Thursday, January 05, 2006

jukebox musicals

J.J. made a good suggestion in a recent comment: Why not just open up a discussion (i.e., post your comments here) on what you think of jukebox musicals and why.

That's your cue ...


  1. Well, somebody's got to start, so here goes: So-called Jukebox musicals are the oldest "new fad". Pre-existing music has been incorporated into musical theatre for decades. In 1955, Borodin's music was rearranged into Kismet (and later into Timbuktu). Wright and Forrest worked their ways with many composers as varied as Herbert and Grieg. The only difference is that now the music being used is coming from the new sounds created in the latter half of the twentieth century. Not to mention the canon musicals of Gershwin and Porter, into which any of their songs have been interpolated at the creator's whims: Anything Goes, My One and Only, Crazy For You, etc.

    The most artistically successful jukebox musicals standardly have a story that is very close to the original songs' intents (e.g. Movin' Out); a talented musical arranger (e.g. All Shook Up); or some type of music that refuses to give up its popularity regardless of what story is pressed upon it (e.g. Mamma Mia! or Jersey Boys). Where do shows such as Forever Plaid fit into this spectrum? Is that any less of a jukebox musical than Bubbling Brown Sugar or Good Vibrations?

    (Most people when hailing Mamma Mia! neglect to mention a short-lived London production in the 80's which attempted something similar: ABBAcadabra. Needless to say, lightning didn't strike the first time.)

  2. I thought I could defend the show it was awful.

  3. Where would you slot a show like The Who's "Tommy"

    Is that considered a "Jukebox Musical"?

    Or are shows like: Leader of the Pack, Beehive and Suds more along the lines you'd like to discuss?

  4. Screwtape, I defer to your obviously vast knowledge of American musical theater. But copying some _melodies_ from a Borodin string quartet or some instrumental tunes from Grieg and incorporating them into a musical is surely _not_ the same thing as the ABBA people have sanctioned in Mamma Mia!
    "The only difference"?!
    Even in the case of the Gershwins, the brothers had created earlier musicals, which latter-day book writers and lyricists cut and pasted into the very enjoyable (and just plain better?) *Crazy for You,* for example.
    But ABBA just wrote a bunch of crappy pop songs, with no intent to create any kind of narrative. That by itself doesn't mean that MM! or Movin' Out are bad, but certainly it's a different order of "achievement" than the methods used to create Kismet or Anything Goes.
    Beehive and Suds and Mamma Mia! take previously unrelated pop songs and force them into flimsy narrative constructs. It just seems so half-ass to me. They're _concerts_, so market them as such.
    I _love_ the Beach Boys, for example -- the sounds of my youth. I'd even pay, maybe, to go hear a really good Beach Boys cover band. And no, I haven't seen *Good Vibrations.*
    But it's like X-rated movies: If you're going to watch porn, then watch some porn - but don't diddle around with softcore stuff. If you're going to cash in on the memories of Frankie V. or Elvis or Billy Joel (well, he's not dead yet), then go ahead, put on a concert, have a great time. But don't clog up theaters with juvenile dialogue intended to smooth our way from one song to another. Many, many doo-wop songs are beautiful, even moving. I love 'em. And I'd enjoy 'em a lot more if some talented people got up there onstage and just belted them without all the nudge-nudge claptrap wasted-time setup junk. Just sing the songs; they're beautiful, some of them. The book of Mamma Mia! is _not_ - and it's reputedly one of the very most successful jukeboxicals in its constructing a framework to fit in as many ABBA songs as possible.
    Concerts should highlight the beauty of the music - and I hope we all agree that KISS-style loud-booms-and-indoor-fireworks spectacles are more than a little embarrassing. "Trust the text." Trust the songs? Groups that put on concert extravaganzas are compensating for the poorness of their songs just as surely as the guy in the monster truck blaring country music is compensating for something else.
    No, personally I wouldn't go to an ABBA (or even a pseudo-ABBA) concert anyway. But lots of people would, and they'd have a good time, and good for them. But let's all divest ourselves of the pretense that MM! is extending the grand tradition of American musical theater or trailblazing any new ground. It's bastardized theater, a half-ass concert foisted on the public as something more than it is. And every show like this that gets booked is one less legitimately theatrical show that gets produced. The next time *Cats* meows into town (and it has come here once every five years, on average, for the past 25 years -- something like that) is one less opportunity, one missed slot for (and I'm not standing up for these shows necessarily, haven't seen 'em, but at least they'd startle and entertain some people) Avenue Q, Urinetown, Batboy, Putnam County Spelling Bee, etc. ... name your fave.
    Hypothetical: Say a famous actor came to town to do some spoken word, do a monologue, a few scenes (I'm thinking anyone from Jon Stewart to Christopher Plummer, Dame Judi Dench to Patrick Stewart). People would buy those tix. But suppose the famous actor supposed him/herself to be a wonderful singer. So instead of what's advertised, what we got was snippets of the orotund delivery and glittering reminiscences, wedged in among mostly off-key, eye-rollingly bad renditions of show tunes.
    That's what watching the ABBA fest was like for me: a handful of catchy songs and clever moments, but boy, did we have to wade through a lot of dreck to get there.
    (Poor Frank Gorshin --the Riddler -- played Spokane in Say Good Night, Gracie ... and then died just a few months later. -- so I guess my famous-actor-in-Spokaloo fantasy will remain just that.)

