Staff writer and musical theater aficionado, Sarah Johnston shares her thoughts on the value of jukebox musicals.
We were halfway down the M6 when my playlist that I had put on shuffle hit the familiar opening notes to ‘Domino’. However, rather than Jessie J’s bewitching voice, Miriam-Teak Lee’s powerful tones came in. My dad sighed and asked reluctantly “so what’s the story with this one?”.
If you’re humming along to Buddy Holly, blaring Green Day, or dancing to Demi Lovato, you probably feel as far, in musical terms, from the Broadway stage as possible, but you are in fact a lot closer to performing musical theatre than you may think. Jukebox musicals have been around since the 1950s, taking popular songs and weaving them into a plot to create a full-length stage show. However, ‘Jukeboxes’ are often overlooked or disregarded by theatre professionals for being too simplistic and undeserving of the title of ‘musical’. I, on the contrary, would argue that jukebox musicals deserve far more credit than they receive and that they have served as essential contributors and creators of the thriving musical theatre scene we know today.
The first popular jukebox musical was ‘An American in Paris’, released in 1951, featuring Gene Kelly dancing to music by Ira and George Gershwin. However, jukebox musicals existed solely on the screen, rather the stage, for over twenty years until ‘Bubbling Brown Sugar’ debuted in 1976. It really wasn’t until ‘Mamma Mia!’ hit the stage in 1999 that jukebox musicals took off. The 2000s and 2010s witnessed an absolute explosion of jukebox pieces coming to stage and becoming household names.
So, what is it about jukebox musicals that people shun so much? From a professional standpoint, it is the undermining of years of musical theatre training. Pop songs are usually written with the intention for them to be sung by the masses. This is not to mention the vocal practices pop musicians encourage aren’t always healthy, and the repetition of a chorus removes a lot of the complexity from songs that is traditional in the musical theatre world. Imagine having trained for fifteen years in Sondheim to have the lead role snatched from you by someone who’s only vocal training is at the karaoke bar on a Friday night. I do not mean to imply this is not a valid concern, it absolutely is - as someone who has trained in musical theatre since the age of seven, I understand the frustration first-hand – but I don’t think this should outweigh the positives of jukebox musicals.
The other main criticism concerns the plot, or rather lack of plot, in many jukebox productions. Telling a story with music is hard enough when you can write it yourself, but when you are playing musical Tetris with someone else’s work, the success of the plot can be tenuous at best. Many jukeboxes are used as artist biographies, telling the life story of the original musicians, which while very interesting to a niche crowd, don’t have the kind of plot you would gush to your friends about afterward.
However, I feel these are very minor points compared to the huge positives that jukebox musicals have to offer. Jukebox musicals appeal to a different crowd than the traditional musical aficionados. Their use of popular songs makes them feel more accessible to people who don’t usually go to the theatre and gives them something recognizable and familiar in an otherwise foreign environment. If you are raised in a musical theatre background, like I was, you probably don’t realize how intimidating a musical can be. You are watching strange people who randomly erupt into song and dance, and you feel that what they are doing is impressive, but you can’t pinpoint exactly why. The welcoming nature of a jukebox musical is a great way to get new people interested in musicals: if they can come to a show that is somewhat normal for them and feels comfortable, next time they may try something more out of their depth.
Jukebox musicals have also done wonders for the musical theatre economy. Two jukeboxes feature in the fifteen highest-grossing productions of all time: Mamma Mia at number four, and Jersey Boys taking sixth place. Theatre is an expensive art form, and it requires the support of its customers to be able to happen. Jukebox musicals offer a huge profit, without the investment of commissioning a composer.
However, above any financial incentive, I think that jukebox musicals are an art form in their own right. Writing a successful jukebox musical is more complex than meets the eye, many have flopped and been canceled early due to disinterest, so writing one that is genuinely good is an achievement. As I said before, it is hard to use someone else’s songs and concoct a reasonable plot. Musical directors working on jukebox shows do an incredible job of making traditionally upbeat songs into ballads, adding intricate harmonies to well-known songs, and creating unexpected mashups and medleys to keep the audience on their toes. It takes a certain level of talent and skill to be able to take an existing piece of music, break it down to its components and build it back to something impressive again.
This being said, the primary reason that I will always support jukebox musicals is simple– they are great fun! I do musical theatre because I love it, and if someone else loves belting cheesy ABBA hits then who am I to tell them they are wrong. We all celebrate different aspects of musical theatre and we need different opinions to keep the genre growing. Performers have worked tirelessly for years to make Broadway even broader, so next time you pass a sign for a jukebox show don’t write it off immediately.
So, as I continued my long ride down the motorway, I queued up some jukebox songs my dad would like. After all, musical theatre is for everyone, whether they know it yet or not.
To listen to Sarah’s Jukebox Musicals playlist, click here!