The Jukebox Musical
by David Chiu
Originally written March 19, 2007 with additional edits
Even on a very cold Sunday afternoon, there was some buzz in the air as people walked the streets of New York’s busy theater district. Particularly at the August Wilson Theater on West 52nd Street, theatergoers of all ages with tickets in their hands were crowding around just to see a musical whose songs were popular over 40 years ago. Between 2:30 and 3 p.m. there was a long line of people trying get into the theater doors from almost the end of the block.
This crowd was here to catch a matinee performance of “Jersey Boys,” the musical based on the ‘60s pop group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Its popularity was confirmed not only by the crowds but also the reviews that were prominently displayed on the marquee: “Unstoppable!” said the Associated Press; “A winner!” proclaimed The New Yorker; and “Fabulous!” cried the London Daily Mail. Having received the Tony Award for Best Musical, it is one of longest-running shows on Broadway, grossing over $90 million as of June 12, 2007, according to Playbill.com.
The show’s main selling point is naturally the hit songs— “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Rag Doll,” and “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” and others— that most of the older audience members remember from their youth. It is an example of a production that uses preexisting hits songs to create and tell a story around them–most commonly referred to as the ‘jukebox musical.’
Earlier shows such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Crazy for You” that used the songs of Fats Waller and George and Ira Gershwin respectively were some of the earlier examples of the concept. The jukebox musical, however, really took off after the smash success of “Mamma Mia!” which featured the songs of Swedish pop group ABBA, upon its debut in London in 1999. “Mamma Mia!” continues to play all over the world, including on Broadway where it recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.
Then next seven years brought more song hits-oriented musicals to Broadway and London’s West End than ever before: “Movin’ Out” (featuring the songs of Billy Joel), “We Will Rock You” (Queen), “All Shook Up” (Elvis Presley), “Good Vibrations” (The Beach Boys), “Ring of Fire” (Johnny Cash), “Tonight’s The Night,” (Rod Stewart), “Lennon” (John Lennon), and “Hot Feet” (Earth Wind and Fire). But with the exception of “Movin’ Out,” “Mamma Mia!”, and “We Will Rock You,” a majority of those shows had mainly negative reviews and limited runs. “Lennon” closed after 49 performances in 2005; in contrast, “Movin’ Out” ended its Broadway run that same year with 1,303 performances and two Tony awards.
Last year came “The Times They Are A-Changin,” a collaboration between Bob Dylan and famed choreographer/director Twyla Tharp, who previously directed “Movin’ Out.” After much hype, the musical closed after 28 performances—another casualty in the ever-growing list of unsuccessful pop music-based shows.
“The reason so many of them are not very good is that several shows haven’t made an attempt to integrate the songs sufficiently with the [story],” said Eric Grode, theater critic for The New York Sun. “The focus is on getting as many Beach Boys hits, for example, into the show [“Good Vibrations”] instead of finding lyrics that fit the mood of the story.”
Another reason for the mixed success, said Time Out New York theater writer Adam Feldman, is that the songs from the rock era weren’t intended to be written for the theater. Rather, Tin Pan Alley pop standards and jazz from the early 20th century penned by the likes of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin were more suited for Broadway. “The problem with doing a lot more modern music,” he said, “is that it was never intended as dramatic music to express character or situations—it was intended to have a beat that you can listen to in the car.”
Still, the reason why people go to these shows in the first place is their immediate recognition of the pop songs they grew up listening to. It’s most likely a 25 year-old seeing “Movin’ Out” would know a Billy Joel song like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” than “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
“Back when “West Side Story” and “My Fair Lady” would go to the top of the Billboard charts, tourists would already know those songs, too,” said Grode. “Now that traditional theater music rarely makes the charts, it’s the jukebox stuff that jumps out in terms of recognition.”
But recognition can also have the opposite effect when fans have a very personal attachment with the artists and their songs the grew up with since adolescence. “People have very strong associations with this music,” said Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis. “You don’t have to live and breathe personally a Noel Coward song, you relate to it a different way. Lennon and McCartney or Bob Dylan—that’s a whole other story.”
