07 October 2011

The Jukebox Musical

By Kirk Woodward

[As I noted in my introduction to “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” Kirk has some very strong credentials in the fields of music, composition, and musical theater. After discussing the differences between songs written for the stage and songs written for the popular market, he has turned his ear to the relatively recent phenomenon, the jukebox musical. I’m pleased to share with ROT readers Kirk’s thoughts on this burgeoning theater form. Their scores may have been the soundtracks of our lives—but have their reincarnations left the same impressions on our cultural memories? Read on, music lover—and remember that I have confessed on ROT that I myself am “A Broadway Baby” (22 September 2010)—and see if Kirk reaches any conclusion on that question. ~Rick]

I have previously written in this blog (“Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October) about the difference between what I call character-based songwriting, which one tends to find in songs written for the stage, and lyric songwriting, which one tends to find more in what we call popular song. One reason that subject interests me is the large number of “jukebox musicals” currently appearing in theaters. We may define the jukebox musical for the moment as a musical with a score made up of songs that were not originally written for the show and in fact not for the theater at all – in other words, “popular” songs, which doesn’t mean that people don’t like theater songs, but simply refers to songs that were not originally written for the theater.

A definition of the jukebox musical could just as easily include songs written for other shows, but in this article I want to consider, among other things, whether the difference between character-based and lyric songs contributes to the success or failure of the jukebox musicals that include them. So I'm excluding as jukebox musicals shows with songs that by definition are already theatrical in nature, because they were originally written for the stage and presumably belong there.

Looking for evidence to prove my thesis, I consulted a list on Wikipedia under the heading “Jukebox Musical” to see how various examples of the jukebox musical have fared. The list is extensive but presents some issues. It excludes, as I do here, musicals made up of songs written for other musicals, like Stephen Sondheim's Marry Me A Little and various compilations of George Gershwin's songs, many of which were created for the stage in the first place.

Wikipedia’s list also for the most part rules out revues – that is, usually it includes only shows that have a story line. So Beatlemania and Rain, which have no plot, aren’t included. But for some reason the list does include Thriller – Live, which bills itself as a "spectacular [Michael Jackson] concert," demonstrating I suppose that even Wikipedia isn’t perfect.

The list also includes Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Smokey Joe’s Cafe, both song collections and neither with a plot. To be honest, I would be tempted to include those two shows as jukebox musicals despite my criteria, because the songs in both are so character-based that one feels there must be whole stories behind them, even if those stories aren't told. But I won’t. Still, the fact is that the idea of the revue lurks behind all jukebox musicals. That's a major part of their appeal – that the audience knows it's going to hear a compilation of a number of songs it likes.

Can we determine the reasons for success or failure of jukebox musicals, using Wikipedia’s list? A number of factors make generalizations difficult. In the first place, without access to bank accounts, it's difficult to tell how some of these shows really did, beyond the obvious successes (Mamma Mia!, Moving Out, Jersey Boys) and obvious failures (Route 66, The Onion Seller, Hot Feet, Our House). I probably don’t know enough about the indications of success for shows that have apparently had only British runs (Boogie Nights, We Will Rock You, Tonight's The Night, Daddy Cool) or Mexican (Hoy No Me Puedo Levantar, Besame Mucho).

Some jukebox musicals have run off-Broadway (Forever Plaid, Return to the Forbidden Planet), where expenses are lower, including a number not listed by Wikipedia that presumably have veered toward revue or concert, typically with a light veneer of biography included (music of, among others, Patsy Cline, the Mamas and the Papas, John Denver, Patty Griffin, and Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier). Some may have failed financially in New York and gone on to make money in community and educational theater productions


One thing Wikipedia’s list shows for certain is that an increasing number of jukebox musicals have been produced. From 1975 to 1990, it lists seven jukebox musicals. From 1990 to 2000, there were five. From 2000 until today, there have been forty-two. Why this increase in the number of jukebox musicals? Four reasons strike me as particularly likely.

First, on Broadway as in other areas, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Producers notice what seems to work and what doesn't. Of the twelve jukebox musicals between 1975 and 2000, by my count at least six were successful enough to make investors glad they'd put money in them. That fact certainly grabbed producers' attention. By Broadway standards the 50% success rate during that period was staggeringly high. Investors in Mamma Mia! essentially hit the lottery.

