Jukebox: The New Golden Age of the Musical


By KJ Elsdon

Which is your favourite musical? Is it the old-fashioned romance of a Rogers and Hammerstein creation or the witty, New York sophistication of a Stephen Sondheim composition? Most of us will be able to name at least one musical that we can happily enjoy again and again, whether this involves the street gangs of NYC (West Side Story), Argentina’s political crises of the 1940s and 1950s (Evita) or the child-minding career of a former nun (The Sound of Music). A well-written and enthusiastically received musical is a joy forever, but the drawback is that they tend to be insanely expensive to stage – and there is no guarantee that they will recoup their costs.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber sat down to write his account of osteopath Stephen Ward’s part in the infamous Profumo case he could be excused for imagining that this would be a sure-fire hit. With a story that had everything going for it, from beautiful women and political scandal to Lloyd Webber’s ability to create great music, showcasing witty, intelligent lyrics by Don Black and playwright Christopher Hampton taking over duties on the book, it was natural to assume that Stephen Ward would enjoy the same success as Cats or The Phantom of the Opera. In the event it sank like a stone, closing after receiving reviews that can be most charitably described as ‘mixed’ and failing to attract the ticket sales of previous Lloyd Webber outings.

Taking these factors into account, how does a theatrical impresario go about creating a crowd-pleasing night out while minimising any financial risk? Well, one way he or she might choose is to think about producing a jukebox musical.

These might be more common these days (the latest, based on the career of Tina Turner, opened in London’s Aldwych Theatre recently) but they are by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, the first jukebox musical is thought to have been staged on Broadway in 1975. Based on the songs of the wonderfully talented Harry Chapin, The Night That Made America Famous starred Chapin and his brothers, Tom and Stephen, among others. The show ran for only 47 performances but is nonetheless an important milestone.

Other famous early jukebox musicals include 1989’s Return to the Forbidden Planet, which showcased the best of 1960s rock and roll and 1990’s Five Guys Named Moe, which performed the same function for the music of Louis Jordan. The overwhelming popularity of these shows, packed with familiar songs, led theatrical producers to roll up their sleeves to see how they could profit from this appetite for the familiar and tried and tested.

Over the past few years the jukebox musical has gained traction, with many theatres in London’s West End and New York’s Broadway featuring key examples of the genre. Here are some of the highlights – along with an unexpected failure.

The Hits

Mamma Mia (1999)

This whacky, sunny natured compilation of some of ABBA’s greatest hits is still the behemoth of the jukebox musical. Along with Catherine Johnson’s frothy, romantic script and some of the best pop songs every written, it’s no surprise to find that Mamma Mia has not only spawned two feature films but is still attracting audiences to theatres worldwide. If the old adage ‘bums on seats’ remains the aim of every theatrical production, then this candyfloss confection has done more than its fair share to earn its place as the greatest jukebox musical of all time.

Musical Highlights:

‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Super Trouper’, ‘The Name of the Game’, ‘Winner Takes It All’, ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’, Knowing Me, Knowing You’.

We Will Rock You (2002)

Bringing rock’s most bombastic excesses to the world of mainstream pop and boasting a brilliant, mercurial (in every sense of the word) singer who was the first and, to date, only gay Asian international musical superstar, it’s not surprising to learn that there is still a lot of love for Queen. Despite some excoriating opening night reviews and an admittedly cheesy book from Ben Elton, We Will Rock You defied all predictions to become a serious rival to Mamma Mia’s dominance. When WWRY finally bowed out in May 2014 after a 12-year run it became the 10th longest-running musical in West End history; however various productions are still active around the world.

Musical Highlights:

‘Radio Ga Ga’. ‘Killer Queen’, ‘A Kind of Magic’, ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, ‘We Are the Champions’.

Jersey Boys (2005)

If you were alive during the 1960s and 1970s then Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons will have provided a decent section of the soundtrack of your life, so a musical based on their best songs was a no-brainer. Jersey Boys’s book (written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) cleverly divides the story of the band into four sections or ‘seasons’, with a different narrator for each. Jersey Boys ran from 2005 to 2017 on Broadway, picking up four Tony Awards and, on its 2009 West End debut, a Laurence Olivier Award. Jersey Boys continues to be a reliable audience magnet, with many productions still running internationally.

