I don’t hate jukebox musicals. Singin’ in the Rain is a jukebox screen musical, and I love it. It was written, by Comden and Green, around pre-existing songs (except Moses Supposes, and Make ‘Em Laugh, which the songwriters Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown pinched from Cole Porter’s recent Be a Clown), and Comden and Green did a damn good job.
An American in Paris is also a jukebox Gershwin screen musical, all of its songs having been written for prior Gershwin musicals (and concert pieces and ballets). Alan Jay Lerner wrote his storyline around those songs, and did nearly as well as Comden and Green.
Clearly, jukebox musicals don’t have to be bad. But there is a specific type of song that can’t happen in a jukebox show. That’s a dramatic theatre song, a song that dramatises what those characters are doing and saying and thinking at that precise moment in the story, and in no other story. These songs are specific, and you can’t find them lying around on old ABBA or Green Day albums. You have to write them yourself.
Also, I don’t care how clever you are, how campy you get, how much irony you pour, how many lyrics you tweak, you will never, ever get a pre-existing song to do what these theatre songs can do. No jukebox musical will ever contain a moment to match …
Soliloquy (Rodgers/Hammerstein) – Bill goes from wondering what his son will be like, to how they’ll be together, to what kind of girls his son might attract, to wondering if the baby might instead be a girl, to how they’ll be together, to Bill’s inadequacy as a father, to the need for money, to the decision to steal it if necessary. All in one song. You’d need five songs to pull this off in a jukebox show – which is to say, you couldn’t pull it off.
Rose’s Turn (Styne/Sondheim) – I suppose you could make this happen in a jukebox show – you’d just need about five songs from a pre-existing Jule Styne score full of all the right phrases, and then you’d need Stephen Sondheim at the piano, working through the number with Jerome Robbins doing the routine. For Ethel Merman.
Wilkommen (Kander/Ebb) – Best. Opening. Ever. Not just because it’s tri-lingual, in both the patter and the lyrics. Nope, the reason it’s brilliant is because it encapsulates the entire show you’re about to see in one song. The song is about knowing dreadful things are going on outside, and smiling to pretend otherwise. And then the entire evening is about that.
Tradition (Bock/Harnick) – So good that it took an opening as brilliant as Wilkommen to be as good. And this one came first. Again, the entire night is set up in one number: interwoven traditions and relationships are mirrored in Jerry Bock’s interwoven counter-melodies. You need the composer to be at the writers’ meetings for this to happen.
Johanna (Quartet) (Sondheim) – Anthony’s looking for Johanna. Johanna’s locked in an asylum, missing Anthony. Todd’s gone mad, and is slitting throats while missing his wife and daughter. And a beggar woman is denouncing Mrs Lovett. Surely, there’s a Nick Cave song that could do all this for me? Isn’t there?
Look Down (Boublil/Schoenberg/Kretzmer) – It’s kinda fashionable to drip scorn on Les Miz now, and the over-acting in this video is begging for it, but this part of the score really gets the job done, and gets it done theatre-style. Gavroche, Le Dodger Artful, is introduced, the poverty cycle gets an airing, and Marius and Enjolras bestride the stage like teen idol colossi. In the late ’80s, at least one callow teen loved it when the “it’ll come, it’ll come, it’ll come” refrain became the accompaniment to the next bit of singing. Nowadays I pretend I learned that trick from Shostakovich, but it’s not true.
Little Tin Box (Bock/Harnick) – The kind of song I’m talking about doesn’t have to be complex. But it does need specific imagery, for those characters and no others. You want to summarise Tammany corruption, musically and lyrically? How about a swingin’ song for guys, about a little tin box?
Four Jews in a Room Bitching (Finn) – So. This opening needs to establish the caffeinated, over-thinking tone of the piece, and we need to tell everyone the character names, and that they’re Jewish, and, like, how their Jewishness is gonna be, like, all through the show. Oh, and that it’s gonna be funny, not, like, all about AIDS and stuff. That’s the number we have to find. What? Whaddya mean we’re gonna have to write it?
The Riddle Song (Guettel) – One brother’s pinned underground, and the other one’s trying to free him, but it’s probably hopeless, so he makes up riddles to keep his brother’s mind occupied, and those riddles, of course, become about their relationship, and their lives together when they were younger. Shouldn’t be hard to find that song, we figure. Probably early Jackson Browne, maybe James Taylor. Two, three word changes, tops.
Please, Hello (Sondheim) – We need to see decades of trade relations between Japan and the Imperial powers of the West. But could all the nationalities have musical styles that are parodies of their famous composers of the period? And could the Westerners all address the Japanese in pidgin English? And could all the styles layer over each other in countermelodies towards the end? And could it all be pretty historically accurate? By next Tuesday?