I don’t know about you, but as a music graduate and self-confessed muso, I can’t help but notice the sheer number of jukebox musicals on at the moment. Just pick up a newspaper and look at the weekly theatre listings. Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You, Jersey Boys, Thriller Live, Rock of Ages, Let It Be, Viva Forever! and currently touring the country, 9 to 5 The Musical (could the creatives not think of a better title?) – you simply can’t escape them. The jukebox musical is certainly something of a twenty-first century phenomenon.
By its very name, the jukebox musical is of the type in which the musical numbers are taken from the back catalogue of a popular artist or group of artists (the above examples I hope speak for themselves). Subsequently, the narrative is usually written around the songs. For instance, when writing the script for the new Spice Girls musical, Viva Forever!, Jennifer Saunders suggested that, “the songs are so well written that they fitted really neatly into a narrative”.
What is it about our culture’s appetite for jukebox musicals today? Our obsession with the popular classics is a fair enough answer, an opportunity to indulge in the hits within the context of musical theatre extravagance. Yet, the main reason that seems to crop up is that of escapist entertainment, the so-called ‘feel-good’ factor. Whatever is distracting us (the gloom of the recession always gets shoved in there by certain theatre representatives and enthusiasts), we want to enjoy the hairbrush or air guitar moments for an evening, with the intention of feeling much better afterwards.
Yet, theatre should be more than just replicating the atmosphere of a gig, more than encouraging the audience to handwave and dance in the aisles. Whilst it may be fun, can’t you experience all of that at a gig or the local club night? When I go to the theatre, I want to be taken on a journey, to feel as I’ve lived the visceral experiences of the characters. You can have stunning sets, costumes and song-and-dance numbers, but if there’s not a compelling narrative or a human element, then the show is simply reduced to a karaoke, a set of chart toppers strung together by tedious links to songs.
What might jukebox musicals do for other genres of musical theatre today? Thank goodness for musicians such as John Wilson and The Piccadilly Dance Orchestra, who have brought the nostalgic, sophisticated sounds of MGM, Hollywood and Broadway deservedly into the twenty-first century. The short-lived Loserville provided a brilliant example of new musical theatre with an original plot and score; something the West End was crying out for. I definitely don’t want my generation to associate musicals with the Spice Girls or, for crying out loud, Susan Boyle.
Of course, there are moments when we need light relief, humour and satisfaction. Additionally, for those new to theatre, the jukebox musical may certainly provide a worthwhile introduction. I just hope that afterwards, newcomers will go on to explore the rich variety of musical theatre, not resorting to the Great Songbook of Take That.