Musical Highlights:

‘Sherry’, ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)’ ‘My Eyes Adored You’, ‘Beggin’’, ‘Let’s Hold On (To What We’ve Got)’, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, ‘Working My Way Back to You’, ‘Rag Doll’, ‘Who Loves You’.

Never Forget (2007)

The wailing and gnashing of teeth that occurred when teen favourites, Take That, announced that they were calling it a day must have been somewhat assuaged by this celebration of their finest moments, not to mention their timely reunion in 2006. With a book created by top TV writer Danny Brocklehurst, Never Forget premiered at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre in July 2007, finally opening at London’s Savoy Theatre in May 2008. It didn’t exactly set the world on fire, closing in November of the same year, but this could well be blamed on the distraction of the real band’s new material and appearances.

Musical Highlights:

‘Pray’, ‘It Only Takes a Minute’, ‘Back for Good’, ‘Relight My Fire’, ‘A Million Love Songs’, ‘Never Forget’.

Sunshine on Leith (2007)

As The Proclaimers, twins Craig and Charlie Reid have written some of the best loved – and catchiest – songs of the 20th century, so a jukebox musical featuring their hits was almost inevitable. The story of Sunshine on Leith concerns two soldiers returning to their Scottish hometown to resume their relationships with their families and friends but, naturally, not everything is straightforward. The original stage production was awarded a TMA Award for Best Musical in 2007 and has proved a favourite production for further education arts colleges. In 2013 a movie was released and received favourable critical notices and decent box office takings.

Musical Highlights:

‘I’m On My Way’, ‘Make My Heart Fly’, ‘Let’s Get Married’, ‘Oh Jean’, ‘Then I Met You’, ‘Should Have Been Loved’, ‘Sunshine on Leith’, ‘Letter From America’, ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’.

All the Fun of the Fair (2008)

Showcasing the hits of 1970s chart success, David Essex the title of All the Fun of the Fair was taken from his 1975 album and revolves around the lives of fairground worker Levi Lee, who is having more than a little trouble with his rebellious teenage son. The show, which was a sure-fire hit with all the now middle-aged women who had salivated over David Essex during his glory days, toured the UK before settling at London’s Garrick Theatre for a limited run.

Musical Highlights:

‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Hold Me Close’, ‘Rock On’, ‘Me and My Girl (Nighclubbing)’, ‘Gonna Make You a Star’, ‘If I Could’, ‘Silver Dream Machine’.  

Lazarus (2016)

As one of the more sophisticated jukebox musicals of recent years, Lazarus was one of the last major projects with which the late and much-lamented David Bowie was involved. The book, by Enda Walsh, presented itself as a sequel of Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth and featured some of Bowie’s most memorable songs, along with a few new compositions. The show received mixed reviews, but its short run (which was marked by the terminally ill Bowie’s last public appearance) attracted thousands of die-hard fans.

Musical Highlights:

‘This is Not America’, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, ‘Changes’, ‘Where Are We Now?’ ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Life on Mars?’, ‘All the Young Dudes’, ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘Heroes’.

And One Surprising Miss

Viva Forever! (2012)

With the hits of the Spice Girls and a lively book by AbFab’s Jennifer Saunders, it’s difficult to imagine how Viva Forever! could have been such a turkey. Opening to full media fanfare at the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre in December 2012 it attracted the worst reviews of the year, limping on for only seven months before closing on the 29th of June 2013. It just goes to show that you can have all the right ingredients for a hit but, if it lacks that indefinable spark, it’s dead in the water. The critics who had panned We Will Rock You were forced to admit that they underestimated the power of Queen, but the collective pull of Scary, Sporty, Baby, Posh and Ginger was clearly not enough to save the show. This was a jukebox musical too far.

Musical Highlights:

‘Wannabe’, ‘Too Much’, ‘Stop’, ‘Say You’ll Be There’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Mama’, ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, ‘Spice Up Your Life’, ‘Viva Forever’, ‘2 Become 1’.

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