For “The Times They are A-Changin,’” director Tharp used over 20 songs written by Dylan, including “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Lay Lady Lay,” to tell a story about a father and son relationship. “Dylan seems to be like a very difficult subject to do,” said DeCurtis, “because he wrote so many different kinds of songs. Even though some Dylan songs are driven by a narrative, many of them are not. My sense was that there was a desire to make literal a lot of what was in those songs.”
Rather than creating a story based on different songs like what the other productions have done, writer Rick Elice did the reverse for “Jersey Boys.” He and collaborator Marshall Brickman wrote a biographical story based on their interviews with the group’s surviving members, including singer Frankie Valli and keyboardist/songwriter Bob Gaudio. “That circumvents the awkwardness of having characters sing rock songs that we associate with very particular performers,” said Elice.
Aside from smarts and luck, Elice said that the show’s success was due to the fact that the Four Seasons never had the high visibility of acts such as the Beatles even though they sold millions of records. With the obvious hit tunes, the musical described the original Four Seasons’ rise from their working class Jersey roots to playing on the Ed Sullivan Show. “Jersey Boys” also revealed the pitfalls and tragedy the members experienced.
“You have “Jersey Boys” and you think, ‘Oh we’re going to hear [songs like] “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” or “Oh What a Night,’” said Elice. “And then you get there and you go, ‘Wow, that was a surprise. I didn’t know that happened to them. That’s great. ‘I want to bring somebody because I love this story.’’’
Aesthetics aside, there is also a huge financial investment at stake. According to the Associated Press, “Lennon” only made around $230,000 in its short run; “The Times They Are A-Changin’” lost $8.5 million as reported by The New York Times. “In the commercial theater,” Elice said, “where you have a responsibility to your investors, it’s like having responsibility to shareholders.”
“They’ve lost millions of dollars and that’s not a lesson that any producer can afford to ignore,” said Feldman of the shows that closed early.
Yet in a glut of failed jukebox shows comes “Spring Awakening,” a Broadway show adapted from an 1891 play about the sexual angst of adolescents. Its original rock music was composed by singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik, best known for his 1996 hit “Barely Breathing” (Sheik described it as the “anti-musical” in a Rolling Stone article). “Spring Awakening” opened this past December to rave reviews and recently won the Best Musical Tony. Some are encouraged that “Spring Awakening” might revive interest in creating more new original pop and rock musicals.
“In a lot of ways, what Duncan Sheik has done is really create a new set of possibilities,” said DeCurtis. “Musical theater should be looking for new writers and a new way to approach these things.”
Despite the spotty track record, jukebox musical productions will continue to soldier on. For example, scheduled to come is Pink Floyd’s rock masterpiece “The Wall.” “You can bet there’s a lot of people shopping their catalogs around,” Feldman said. “There’s a lot of money involved for the artists.”
Fricke, David. “Broadway’s Rock ‘Awakening.’” Rolling Stone, Feb. 8, 2007. (retrieved online)
Hernandez, Ernio. “Peace: New Lennon Musical to Close on Broadway Sept. 24.” Playbill, Sept. 15, 2005. http://www.playbill.com/news/article/94819.html
“‘Lennon,’ a Broadway musical about John Lennon, to fold after a short run.” The Associated Press, Sept. 15, 2005. (retrieved online)
McKinley, Jesse. “’Lennon’ To Close.” The New York Times, Sept. 16, 2005. (retrieved online)
“Pink Floyd’s Wall Broadway Bound.” BBC News, Aug. 8, 2004 news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/entertainment/arts/3539908.stm. (retrieved online)
“Playbill News: Cumulative Broadway Grosses Through June 10, 2007.” Playbill. www.playbill.com/news/article/108734.html. (retrieved online).
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Robertson, Campbell. “Tharp’s Dylan Musical to Close.” The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2006. (retrieved online).
Windman, Matt. “Billy Joel Surprises Audience with Performance at Movin’ Out’s Final Curtain.” Playbill, Dec. 12, 2005.