On Jukeboxy-ness. Also, How Will Jukebox Musicals Age?

Last August, in the New York Times, theatre critics Jesse Green, Ben Brantley and Elisabeth Vincentelli had a conversation about jukebox musicals.

Everyone asked interesting questions and adopted varying stances on the many issues that jukebox shows raise. But nobody questioned one basic assumption, and it’s an assumption I haven’t seen questioned anywhere else either, leading, I think, to a great deal of woolly thinking.

Early in the article, Vincentelli asks “Is it worth starting with how we define the jukebox musical?”, after which the conversation moves on to revues, pop songs in the theatre and bio-musicals. Later, Brantley notes “but we seem to be too restrictive in our definition, a point Elisabeth raised earlier.” But that definition, despite all the theatre brain-power in the room, has never appeared.

Here’s the neatest definition of a jukebox musical I’ve seen, from theatre critic Cassie Tongue, in her review of Jersey Boys: “a narrative piece of theatre woven together with an artist or band’s discography”. Tongue neatly sidesteps revues and song cycles with her use of the word ‘narrative’, and the only addition I can think of is, perhaps, ‘era’, along with ‘artist’ and ‘band’, to cover those shows that mine a particular decade or genre, such as Motown and Rock of Ages.

In fact, maybe ‘pre-existing’ is sometimes all that’s needed, as in the case of a grab-bag like Moulin Rouge. And after all, isn’t pre-existing really the point?

In any case, even better than Tongue’s definition’s precision is its lack of judgement. Most of us, when we ask for a definition of jukebox musicals, are really asking “What’s a definition that allows me to loathe Mamma Mia! but praise American Idiot?”, and then the woolly thinking kicks in: we all bang on about how American Idiot‘s songs were originally written for a concept album, with an implied narrative, making them theatrical, and the show not really a jukebox show. At other times the question is, truthfully, “What’s a definition that lets me be excited about Moulin Rouge, while castigating every bio-show from Jersey Boys to Summer?”. Then we use words like ‘re-contextualise’ and ‘re-purpose’ and ‘fragment’, until Moulin Rouge is a superior, different kind of jukebox show.

Here’s the assumption we’re all making, though: that a show either is, or isn’t, a jukebox musical. I propose that jukeboxy-ness exists on a spectrum, that many shows employ jukeboxy-ness to varying degrees, and that audiences, generally, do not care about our definitions.

The question we should be asking is not “is this show a jukebox musical?”, but rather “how much does this show behave like a jukebox?”.


A modern jukebox does a very specific thing: it takes your money and in return plays you a song you know and want to hear. The process isn’t pure, since jukebox manufacturers and distributors limit your choices to their own song catalogues. Still, in an age of mp3s these catalogues are huge, and in theory the many available titles on display in a jukebox should soothe you with familiarity.

(Jukeboxes, by the way, used to be almost the opposite: before rock ‘n’ roll radio took off, they were the places you’d find the latest records, and first. If somebody referred to a ‘jukebox musical’ in the 1940s, that would have meant one with the latest jive, where a hep cat might really cut a rug.)

Jukebox musicals often try to soothe you in much the same way as a modern jukebox, usually with their full titles and subtitles: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; Jersey Boys – The story of Franki Valli & The Four Seasons; MAMMA MIA! THE SMASH HIT MUSICAL BASED ON THE SONGS OF ABBA. All of these titles and subtitles are designed to allay some of your ticket-buying fears by answering two of your most pressing ticket-buying questions: “how will the music sound, and will I like it?”

For me, a given show might be very jukeboxy, purely in terms of familiarity, if I know most or all of its songs in advance. I’m an Australian male born in 1970, so how jukeboxy for me is that queen of jukebox shows, Mamma Mia!? Here’s the song list:

ACT I
Prologue: I Have a Dream
Honey, Honey
Money, Money, Money
Thank You For the Music
Mamma Mia!
Chiquitita
Dancing Queen
Lay All Your Love On Me
Super Trouper
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!
The Name of the Game
Voulez-Vous

ACT II
Under Attack
One Of Us
S.O.S
Does Your Mother Know
Knowing Me, Knowing You
Our Last Summer
Slipping Through My Fingers
The Winner Takes It All
Take a Chance On Me
I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do
I Have a Dream (Reprise)

If today were April 5th, 1999, the day before Mamma Mia! opened on the West End, I could sing all but two of those songs for you, right now, before we picked up our tickets. For now, let’s leave aside whether I like all those songs, or want to hear that much ABBA in one sitting: as far as familiarity goes, for me Mamma Mia! behaves very much like a jukebox. It helps that I’m in my late 40s, and it really helps that I’m Australian.