The second reason for the increase in the jukebox musical phenomenon, related to the first, is that by 1990 the population which had grown up with the music of the sixties, seventies, and eighties was established and successful enough to start going to Broadway shows. Baby boomers had the capital to afford rather expensive theater tickets. Ancillary proof for this idea is the Green Day musical American Idiot. That band first worked together in the late 1980s; the show based on its music didn't open until 2010, at which point presumably its audience could afford to see a show on Broadway.

The third reason is that culturally speaking, music has been an important part of the lives of the people who are now attending Broadway shows – as important, I'd say, as film. What's more, music, like film, is so to speak a pre-digested source for later work – bands and singers already have their fans – and producers love that fact, because it's already been proven that people are interested in the contents of the shows. I have written in this blog, for example, about my love for the music of the Beatles (“The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010). I could therefore be expected to want to see musicals featuring their music.

But it doesn't always work that way. I greatly enjoy the music of the Beach Boys, but nothing could have forced me to see Good Vibrations, where I must say I predicted that the songs were insufficiently character-based for the musical to succeed. Nor, for that matter, did I attend Beatlemania, Rain, or Lennon, my enthusiasm for the Beatles notwithstanding. A producer can’t count on enough people always liking someone’s music to make them go to hear the same music in Broadway setting, and I estimate that only a quarter of the jukebox musicals produced since 2000 have made money.

A fourth reason for the success of jukebox musicals is that they are often less expensive than a typical Broadway musical to produce. They frequently lend themselves to one flexible set and small casts, with a few actors playing multiple roles.

Nevertheless, based on what I can learn of the jukebox musicals on Wikipedia's list, I estimate that of the whole group from 1975 on, about one third have at least made their money back. In baseball .333 would be an excellent batting average. For Broadway producing it's also remarkably good. So one expects to see the trend for jukebox musicals continue. However, the bloom may be slightly off the rose where the form is concerned. As we can see, while more jukebox musicals have reached the stage, their rate of failure has also risen.


One factor in the failure or success of jukebox musicals that I would like to point out is that certain titles may not appeal to a sufficiently broad Broadway audience. An article in the New York Times (Sunday, September 4, 2011) describes how the songwriter Jerry Leiber lobbied for the title Smokey Joe's Cafe although the song with that name is relatively obscure, because "it sounds like a title." He was right. In particular, the word "cafe" nicely pre-conditions the audience for the kind of show it's going to see. (The show ran for five years on Broadway.)

But some jukebox musicals have a weakness for titles that connect, not with the audience, but with the music in the show, and sometimes such a title doesn't tell the audience what it needs to know in order to make it want to see the musical. This may seem like a trivial point, but the title of any artistic work sets its tone, just as a person’s name does – which is presumably the reason the movies changed Marion Morrison’s name to John Wayne.

The jukebox musical The Night That Made America Famous takes its title from the Harry Chapin song "What Makes America Famous," but how good is that as a title? It seems to claim too much for the show, as though it were the most important thing in America, which it's almost certainly not. Forever Plaid is a cute title, but Winter Wonderettes, On The Record, and Hot Feet (believe it or not, the music of Earth, Wind and Fire) may be too cute for their own good. Having heard the title Honky Tonk Laundry, I don't feel the need to see the show at all – I feel like I've already seen it. And I don't feel the need to see The Andrews Brothers (featuring music of the Andrews Sisters) because I imagine I could write the show, just from the title.

A title associated with a song or group had better be a good one if the song or group isn't particularly well known. Life in a Nutshell, The Slide, The Onion Cellar, Daddy Cool – name that group! (In order, Barenaked Ladies, The Beautiful South, the Dresden Dolls, Boney M.) On the other hand, a title associated with a big name has a chance: Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, a huge hit in England; Elvis, also in London; All Shook Up, Elvis again. Perhaps the lesson is to do a show about Elvis. Million Dollar Quartet, with Elvis as one of the quartet, gave 489 performances on Broadway from April 2010 to June 2011.

I would say that Rock of Ages is a near miss as a jukebox musical title – the show, featuring music of the 80's, has no religious connotations, making the title slightly misleading. However, the show has run for two years, so mine must be a minority opinion. Since I wasn't familiar with the band Green Day and its most famous album, I thought the title American Idiot was just rude. Also, perhaps some titles sound too familiar. Come Fly Away and Life Could Be A Dream might suggest songs that are too well worn, despite important names associated with them, like Twyla Tharp and Frank Sinatra.

