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 appear 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.

Friday Free-for-All #6

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Is there any art or artist you are really into?

Oh, there are a lot, and it depends on the medium. I’ll start with a link to an artist I’m a big fan of because I’ve been a close personal friend of his for pushing two decades, and that’s Michael Lightsey.

And I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I also happen to think that he is one hell of a talented artist, and I envy his abilities. I have two of his works hanging in my home — one a large abstract canvas and the other one of his amazing pencil portraits of me that is so accurate in its depiction that it’s uncanny, and which  was a Christmas gift at the end of the year in which I almost died.

Other visual artists I’m really into are a nice example in contrasts. I’m a big fan of Salvador Dalí, for example, for his surrealist works, but I’m also a huge fan of Michelangelo, mainly because he focused on the representation of human beings, and did it so well. Of course, he’s tied in this category with Da Vinci and Caravaggio. And yes, the homoeroticism of the works of the latter three have a lot to do with my interest in them.

If we’re going for pure modern kitsch, then yes, I have a soft spot for Norman Rockwell, but he could also be quite politically progressive.

Moving from visual media, let’s go to music. My three “classical” influences (although that just means “stuff before the 1950s” nowadays) would be Beethoven, actually classical composer who created romanticism; Gustav Mahler, a late romantic composer who ushered in modernism; and Dmitri Shostakovich, a modernist who has had more influence on modern Hollywood film scores than you’d think. Hint: Everything John Williams has ever written came out of a blender loaded with Shostakovich, Gustav Holst, and Carl Orff.

Moving into the truly modern and post-modern age, I’d have to give you Pink Floyd, Godley & Crème (who created the idea of morphing long before CGI in their video for Cry), and OK Go, who just blew the socks off of the idea of what could be done in music videos over a decade ago and haven’t stopped since. Not to mention that they are all just the nicest guys ever.

As for movies, give me my quartet of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Russell, and Gilliam, each of whom made pretty much nothing but perfect films, and three of whom are, sadly, dead.

All four of them had a huge influence on my creative life. Hitchcock taught me how to build suspense and raise the stakes while also subverting the usual tropes by playing into them and then making a big left turn. For example, one of his most suspenseful chase scenes doesn’t happen in a claustrophobic space. It happens in a wide open field in North by Northwest. And in what is probably his most well-known work, Psycho (spoiler alert for a 60 year-old film) he kills off the heroine played by the big-name actress in the first thirty minutes.

As for Kubrick, he taught me that films and all art should always be about big ideas, and that every story was more than the sum of its apparent parts. A lot of critics accuse him of being cold, but I never saw that. In fact, my favorite work of his is 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it spans the course of hundreds of thousands of years, doesn’t have a single protagonist, and asks really, really big questions while attempting to give answers.

Plus it created my love of science and science fiction. I didn’t really get into his other works until I was an adult, and by which point he’d created all but one of them before dying, but I devoured them all and could find no wrong in any of them. And each one is about something much bigger than the apparent genre.

Ken Russell, meanwhile, taught me to take no subject seriously, and just have fun with it. One of the things he frequently did were biopics, and he loved to do them out of order, or in the style of the art of the artist he was portraying. Go figure. Again, as with Kubrick, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Russell movie I didn’t love. Well… theatrical release. The stuff he started to shoot once he retired to his estate and thought he discovered green screen and social media is, well… kind of bad. But we don’t speak of that.

Otherwise… he banged off a series of solid hits that I devoured on the revival circuit (because, for some reason, most of his stuff never hit home media, and still hasn’t) He managed to turn a really shitty rock opera by The Who into a fairly decent movie called Tommy (although Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Alan Parker’s adaptation of it in the early 80s would blow Tommy out of the water), as well as create brilliant adaptations of the Weekend at Byron’s during which Frankenstein and Dracula were conceived (Gothic) and a mostly exacting staging of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome as a play-within-the movie Salome’s Last Dance, in which the conceit is that Oscar’s banned play is being staged in a Cleveland Street brothel (i.e., gay boy whorehouse in an area that the law was about to come down on hard because several politicians had been indiscrete.)

Finally, there’s Terry Gilliam, who started out with a silly comedy troupe you might have heard of, but then he went on to direct some really amazing shit. Where he really caught my attention was with Brazil, the best version of 1984 ever made, but he just kept getting better. 12 Monkeys knocked it out of the park, plus it proved that Brad Pitt could act and Bruce Willis could play more than Bruce Willis on screen.

Then again, Gilliam has always had a knack for actors. After all, he cast Uma Thurman in one of her earliest roles, and likewise cast Jonathan Pryce, and Andrew Garfield as leads. He also cast Heath Ledger in the lead before Brokeback Mountain and long before The Dark Knight, but also had the distinction of having directed Ledger’s last film. Oops.

And the only remainders, who were influences on my playwriting, you can look up: Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and Joe Orton.