The Wicked Stage: Reassessing the Jukebox Musical

Last month I wrote a blog about book musicals vs concept musicals and how they have been affected by the rise of the ‘jukebox musical’. The mixed comments I received regarding this have made me wonder about this newcomer a bit more. Also, as news comes about a musical currently undergoing workshops in New York and the UK with music by Sting, it has made me slightly re-assess my views.

To start with the basics, a jukebox musical is a show with well-known popular songs by a certain band or artist with a plot constructed to connect all the songs. This makes it different to a book musical where the songs are woven into the plot. Because it’s songs we know, it is often perceived that less effort went into the creation of jukebox musicals, and this has caused them to have the stigma of being a lesser musical (I certainly felt this during my studies). The early productions such as Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You attest to this.  This isn’t to say that they are any less enjoyable or worthy for an audience, as proven by the success of shows such as Mamma Mia which has been running since 1999 in London.

There has recently been a rise in the number of celebrity composers creating original scores, such as Elton John for Billy Elliot, Bono and the Edge for Spiderman: Turn off the Dark and, recently, Tim Minchin for Matilda. These are not jukebox musicals, but some of the same theory applies: we go to a jukebox musical because we know the band and songs already, and we are equally likely to go if we know the composer’s work already;  it is a safe bet that we will enjoy it.

The newest type of jukebox being developed is best illustrated by American Idiot, which to all intents and purposes is a jukebox musical because it is using the songs from Greenday’s American Idiot album and others from their back catalogue. However, it differs because Billie Joe Armstrong (lead singer of Greenday) purposely gave the album a story arc and hoped it would be filmed or staged. This also harks back to the 1970s when bands were creating story-albums or concept albums; The Who, The Kinks and Pink Floyd are just a few examples. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice expanded their album to create Jesus Christ Superstar. American Idiot is the start of a closer fusion between jukebox and book musicals, and one we will see first-hand when it tours the UK later this year.

I recently read an article on which mentions a new musical, The Last Ship, which had a UK reading in Newcastle in the first week of February. This is of interest because the music is by Sting and the plot is semi-autobiographical. When I first started reading the article I assumed it was a jukebox, as it mentioned the use of pre-existing Sting songs. However, as I read on it mentioned the writing of new songs and one in particular that co-author Brian Yorkey (winner of a Tony and Pulitzer for Next To Normal) has called “one of the best in the show”. If there are more original songs than pre-exisiting then can this be a jukebox? Or is it perhaps the closest we have got to fusing the book and jukebox?

I stand by what I wrote in my previous blog that most shows from the musical theatre back catalogue can be put into one of three categories, but there will always be exceptions. This recent re-invention and change to jukebox musicals could alter all that, and I look forward to seeing it come to fruition.

Image by Steve Webster.

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.