when the songs of a new musical are really good, they do make me want to listen to them again and again and they make me want to re-visit the show to experience them again live on stage and to see different performers tackle the roles (and songs).
So here’s my thought: Write better original music for musicals again. I don’t care whether it’s to bring more contemporary music into musical theatre as Hamilton did or simply truly beautiful power ballads like “He’s my boy”, just write songs that immediately find their way into people’s ears and aren’t just forgotten again the moment you exit the theatre. In the meantime, I’m sorry, I’ll be sticking with Steinman & Co. and hoping that the mind-blowingly crazy spectacle of “Bat out of Hell” will blow me away as much as it did last year in Manchester. I’m quite sure it will.

Emily Garside
Emily Garside is an academic and theatre writer. Following a PhD in depictions of HIV/AIDS in theatre, she decided to move on from academic writing to take her writing about theatre to a wider audience. By day a research advisor and by night theatre writer, playwright and lover of all things theatre. Emily blogs at thenerdytheatre.blogspot.co.uk and tweets at @EmiGarside.
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Emily Garside
Emily Garside is an academic and theatre writer. Following a PhD in depictions of HIV/AIDS in theatre, she decided to move on from academic writing to take her writing about theatre to a wider audience. By day a research advisor and by night theatre writer, playwright and lover of all things theatre. Emily blogs at thenerdytheatre.blogspot.co.uk and tweets at @EmiGarside.