Rise of ‘Jukebox’ Musicals – personal response.

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With Rock of Ages confirmed to be returning in 2018 and the new Tina Turner musical having just been announced to be opening at the Alydwch Theatre in London in Spring 2018 it made me think about the rise in ‘jukebox’ musicals. There seems to be a fashion at the moment for these style of musicals. Cilla (Cilla Black) has just started touring, as has Son of a Preacher Man (Dusty Springfield) and not long ago we had Soul Sister touring the UK focusing on Tina Turner. Thriller (Michael Jackson) has been running in the West End for years, We Will Rock You (Queen) fairly recently closed at the Dominion theatre and Bat Out of Hell (Meatloaf) has just closed. Not to mention Mamma Mia (ABBA) which has been in the West End for 18 years and talks of Mamma Mia 2. Is it time we see more original theatre?

Some of the big hits on Broadway like Waitress and Dear Evan Hansen have captured the world’s attention. With Hamiliton opening soon at Victoria Palace a lot of people had hoped that these musicals would follow suit. Admittedly Groundhog Day has been announced to be returning to the West End after it closes this weekend on Broadway but we seem to be seeing more and more ‘jukebox’ or tribute musicals rather than new stories with music interwoven.

Being really critical I wonder if this purely a way of making money. Theatres obviously rely on paying audiences. Shows have flopped or been cancelled early due to a lack of audience members. Some shows just work better on tour whereas others have strictly limited runs planned beforehand. But, as with celebrity casting, I wonder if this ever prominent style of musical is designed to tap into the same market – appealing more widely to the mass general public who may not have previously been theatre-goers.

Personally, I prefer musicals with a clear story. Those that have a message, songs interwoven and leave an impact on you. Not all original shows have this, and clearly it is a matter of personal taste and preferences, but of the productions I have seen usually the musicals that have had their book written first or alongside the music as opposed to having starting with the music and using this to create and shape a story have been far superior. Often in ‘jukebox’ musicals the plots and characters can be vague, quite sketchy or lack meaning because they have to make links to the songs.

We have so many good composers, directors and producers who are producing new material. Venues such as The Other Palace, smaller off-West End theatres and Ed Fringe have shown us that the talent is there but they are not getting the chance to be showcased and developed in larger theatres. It seems a shame that audiences are often missing out. Not to mention the fact that often in the West End shows can run for years (take Thriller for example) which on one hand is good because fans get to see it lots of times and it allows more visitors to see the show but also does ‘clog’ up theatres meaning there often are only a few theatres available to showcase new shows or allow transfers from Broadway.

Should it be a case of bums on seats, appealing to mass markets (which obviously all theatres need) or should it be about developing original musicals with new music that people will have not already heard. What are people’s thoughts? Are you a big ‘jukebox’ musical fan? Would you prefer more original shows in the West End? Please comment below. I’ll be really interested as to your thoughts.

6 thoughts on “Rise of ‘Jukebox’ Musicals – personal response.

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  1. There’s 3 types really aren’t there (maybe more?).

    One being the “story of” a band or artiste

    Another where they build a storyline around a band/artiste’s songs.

    And the ones where they use hits from a particular era (for example Dreamboats and Petticoats).

    I’ve seen several of each, like every kind of musical some are better than others. Recently I’ve been blown away by BOOH and The Band.

    I definitely think there’s a place for them in the theatre world.

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  2. I think that unless you are a regular theatre-goer, people are only likely to think about going to the theatre to see something that already appeals to them and that they think they are likely to enjoy. (I’m not saying you as a regular theatre-goer would deliberately go to see something you won’t enjoy, but you are more likely to be experimental.) That might be because they already know they like Abba songs, or they have seen the film of the musical. I think the same is true of straight plays, and the cinema. That’s why so many film makers now make trilogies or a never ending run of sequels. (Pirates of the Caribbean number 101….) Or rely on the big names to draw in the audiences. Cost is definitely also an issue – I am more willing to try something new on my TV than something I have to spend money (and time) to go and see. (That said, I still tend to stick to stuff I know on TV too!) Maybe advertising might help. Trailers for films raise awareness of the film and show clips that give you an idea of whether you will like the film or not – that might encourage more people to see shows they wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. It must be hard for theatres to walk the line between (probable) money-spinners and the more original but financially risker productions.

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  3. This article really made me think about the different aspects of musicals, the performances, the story or the songs. For me some of my favourite musicals have been films first, like Priscilla Queen of the Desert or Legally Blonde. I found those musicals so much more fun and vibrant than the films. Hopefully, when jukebox musicals appeal to a broad audience they will encourage more people to see musical theatre of all genres.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree some jukebox musicals are great (Legally Blonde isn’t a jukebox musical but you’re right it was a film first) but others have such flimsy plots. It’s definitely an interesting topic.

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