Certainly titles are not the only reason that jukebox musicals fail. Books like The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway by William Goldman, and Second Act Trouble: Behind the Scenes at Broadway’s Big Bombs by Steven Suskin, give a reader a vivid picture of the difficulty of creating a successful musical under any circumstances. In particular, the “book” or script of a musical often determines whether it succeeds or fails, and the task of smoothly integrating previously unrelated songs in a coherent story can be a daunting one.


So does the kind of song in a jukebox musical contribute to its success or failure? My idea is that the more "theatrical" a song is – by which I mean the more it's linked to specifics of character and situation, as opposed to "lyric," linked primarily to an inner state of mind – the better it will do in a musical. I elaborated on that distinction in my earlier piece and won't repeat the details now. But if a jukebox musical has a story – which, as I'm defining it, it has to – then it only makes sense that the closer a song can be linked to that story and its characters, the better it will work in the show. Sometimes there are difficulties. Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about.

Something new happened in popular songwriting when Bob Dylan opened the door for highly individual, internally focused song lyrics, drawing from inspirations including Woody Guthrie, the Beat poets, and Bertolt Brecht (who although a playwright was also a lyric poet). Obviously the range of Dylan's hundreds of songs is vast, so for a possibly unfair example I've chosen the first lines from my favorite Dylan song, a song from 1983 called "Jokerman:"

Standing on the water, casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.
Distant ships sailing into the mist
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing.

These words describe a character, but they are still lyric, not character-based – the images are the thing. I admire Dylan enormously, and wrote about him in this blog (“Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January), but I predicted the failure of the jukebox musical The Times They Are A-Changin' based on the nature of his lyrics. Although the emotions Dylan’s songs express are specific rather than generalized, his sensibility is that of a poet, not that of a character-based songwriter.

Twyla Tharp, who conceived, directed, and choreographed The Times They Are A-Changin’, undoubtedly felt she could work with such songs, but they are simply not theatrical, while the Billy Joel songs she used in Movin' Out are. One saw the same thing occur in the jukebox musical Baby, It's You!, built around the hits of the Shirelles and other musicians of the 60’s, which, again, are wonderful songs, but simply were not strong enough to carry much emotional weight in a musical, even if its book had been stronger than it was.

So I maintain that a jukebox musical with a score that does not meet the demands of the theatrical form may have serious problems – for example, The Times They Are A-Changin'; Good Vibrations; Baby, It's You!; Lennon. And I claim that jukebox musicals whose songs share the characteristics of songs written for the theater may have a better chance of substantial success – for example, Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, Movin' Out.

Have any jukebox musicals that lacked what I’m calling character-based songs done well? Certainly, especially if they’re about Elvis. If a group of songs are popular enough with the right audience, the show may succeed no matter what, which is why producers keep throwing the dice with them. But watch out.

One wonders how many other popular musicians have songbooks that have not yet been made into jukebox musicals, and who are essentially theatrical, rather than lyric, songwriters. Of course song catalogs can be recycled from jukebox musical to jukebox musical. Elvis, for one, seems to be an endlessly renewable resource.

My own candidate for a jukebox musical, once her core audience is old enough to go to Broadway shows, is Lady Gaga (now 25), whose songs (frequently written with collaborators) reveal her to be, like Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (the composers behind ABBA whose songs are showcased so successfully in Mamma Mia!), essentially a character-based songwriter in (if one may put it this way) pop clothing. Her song “Hair,” for example, could easily fit in an “updated” version of Bye Bye Birdie – it’s a teenager girl’s lament about the restrictions her parents put on her:

Whenever I'm dressed cool my parents put up a fight,
And if I'm hot shot mom will cut my hair at night.
And in the morning I'm short of my identity
I scream, mom and dad, why can't I be who I want to be?

Of course it’s always possible that Gaga will decide to write a musical of her own someday. She’s familiar with the form – one of the high points of her career, she has said, was playing Adelaide in her high school's production of Guys and Dolls.

Producers will continue to hope that jukebox musicals will succeed because they are full of songs we already know and like. They should be cautioned, however, that unless those songs are character-based, there may be trouble ahead.

[I make no promises, but there may be more on this and related topics to come on ROT. Kirk himself may have more to contribute and I’m contemplating publishing an article on the other recent theatrical musical genre, the “movical”—a stage musical whose book is drawn from a movie like the current Sister Act and the coming Bonnie and Clyde. Keep an eye out!]

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