What Does It Take To Make A Hit Juke Box Musical?
| By Tony Peters
So the saying goes, “If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there”. But it’s lucky some people remember the decade when many aspects of cultural life underwent a seismic shift otherwise there would probably be a few West End theatres dark at the moment.
Even before the decade was out it was being documented on stage where the 1968 musical Hair proved something of a watershed in British theatre, coming as it did immediately after the abolition of censorship, which allowed the show to include nudity and swearing.
While Andrew Lloyd Webber used the big political scandal of the Sixties as the basis for the ill-fated Stephen Ward, the decade was primarily about the music and many of the classic tunes written and recorded in those years have been revived for a whole bunch of shows — although, for some of us of a certain age they never really went away.
But is a collection of hit songs enough to guarantee a hit show? You’re ahead of me already.
Jersey Boys at the Piccadilly Theatre goes from strength to strength charting the rocky road to stardom for Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons, and critics seem to be in general agreement that Katie Brayben is doing a five star job with her portrayal of top songwriter Carole King in Beautiful at the Aldwych Theatre. While the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre is a terrifically entertaining show documenting the evolution of another great British band.
If these three shows prove one thing though, it’s that however good the songs — and let’s face it, the Four Seasons, Carole King and the Kinks all have astonishing catalogues — you still have to have a compelling story to tell. And that’s what sets these musicals apart from something like Dreamboats and Petticoats — plenty of Fifties and Sixties hits, but all hung on a flimsy story.
If the Sixties belonged to one band though it must be the Beatles, so it’s a little surprising how poorly they’ve been served by musical theatre.
Only Let It Be which is just beginning its third run in the West End, has gone anyway to celebrating the music of this most influential of groups. But while Let It Be is popular, it could be seen as little more than a tribute band playing the hits for tourists and for real fans it has some glaring anomalies; “Paul McCartney” plays the bass guitar right-handed for example. I know, I KNOW!
We have to go back to 1974 when Willy Russell’s John, Paul George, Ringo . . .and Bert transferred from the Liverpool Everyman to the Lyric to find a show about the Fab Four that had any real narrative structure. Despite only being in the West End for a year, it picked up the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.
While many productions have taken inspiration from the Sixties with varying success, the decade’s musical heritage is far from being milked dry —next on the horizon is four times Tony nominated Motown the Musical, set to open at the Dominion in 2015.
One show I doubt will be coming to the West End though is Good Vibrations, featuring the music of another Sixties mega band, the Beach Boys. It closed after just 94 performances on Broadway in 2005 following a lambasting by critics — another case of however classic the songs they can’t save a predictable plot.
The rule never really changes. If you want a hit show it’s: story story story.