Theatre Thursday: So put another dime in the jukebox, baby

June 18, 1815: “My my, At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender

April 6, 1974: ABBA wins the Eurovision Song Contest for their song Waterloo, which has nothing to do with Napoleon, really.

April 6, 1999: the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! premieres in London’s West End. The date, obviously, is not a coincidence.

But now the theme of this piece probably makes sense, since it is Theatre Thursday. So I’m not writing about Napoleon, famous battles, or Swedish pop groups. This is about the concept of a jukebox musical, which I have to say I find somewhat abhorrent with a few exceptions.

If you’re not familiar with the term, here’s what it is. A jukebox musical is a show that takes existing musical works, either a collection of popular tunes or sometimes the collected works of a particular band or artist, and then uses them to create a story, although one that’s generally not about that band or artist — with exceptions, more on which later.

Note that concept albums that became musicals, like Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita are not jukebox musicals since they were created like traditional musicals, just released as soundtracks first.

No — a jukebox musical is a collage made out of pre-existing material. And the problem with this sort of backwards creation is that it forces the story into the music, rather than letting the music flow from the story. And, of course, if you’re working with a group like ABBA, with a lot of hits, there’s the need to jam every one of them in there, even if it includes Waterloo, whether it fits the story or not.

Another big danger is that it just turns into a concert loosely wrapped around a story — q.v. 2005’s Jersey Boys, documenting Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and infamous for the number of fistfights that would start in the audience every single night at intermission.

The concept of jukebox musicals really started in America with film rather than stage, and some of them are quite famous and actually good — Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, and An American in Paris being just three examples.

But the granddaddy of jukebox musicals is arguably John Gay’s 1728 opus The Beggar’s Opera, which took popular ballads of the day as the soundtrack of its story, which was stylized as a parody of Italian opera of the time.

Ultimately, it gave us the decidedly non-jukebox musical The Three Penny Opera by Brecht and Weill, which gave us the song Mack the Knife, which you probably still know from the linked version despite Bobby Darin having made it a hit in the late 50s and having last performed it just before his death in 1973.

Ironically, Darin’s music was used in the 2016 stage musical Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical as well as the ambitious but incredibly miscast 2004 biopic Beyond the Sea, in which Kevin Spacey, already in his 40s, tried to play Darin at all stages in his life, keeping in mind that the singer started his career very young, basically getting into songwriting at 19 before dying at only 37.

Though they not always successful — hits like Mamma Mia! are the exception, not the rule — the number of jukebox musicals has exploded in each decade since the 1980s, with nearly 50 produced in the 2010s and three already planned for 2021, although there’s no telling whether they’ll happen now.

So what’s the appeal of the genre? Sadly, a vast majority of audiences prefer the familiar over the novel. Also, from the producer’s side of it, if they’re a large company that already owns a bunch of intellectual property (IP), like a huge star’s song catalog, then they don’t have to pay extra to use it, so they save a lot on material.

Not that they might not still spend the money, but Mega Studio Pictures paying hundreds of thousands to license music owned by Mega Studio Music Group is just an accounting trick that allows the former to deduct the cost and the latter to use the income to appear profitable. It’s no different than you or I transferring money from checking to savings.

With major companies like Disney and other studios getting more involved in Broadway productions, because the shows have just gotten so expensive, it was an inevitable move, really.

But, again, this leads right back to the big ho-hum drawback of large venue jukebox musicals focusing on a single artist or group. They can easily come across (and do) as nothing but overblown concerts with fancy sets, an attempt at a story, but with none of the original stars.

Yes, Sting did sppear in productions of his musical The Last Ship — but that wasn’t a jukebox musical. It was all original material he wrote.

I’m trying to think of a single stage jukebox musical that I’ve liked, and I can’t. Okay, I can think of one series of such shows but it’s a specific sub-genre, in that they use the jukebox format to create mash-ups between particular artists and authors.

Officially known as the Troubadour Theater Company but usually referred to as the Troubies, they do shows that take text from authors like Dickens or Shakespeare, combine this with the music of a specific artist or group, and give us musicals like A Christmas Carole King or Julius Weezer.

They work because they were never supposed to be serious in the first place while still presenting a distillation of the original stage story that is accessible to all audiences.

Oddly enough, though, the format seems to work a lot better on film than it does on stage — maybe because the need for film to make things literal works against everything just looking like a concert.

One very notable example is Moulin Rouge!, which used modern pop and rock songs in a story set in 1901 Paris, but part of the reason this worked so well is that the script was written first with the songs very carefully chosen, and nothing proceeded until Baz Luhrmann had acquired the rights to every last one of them. There’s only one original song in the film, the haunting Come What May, but this is common for every Hollywood jukebox musical. You can’t get an Oscar nod if the song wasn’t written for the movie, after all.

Another great example of one that works is the Elton John biopic Rocketman, but that’s because it brilliantly relates the songs to the life of the composer rather than putting them in the context of performance. There are only one or two moments where we actually see the Elton character performing one of his songs for an audience, but those bits are frequently parts of a bigger fantasy sequence.

And, of course, there’s the classic 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain, which happened because producer Arthur Freed wanted a vehicle to pimp out songs he and Nacio Herb Brown had written during the early talkie period (1929-39). It was all about owning that IP again. Fortunately, the result was a film that is still funny and timeless to this day.

In case you haven’t seen it, it takes place in the late 1920s, right as movies went from being silent to “talking pictures,” something which caused huge turmoil in the real-life industry. A key plot point is that one of the biggest starlets of the era looks beautiful, but has an accent and a voice that would make a chainsaw sound like James Earl Jones.

It’s an early 50s parody of the world of about 25 years previously — which seems to actually be the standard human parody cycle. Think about it. If you were going to make a film today about people struggling with a huge change in how things are done when it comes to media, wouldn’t the rise of the internet and mid-90s be the ideal target?

And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, that’s even more of a surprise, because it happens to be what I like to call one of the Warner Bros. ATMs.

I worked for Warner Home Video just after the turn of the century, and loved it, but the marketing people behind it sometimes did… questionable things in search of a buck. Hence, the Five ATMs: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Singin’ in the Rain.

Why ATMs? Simple. Warner Bros. owned the rights to all of them and, whenever it looked like the company was going to have a bad quarter because some property had crashed and burned — which happened a lot back then (The Adventures of Pluto Nash? Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever?) — they would quickly whip out yet another special edition boxed set of any or all of those films, either adding more bonus material, special booklets, or collectibles (especially with Oz), or just going all whiz-bang on the packaging, calling it a limited edition #th anniversary set, and charging a premium.

By the way, I think I still have original, rolled theatrical posters for Pluto and Ballistic, in case anyone is interested in buying one or both.

As for all of those special releases, people bought them hand over fist. Oz was particularly egregious. Sell the exact same special edition box set as last time three months later, only now it comes with a special Tin Man ornament instead of Scarecrow. Whoosh — product out, money in.

It’s that lure of the familiar once again. But that was exactly how a jukebox worked: If you wanted to hear that song you liked one more time, you had to pay for it. Again, and again, and again.

Hm. Maybe that remake of Singin’ in the Rain, called Torrentin’ on the Net, should be all about how piracy came about, as people got tired of having to pay over and over for slightly shinier but not always better versions of the same old shit.

Image (CC BY-SA 2.0), used unmodified, Vintage Jukebox by Mark Sebastian.

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