They range from the amazing Mamma Mia! which uses the music of Abba as background to a good narrative story, through We Will Rock You, which creates characters from the lyrics of Freddie Mercury and Queen and weaves them into a wacky, sci-fi type fable about saving the planet and on to Rock Of Ages which shoehorns soft rock classics into an irreverent romp.
And then there are the biography musicals which tell the story of the artists themselves, with a bit of artistic licence of course. Buddy was probably the original jukebox musical and introduced a whole new generation to Buddy Holly’s music and his tragic death. More recently, Jersey Boys has been a massive hit with Frankie Valli’s falsetto echoing through theatres around the world. In London at the moment is Beautiful: The Carole King Musical which is a huge success, telling her story while entertaining the audience with well-loved classics.
You can see the attraction for impresarios, theatre owners, record companies and film-makers:
- ready-made music which has already sold in huge volumes
- big fan bases who will come to hear their favourite artist’s songs regardless of the quality of the story
- a whole new generation of fans downloading tracks from back catalogues
- the chance to cash in a second time by making the film of the musical
A cynic could say it’s a cheap way of bring dead horses back to life and flogging them all over again. Sniffy critics often say they aren’t “real” musicals and dismiss them as worthless.
But I take a different view. Musical theatre, in fact all theatre, is about entertainment and it’s impossible to argue that jukebox musicals don’t provide a great night out. Ok, they aren’t Shakespeare, but I’ve never left the theatre having had a bad night at a jukebox musical. The talent involved is far beyond that of a mere tribute band, this is the West End we are talking about! Katie Brayben, star of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, won an Olivier for her performance. You know that you are in for a night of high quality theatre no matter if the songs are original or not.
Which brings me to Motown: The Musical arriving in London next year fresh from Broadway. I’ve not seen it yet, but I can’t wait. The story of how Berry Gordy built a music factory in Detroit is legendary. The fabulous catalogue of songs from writers like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Holland, Dozier, Holland may be over 40 years old but they still get played all the time on the radio and on my dad’s iPod! I know if I had a jukebox, filling it with Motown records would guarantee a great party!