Of course, those song choices are nearly all singles, and they’re nearly all hits. Book writer Catherine Johnson has an extensive catalogue to choose from (a complete Fernando has had to wait until the film sequel), but she shows no desire to surprise hardcore fans with obscure deep cuts. There’ll be no Bang a Boomerang tonight, and King Kong Song remains in my childhood, where it belongs. Furthermore, the two songs I don’t immediately know are exactly where they should be: the middle of Act Two, where they can do little harm, right before The Winner Takes It All kicks off three massive hits in succession, all the way to the curtain calls.

Mamma Mia! even relies on my familiarity with its songs, expecting me to know them instantly:

TANYA: What is it?

DONNA: Nothing. Leave me alone. I can’t talk about it. I knew this would happen! Of course it was gonna come out now. It had to. Oh God, why was I such a stupid little eejit?

ROSIE (sings): CHIQUITITA, TELL ME WHAT’S WRONG …

Cue the knowing laugh from the audience. The film version of Moulin Rouge has a similar moment near its beginning:

CHRISTIAN (v/o): There seemed to be artistic differences over Audrey’s lyrics and Satie’s songs.

DOCTOR: I don’t think a nun would say that about a hill.

SATIE: What if he sings, ‘The hills are vital, intoning the descant’?

TOULOUSE: No, no. The hills quake and shake –

DOCTOR: No, no, no, no. The hills –

ARGENTINEAN: The hills are incarnate with symphonic melodies!

This goes on for some time, until our hero Christian cements his place as a songwriter ahead of his time by getting the answer right:

CHRISTIAN (sings): THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

Why is only Christian’s answer right? Because it’s Oscar Hammerstein’s actual lyric, of course, and the audience knows this. Head Over Heels, a musical whose jukebox uses The Go-Go’s/Belinda Carlisle discography, plays this fanservice game when Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi, announces that one of their predictions for the King of Arcadia has come true:

PYTHIO: Thou with thy wife adultery shall commit … (sings) OOOOOOH, BABY, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT’S WORTH?

You get it. Cue the knowing laugh from the audience. Each of these moments congratulates us for knowing a lyric so well-known that half the planet knows it, and chosen for this moment precisely because it’s a lyric that half the planet knows.


“Oddly I’m not a big fan of “Mamma Mia!” but that’s because I love Abba so much that the show messed with my pre-existing ideas about the songs.” 

Elisabeth Vincentelli

“… partly because they [pop songs] were pre-written for a different context — or for no context — and partly because they tend to cycle through one generic emotion, they make character development difficult.”

Jesse Green

Besides familiarity, there’s at least one other aspect to jukeboxy-ness, which Vincentelli refers to, and it’s what happens after the opening lyric: do the writers then mess with the original? Here’s the original Andersson/Ulvaeus opening for Chiquitita:

Chiquitita, tell me, what’s wrong?
You’re enchained by your own sorrow.
In your eyes
There is no hope for tomorrow.

Here’s the altered version from Mamma Mia!:

ROSIE: Chiquitita, tell me, what’s wrong?
TANYA: I have never seen such sorrow
BOTH: In your eyes
And the wedding is tomorrow

Mamma Mia! is coy about the credits for its re-written lyrics. Perhaps in the theatre, where clarity is all, there’s little hope for a word like “enchained”, but in this instance, with a mis-accented “is”, and the clunky exposition of two characters telling a third something they all already know, I’m pretty certain no theatre lyricist was involved.

And I’m completely certain, given the show’s success, that nobody important cares. Mamma Mia! tinkers with its original ABBA lyrics all the time, and audiences don’t seem to mind, since changes are rarely made in a song’s first line, and never in an important chorus. More importantly, I think, ABBA’s songs are sometimes broken up with story-in-dialogue, but they’re never asked to convey new plot alone, or to introduce new characters – these tasks are consistently achieved through speech after/beforehand. And, as Green notes, these pre-written pop songs are often staged as dramatically static celebrations of one generic (maybe “unequivocal” is a fairer term?) emotion.

(To be fair, there are plenty of songs from non-jukeboxy original scores that are also dramatically static and emotionally unequivocal, whether they’re celebrating June for bustin’ out all over, or recommending that one give it the ol’ razzle dazzle.)

Nevertheless, this most jukeboxy of jukeboxy musicals is not completely jukeboxy. When it is, it’s unashamedly so, and for those who like the show, this is a big part of its charm:

“… the pure klutziness of Mamma Mia! is what makes it a strange work of genius. It picks up the inner karaoke demon in all of us.”

Ben Brantley

Note, though, that ‘karaoke’ implies knowing the songs in advance. What if you don’t?


The theatre critics at Exeunt Magazine NYC had a range of responses to Head Over Heels, including this observation from Nicole Serratore about the show’s decision to use The Go-Go’s/Belinda Carlisle catalogue:

I just never got into music when I was a teen and still find myself playing catch-up. I wonder how much of this was a miss for me because the music also didn’t provide that extra layer of familiarity or tasty, satisfying musical nostalgia noms.

