Jukebox Musicals (or, for those unfamiliar with the term, musicals that use a pre-existing set of songs rather than an original score) are a subgenre that has gotten a not-entirely-undeserved bad name on Broadway in the last twenty years. Even so, I still maintain that they can be done well under the right circumstances, and indeed the genre has produced a handful of wonderful shows during its history (which goes back much farther than most people realize…the model that we now call the Jukebox Musical was extremely popular during the early days of the Hollywood musical).
Ultimately, there are four varieties of Jukebox Musical, or, more accurately, four strategies one can go about when making one. The first is the completely plotless variety, like Ain’t Misbehavin’ or Beatlemania. It’s debatable if this variety even falls under the heading of Musical Theater, but it has left a certain legacy on Broadway, and if the performances are good, it’s an easy path to crowd-pleasing entertainment. These were very big in the Seventies, as the two above examples indicate, and we got a few more of them during the “Dance Piece” craze around the start of the new millennium, including Fosse, Swing!, and the Twyla Tharpe “Jukebox Ballets” like Movin’ Out and its ilk (which technically do have plots to a degree, but since they are conveyed purely through dance and not conventionally dramatized, the shows still essentially fall into this category in terms of their use of music).
This particular variety of Juxebox show has been pretty scarce in the current decade, though: the only examples I can think of to actually play Broadway in the last ten years are Come Fly Away, After Midnight, and the Beatles tribute Rain, and they were all fairly early in the decade.
The second type is the Composer Bio Jukebox Musical, in which the life of the songs’ actual composer and/or performer(s) is musicalized through either diagetic performances of their work or attempts to use their songs as musically integrated expressions of their feelings. This type has a long and storied history in Hollywood, where it goes back almost as far as the movie musical itself and continues to this day in films like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocket Man. When Broadway started attempting plotted Jukebox Musicals in the early 2000s, they naturally drew heavily on this tried and true formula, and it provisioned some of the more respectable items in that genre, including The Boy From Oz, Jersey Boys, and Beautiful.
Unfortunately, this concept’s ease of construction and relative lack of risk has led to extreme overuse in the past few years, to the point where it is quickly becoming more of a scourge than a blessing for Broadway.
The third strategy is to take an already existing nonmusical property and insert songs into it. This almost never works, and is what Ken Mandelbaum was actually talking about when he put “Don’t Use Old Music” as one of his “Rules” to avoid certain failure in his book Not Since Carrie. In a musical, either the songs have to be tailored to the story, or vice versa; trying to fuse an existing story to songs that weren’t written for it is a losing proposition. Just ask the Bullets Over Broadway creative team, who could have had a masterpiece on their hands if they had just been willing to shell out for a decent composer.
I’m aware that right now a lot of Off-Broadway shows are seemingly defying that statement, but they’re just coasting off the low standards of the target audience for that particular brand of ‘Amateur Night’ Off-Broadway fare. I’ve seen the Cruel Intentions musical, one of the progenitors of this subgenre, and if it had actually been produced in a serious Musical Theater setting, it would have been laughed off the stage.
Just to clarify: I’m not implying that ALL Off-Broadway theater is amateurish and held only to low standards. That would be a stupid thing to suggest. I do, however, think off-Broadway fare has actually degenerated much more severely than its uptown equivalent in the past few years. When I think of the possible doom of musical theater, I don’t think Phantom of the Opera, or Mamma Mia, or even King Kong–I think of Shame of Thrones or Friends: The Musical. But I digress.
The final type of Jukebox Musical is by far the most interesting. It carries considerably more risk than the first two types, but unlike the third type, it has a potential payoff. That is the strategy of writing an entirely new script the hold the pre-existing score. Instead of tailoring the songs to the story, as in a traditional musical, this model tailors the story to the songs. And there’s irrefutable proof that it can be a valid approach: remember, this was exactly how Guys and Dolls was written. Yes, it had an original score, but that score was finished before the version of the book that was actually in the show was even started. So if tailoring the book to fit the songs worked there, it obviously should work in a Jukebox Musical if done correctly.
As I said, this approach carries some risk…fail at it, and you’ve got a disaster like Good Vibrations or Baby It’s You or Escape to Margaritaville on your hands. But this approach is what gave us the impetus for all the other Jukebox Musicals of the current century, Mamma Mia. It also gave us such fascinating shows as We Will Rock You, Our House, Head Over Heels, and (from what I gather) Girl From the North Country, as well as the original film version of the new Broadway hit Moulin Rouge. It’s also a strategy that dates back a long time…Singing in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and An American in Paris were all created based on this strategy. It’s certainly the most creative and least lazy of all the four methods, and I hope it comes back into vogue on Broadway in place of the now-overplayed “Composer Bio” model.