  5. Since you brought up ABBA again with its so-called "crappy pop songs" -- crap is in the eye of the beholder. Other people think Billy Joel is crap. Or The Who is crap. Or the Beach Boys are washed-up has-beens. You've said elsewhere that your writings are meant to be your opinion, but your 'opinions' come across as pompous blanket statements that hold true for all humanity. I didn't listen to ABBA except for the occasional song that came across the radio, but I enjoyed most of the songs in that staged concert last week, and the different twists that creative staging can put on the words. So I don't accept your theory that it's compensating for poor song quality. (Or were you just referring to fireworks at KISS concerts?)

    "Clogging the Theaters" – I appreciate the thought behind the complain, but if you're going to list a bunch of shows that you think Mamma Mia shut out of the opera house, at least consider national touring shows that are available. Avenue Q is playing only in New York and Vegas, it's not touring. Same with Spelling Bee, it's only in New York and Chicago. Batboy never played Broadway, and you'd be more likely to see a regional production from, say, ARt than WestCoast (go for it, Michael!). Urinetown's tour flushed a while ago I think.
    Frankly, the Best of Broadway series looks for shows the family-oriented (and family sensibilities) theater-goers will see. You said yourself Wicked will probably be delayed. I’m not in the know at WestCoast, but I’d say the shows we might have ‘shut out’ were either Little Shop of Horrors, or Tommy Tune's Doctor Dolittle. We were a very convenient spot for Mamma Mia on their way to Oregon and California.

    Bottom line, the people who run the theaters have to focus on the bottom line. If it's not going to sell, they can't do it. Mamma Mia sells WELL, because it's fun for 98% of the audience. If a concert is going to sell well for a week, two weeks, six weeks, then you bet they'll do it. The family-oriented crowd was there on Tuesday night. I saw a large age range or people, from grandparents to little kids, ‘dancing’ with their families in their seats (moving shoulders and arms, bopping heads, etc.)

    Jukebox musicals exist because someone has the music rights to a bunch of popular songs, and thinks a staged version will appeal to an audience. That audience is generally middle-aged people who have money for entertainment and go for ‘nostalgia.’ They also generally don’t think of themselves as “theater goers.” They want to go out and have a good time, and they generally get it.

    I frankly LIKE many jukebox musicals. I like the music, and I like the different contexts the show's creators come up with. I loved “Play On,” the version of Twelfth Night sung to Duke Ellington's songs. I loved “Return to the Forbidden Planet” (West End version ONLY) and Five Guys Named Moe (using Louis Jordan songs). This theater person appreciates tight harmonies, attention to lyrics, and comedy. The jukebox musicals I’ve seen tend to deliver.

    Are jukebox musicals on a par with Guys & Dolls, West Side Story, or Phantom (tonight earning the title of longest-running musical of all time)? Nobody's putting Mamma Mia or Movin' On to their best all-time musicals list. But yes, I do think there's a place on stages for these theatrical concerts. I'll concede they should be marketed as such, but to put them all down is a mistake.