Nicole Serratore

As far as Head Over Heels goes, I have only three potential musical nostalgia noms: Our Lips Are Sealed, We Got the Beat, and (maybe) Get Up and Go. I never liked Belinda Carlisle’s solo hits, and I’m not even familiar with the show’s title song – although I freely admit that by the end of its first chorus, I feel like I’ve known it for years. That’s an important additional consideration with many jukebox musicals: songs originally aimed at the pop charts should be hooky, even if they’re unfamiliar, and there’s a certain imprimatur that comes with knowing in advance that a show’s numbers are drawn from a catalogue of hits.

But are they? In Head Over Heels, Pythio, the newly-appointed non-binary-plural Oracle of Delphi, has two important jobs to do, plotwise, once they are introduced: announce who they are, and make several predictions that will spur the King of Arcadia into action. Additionally, the performer playing Pythio is Peppermint, the first trans femme actor to originate a principal role on Broadway.

If I were assigned to write an original song for Pythio’s introduction, I’d be salivating. I’d want to do everything at once: address this musical’s themes of breaking down stultifying binary categories, while dropping Pythio’s prediction-bombs, while breaking the fourth wall a little to give Peppermint her debut moment, while also giving her and any future Pythios a showstopping number on its own terms. Not easy, but that’s how high I would set my sights. All in song.

What does Head Over Heels give Pythio? Vision of Nowness, from The Go-Go’s 2001 album God Bless.

To summarise: that’s a non-single, a non-hit, from the band’s non-heyday. Are there any nostalgia noms to be had here? Is anyone nostalgic for the Go-Go’s of 2001? But perhaps the song is intrinsically so well-written, and so apropos that it doesn’t matter. The lyrics:

There are some things I must never reveal
About the way I think and what I feel
To the surface, smooth, calm and cool
Eyes as deep and blue as a swimming pool
And I confess with certainty
No interference will get through to me

So far, that’s an ‘I Am’ song, allowing Pythio to announce what they’re like, rather than who they are: long on attitude, and short on specifics (also, are swimming pools really that deep?). The chorus:

Like a picture that’s been painted
And is hanging on the wall
An admired but untouchable
Reflection
A vision of nowness
A vision of now

There is a second verse, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is mostly more attitude, followed by a repeat of the chorus. As far as all the heavy lifting goes – making predictions, explaining who they are, giving Peppermint her moment – all of that is relegated to speech. All of it, and without the compensating factor of occurring in the midst of a beloved song, a nostalgia nom, a summoning of the inner karaoke demon.

Head Over Heels, then, is jukeboxy except when it isn’t. And this Pythio-introduction moment in particular, a crucial turning point in the story early in Act One, behaves nothing like a jukebox: unless you’re a very ardent Go-Go’s fan, the show takes your money and in return plays you a song you don’t already know, and thus cannot possibly already want to hear.

One of the problems of the regular kind of jukebox is that the songs are not, typically, theatrical and, as such, often just flop on the stage like dead fish.

Jesse Green

I vehemently disagree that pop songs flop in a theatrical setting.

Elisabeth Vincentelli

I submit that Green and Vincentelli are both right, depending on the moment, and depending on the song. Vision of Nowness is, I think, a dead fish. Heaven is a Place On Earth, after the knowing laugh summoned by its opening line, does much better. Again, from the critics at Exeunt NYC:

My eye-rolling never quite recovered from the jamming together of “the beat” and “the governing ethos of a Renaissance nation-state” and wrenching the plot to make “Vacation” literal. Conversely, something like the deep irony of throwing “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” into what’s essentially an underground–like, a cave–sex club seemed to me a more successful synchrony.

Loren Noveck

Noveck’s synchrony is akin to what I think Vincentelli means when she says, of pop songs in a theatrical setting, “Their connection to the audience is very different, and so is their connection to a show’s narrative.” But that synchrony, and that plurality of connections, can only happen if you already know the song. Heaven is a Place on Earth, a 1987 bubble-gum worldwide hit, can produce irony in an underground sex club. Vision of Nowness cannot be, except for the most serious fans of The Go-Go’s, anything but a new song.


Which brings me – and really, if you’ve stayed this long, we shall always be friends – to the second part of the title of this post: how will jukebox musicals age? What will happen when there is only a song’s connection to the narrative, and no pre-existing one to the audience?

A world in which no-one knows the songs of ABBA seems inconceivable – and for all their seeming public nonchalance, the members of the band have gone to considerable lengths to keep their songs worming in your ears, serving as producers and executive producers on different incarnations of Mamma Mia!, as well as endorsing Mamma Mia-themed restaurants, and lending their support to ABBA: The Museum (where the audio tour is written by – who else? – Catherine Johnson).

