The proliferation of jukebox musicals doesn’t look like slowing down or stopping any time soon. Just when you think there can’t be any more back catalogues to plunder, up pops another one.
But however good a jukebox musical might be — and, let’s not be snitty about this, there are some thoroughly enjoyable ones — is it doing damage to the genre of musical theatre in the long run?
No room for new writing is the obvious downfall, and as the jukebox musical becomes more ubiquitous, are prospective first time composers running out of shows from which they can learn their craft and the little touches that will make a show a hit?
Nowhere is this more evident than the fabled 11 o’clock number. So named from the days when Broadway shows used to start at 8:30, it’s the song that worms its way into your consciousness so much that you are still humming it as you make your way home. The song that makes you tell your friends what a great show you’ve just seen. Every great show has one and finding that hook is a rare talent indeed. Many shows have more than one great song, of course, but there is usually only one that can be classed as a true 11 o’clock number.
When I go and see Miss Saigon it’s 'Last Night Of The World', 'Movie In My Mind' or 'Bui Doi' that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up during the performance, but sitting on the train home it’s that da da da da da da da intro to 'American Dream' that I can’t get out of my head.
Cats has 'Memory', Wicked has 'Defying Gravity', Phantom Of The Opera has 'Music Of The Night', and Les Miserables . . . well, where do you start with Les Mis? It does rather break the one-per-show idea. 'At The End Of The Day'? 'I Dreamed a Dream'? 'On My Own'?, or even 'Master Of The House'? But for me Les Mis’s 11 o’clock number has to be the rousing and anthemic 'Do You Hear the People Sing'?
Key word to remember “anthemic” when it comes to writing an 11 o’clock number.
The importance of this type of song to a show’s success can’t be over estimated. John Du Prez and Eric Idle recognised that importance with the glorious 'Song That Goes Like This' for Spamalot. It might be a p*** take, but it’s an 11 o’clock number in every sense of the word.
Jukebox musicals have great songs too, of course. Pick your favourite Carole King from Beautiful, your favourite Kink’s from Sunny Afternoon, your favourite Four Seasons from Jersey Boys. Or if you really want to be spoilt for choice, your favourite Beatles from Let It Be. But however good 'Hey Jude', 'Waterloo Sunset' or 'You’ve Got A Friend' are, they are already part of my musical consciousness and probably haven’t been made any more significant by seeing them is a West End show. Next time I hear the originals it will be just another listen and won’t bring back memories of that night in the theatre.
Are there so many jukebox musicals because people have lost the knack of writing that 11 o’clock number? Or have people lost the knack of writing the 11 o’clock number because there are so many jukebox musicals?
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question and things are far from desperate yet, but let’s hope the warning signs aren’t there because will miss them when they’re gone.
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