The Art of the Jukebox Musical
Last night I took a trip down to the scaffolding-clad Harold Pinter Theatre to watch the next installment in a long line of jukebox musicals. The show is Sunny Afternoon, and it centres around the career and music of The Kinks – ambassadors of the British Invasion, who rose to fame in the mid-1960s. I am ashamed to say I didn’t know much about the band beforehand (although I recognised a handful of their hits) and found the experience a bit like watching a ‘VH1 Behind The Music’ documentary performed live in front of me. Although that era and genre in music history isn’t quite my cup of tea, I did find the production flowing and well-executed and the intimacy of the Harold Pinter lended itself well. Altogether it was informative, perhaps educational, and definitely entertaining. (Auntie would be proud!)
It got me to thinking though – What makes a jukebox musical successful? Is there a secret recipe? What ingredients does one need to avoid a back catalogue bonfire?
Firstly, we have to recognise that the Jukebox musical itself has subcategories:
1) The Bio-Musical – I would say this is the most basic within the genre: A musical detailing the biography of a musician or group, including the back catalogue of their hits. Current examples in the West End and on Broadway include the aforementioned Sunny Afternoon (The Kinks), Beautiful (Carole King) and Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons). Past examples include such shows as Soul Sister (Ike & Tina Turner), and Buddy (Buddy Holly). I would also include Broadway’s Motown: The Musical, which centres around Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, but is filled with the back catalogues of some of his most iconic artists, including Diana Ross and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
2) The Tribute-Musical – This does not have a classic story like most musicals do, but rather takes the form of a tribute concert or chronicling the career of a particular musician through their live performances. Some examples include Thriller – Live! (Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5), Let It Be or Rain (The Beatles) and A Night with Janis Joplin.
3) The Original – This is the attempt to infuse an original story with the back catalogue of an artist’s hits, although the artist may have nothing or little to do with that story itself. This is probably the most common in the genre and includes such commercial hits as Mamma Mia! (ABBA), We Will Rock You (Queen), and Saturday Night Fever (Bee Gees), along with perhaps less successful outings such as Desperately Seeking Susan (Blondie), Tonight’s The Night (Rod Stewart), Never Forget (Take That), Viva Forever! (Spice Girls) and recent Broadway flop Holler If Ya Hear Me (Tupac Shakur). There are also original stories that use the hits of not one particular artist, but a whole plethora of them. Recent examples include Rock of Ages, Priscilla – Queen of the Desert and Dreamboats and Petticoats.
So why do some jukebox musicals flop, whilst others defy critics and go on to make millions? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. In my opinion, two of the worst shows I have ever seen in the West End are We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia!, the latter of which is still running (now at the Novello Theatre) and in its 15th year. The former managed a 12 year run at the sizeable Dominion Theatre despite being ravaged by critics. I believe their success is due to the longevity and fan bases of Queen and ABBA, and not due to the dramatic tensions of an enticing plot. People want to hear that music performed live, especially when the group no longer exists in the real world or the artist has passed away. I also can’t understand how Jersey Boys, with such low production values and a mediocre, unimpressive biography to go with it, has managed to become such a household name on British shores either.
If I were a Producer, I would have certainly invested in The Bodyguard, which almost lasted for two years at the Adelphi Theatre and closed at the end of August this year. I adored the show and went three times (a new leading lady in Heather Headley, Beverley Knight and Alexandra Burke each visit) and I have to admit, being a fan of Whitney Houston’s music, I got a chill every time the band struck up for the next big number. To me it was a winning recipe – a back catalogue of world-class hits from an artist who recently died, a story based on a movie that most people know or have seen, and a star in the leading role. Every curtain call I witnessed, the audience was on its feet and dancing in the aisles, so why it didn’t survive longer in the West End is beyond me.
Other reasons for a show’s quick departure could be that audiences wholeheartedly agreed with critics and they simply weren’t good enough productions. Perhaps the artist had a huge impact on the music industry, but only over a short period of time, like the Spice Girls or 2Pac? The latter might raise more of an economic question about the fan base: Were middle class, white, paying theatregoers in New York not ready to give up their hard-earned cash to see a Hip Hop musical based on the hits of Tupac Shakur? It will be interesting to see whether they will relate more to the upcoming Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet, set to premiere on the Great White Way in October 2015.
It really does seem like a hit-and-miss game with no golden rules in the world of the jukebox musical, but I am delighted that producers are still willing to invest in bringing new shows to Broadway and the West End, based on our favourite pop icons. Now will somebody please put on a Kylie Minogue musical before it’s too late? I should be so lucky!
Sub-Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com