  6. Why does Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre (among others) keep doing classic warhorses? Because people keep buying tickets. People go to see The Sound of Music and The Music Man because people believe they know the songs well enough to not have to pay full attention during them. It's like visiting an old friend. Mamma Mia holds the same appeal for choosy audience members. They enjoy hearing the same old songs. Personally, I place Movin' Out in a higher category because of its choreographic innovation and its incorporation of all types of Billy Joel's music, not just his most popular. He and Ms. Tharp worked in even some of his classical compositions, and it works as a moving narrative theatre piece. But people see Mamma Mia because they can sing along in their head if not out loud.

    It seems that Michael's primary beef with the concept is the oft-standard floundering book which serves only to move us into the next song. All pre-Showboat history aside, the book has long been the least-respected aspect of the musical theatre form. People forget that although My Fair Lady has some fantastic songs, the heart and soul of the piece come from G.B. Shaw -- which may actually place it above most classic shows because I'd wager that more people remember the characters of Eliza and Henry than could hum more than two songs from the score. After the second golden age on Broadway, writers began to believe it was easy to create a great show. After all, so many other people had been able to do it. Stephen Sondheim has floated above because of his steadfast refusal to give in to the easy choice. The difficult and more rewarding choice is to create a good play that happens to be (usually because it must be) a musical (Gypsy, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof for instance.)

    Creating a jukebox musical is like working a maze backwards. You start with the score, the inspiration for which came across many years -- decades even -- and place it together, impressing upon it some semblance of a standard story. The artistically successful ones either eschew the idea of pretense and live as revue (Forever Plaid) or innovate the form (again, Movin' Out). (Yes, I just called Forever Plaid artistically successful, because I believe that it is to a point.)

    Stephen Sondheim has been quoted as saying "content dicates form". (To the point of agreeing with Billy Wilder about Sondheim's own possible musicalization of the film Sunset Boulevard, "It would have to be an opera because it's about a fallen queen.") The jukebox musical throws that saw on its head and forces the form to dictate the content. I wonder what Steve thinks...

    Disjointed, but there it is.

  7. I went to see MAMMA MIA! expecting to find it colorful and entertaining, but silly and thin and to be terribly ashamed of myself for enjoying it. It was all of the above, but I'm not ashamed at all. It was damned fun! I felt that there was an agreement among most of the audience members that we were all jumpin' on the ABBA train could feel it when a song would start and we groaned with feigned dismay and actual delight at the hoops jumped through to make the song fit the moment (the bigger the stretch, the better the groan). The performers made me believe they were enjoying themselves. I was on my feet dancin' at the curtain call because the show was as much about me and my inner wild child as about anything. If you can say you've never leapt around your bedroom using your hairbrush as a microphone, you are lying.

    Not every song in the classic musicals is a winner. I enjoyed the tall babe with the legs putting a cute and naughty spin on "Does Your Mother Know" every bit as much as I'd enjoy the Hot Box Dolls in "A Bushel and a Peck" - yet again. The first time I ever saw the von Trapp children do "Do, Re, Mi" was one time too many. So, Janean is right. Crap is in the eye of the beholder. And, Bobo, since you walked out at intermission, you didn't even bother to behold. MAMMA MIA! is not LES MIS or WSS or PHANTOM (which is pretty darned craptacular, imho) - and it doesn't pretend that it is - but a tight, energetic, celebratory production of MAMMA MIA! (or any one of many Jukebox musicals) is no more craptastic than an actual concert, and a heck of a lot more fun for some of us theatre types.

    Thanks for listening.

  8. "File's done" has an excellent point. Mamma Mia is one huge pile of fun. It's like a Disneyland ride. And although it's a different thrill, it's a very similar thrill to the feeling audiences get when well-gussied Dolly Levis appear at the top of the stairs and start the song slowly. Or when the King tells Anna to teach him to dance like the Westerners did. Or when Eliza says her verdammt A's correctly. We all know what's coming, and we've all been there before, but we all really liked it, so we all go along with it for better or for worse.

    (Curmudge, I'd call Tommy a theatre piece, or even a dramatic song cycle, because the songs were all written together to tell the same story.)