Likewise, thanks to other people whose job it is to keep catalogues prominent and earning, none of us will stop hearing the songs of The Beatles, The Eagles, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Queen, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones etc. any time soon.

But there is a jukebox musical with songs are so old that they’re barely known by anyone in their original incarnations. They now have only their present connection to the musical’s narrative, and no original musical nostalgia noms to provoke. Actually, this musical has been around for long enough to develop new musical nostalgia noms of its own. And, like every jukebox show, it was never completely jukeboxy.

My principal criterion for jukebox musicals is do they summon the pleasure we once derived from the works being hymned?

Ben Brantley

It’s Singin’ in the Rain, conceived by MGM producer Arthur Freed as a vehicle for his songwriting catalogue with lyricist Nacio Herb Brown. This was while, conveniently, Freed was head of the unit responsible for making musicals at MGM, but who in hindsight can blame him for having an ego? When the film debuted in 1952, the oldest of its songs dated from 1929, so in terms of nostalgia, this is like writing a jukebox musical today featuring the hits of TLC and Hootie & the Blowfish.

I first saw Singin’ in the Rain on video when I was 17, with my then-girlfriend, who had a serious and entirely justifiable thing for Gene Kelly. After I’d overcome my seething jealousy at Gene’s magnificent butt, I thoroughly enjoyed Singin’ in the Rain, realising I was seeing, in Moses Supposes, Good Morning, Make ’em Laugh, and the title song, some of the greatest dance numbers ever filmed.

But how much did this jukebox musical function like a jukebox for me? Hardly at all. I’d seen snippets of one or two numbers elsewhere, and I knew the “doo doo doo doo” introduction to the title song. Otherwise, this was all new, with none of Brantley’s summoning of pleasures once derived. Moreover, at the time, I didn’t know this film was using a pre-existing catalogue of songs.

But then, how jukeboxy was Singin’ in the Rain for audiences in 1952? Often not, it turns out. Make ’em Laugh, apart from being a brazen ripoff of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from four years earlier, was a new song credited to screenplay writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. So was Moses Supposes, with music by the film’s musical director Roger Edens. Edens also wrote the “doo doo doo doo” introduction to the title song, so even that part was new to audiences in 1952.

It would be easy to say “Well, of course, Comden and Green came from Broadway, so they wrote theatre numbers where they were needed.” Except they didn’t. Make ’em Laugh takes four minutes, in terms of plot and character, to achieve this:

COSMO: Come on, Don, snap out of it! The show must go on!
DON: You know what? You’re right.

And Moses Supposes takes four minutes to achieve this:

TEACHER: Moses supposes his toeses are roses …
DON + COSMO (mocking flawlessly): But Moses supposes erroneously …
TEACHER: Well, I can see you two don’t need my help.

Elsewhere, pre-existing songs like Good Morning and the title song are written to function as dramatically static celebrations, capping spoken scenes in which plot and character advance and develop. They’re used, in other words, very much like pre-existing pop songs are used in jukebox musicals today.

A modern stage adaptation of Singin’ in the Rain, then, is a revival of a jukebox, a live version of a familiar film, but with none of that film’s original nostalgia available to it. The audience, if they’ve not seen the movie, are a bunch of 17 year-old mes, not thinking about how this narrative has been woven together with the Freed/Brown song catalogue, but rather about how these songs work – or fail to work – on their own terms.

And a similar fate, eventually, awaits every jukeboxy show.


Jukeboxy-ness is often bewailed, especially by those of us who write original songs, as an affliction, a modern-day blight brought on by risk-averse producers. For what it’s worth, I think it’s more a symptom than a disease: with tickets to a Broadway musical now costing $113 dollars, on average, including the flops, who can blame audiences for wanting to be soothed with familiarity? (An orchestra seat for Carousel in 1945 would have cost you, in today’s money, about $70.)

Elsewhere, shows with original scores but familiar titles and storylines (Mean Girls, Pretty Woman) demonstrate jukeboxy-ness of a different kind: here is a show that takes your money and in return tells you a story you already know, and (presumably) want to hear again, in musical form.

And sometimes, (I whisper this, Frozen and Greatest Showman) those original songs written for original stories sound so much like pre-existing songs that I still feel like I’m hearing a jukebox show.

In 1945, for my $70 or so, Carousel would have presented me, amongst other things, with a seven-and-a-half minute solo number near the end of Act One, slightly pretentiously entitled Soliloquy, and like nothing I’d have heard before, advancing plot, developing character, establishing a star, all in song, and throwing down a challenge for every composer and lyricist to come. None of it familiar, none of it soothing – and part of a score that, for all of Carousel‘s other problems, remains the chief reason it’s revived today.

Not bad for $70. And jukeboxy-ness, for all its charms, can’t do it.

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