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'Disaster!': What critics are saying and a look at Broadway's jukebox musicals

The musical 'Disaster!,' which features various '70s hits and parodies the movie disaster genre, recently opened on Broadway. Are jukebox musicals helping or hurting theater?

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    'Disaster!' stars (from l.) Catherine Ricafort, Roger Bart, Baylee Littrell, Seth Rudetsky, Rachel York, Kevin Chamberlain and Olivia Phillip.
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The Broadway show “Disaster!” is the newest “jukebox musical” to arrive on the Great White Way.

The show, which opened on March 8, is a parody of the disaster movie genre and includes various 1970s hits. It stars book co-writer Seth Rudetsky, Adam Pascal of “Rent,” “Catch Me If You Can” actress Kerry Butler, and “Young Frankenstein” actor Roger Bart, among others. 

In the show, various passengers on the casino ship Barracuda find themselves going up against a tsunami, an earthquake, and other various crises, performing such songs as “I Will Survive” and “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.”

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Many critics say the show is fun, though some are divided on whether the parody wears thin. 

New York Times writer Charles Isherwood calls the show a “delirious goof.” 

“[‘Disaster!’] will never rank among the great musicals of our era ­– or even the great jukebox musicals of our era, a rather small demographic,” Mr. Isherwood writes. “But for anyone with a moist, albeit mortifying, affection for the oeuvre of that great auteur Irwin Allen (guilty), and the K-Tel era of pop music (guilty), ‘Disaster!’ will provide a rush of giddy nostalgia that’s just as pleasurable, at times, as the more substantial rewards of the musical theater’s higher-reaching shows… a sensational cast.” 

Washington Post writer Peter Marks found the show to be “inoffensive [and] agreeably daffy… it is the caliber of these parodists that keeps the silliness afloat.”

However, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones wrote that the musical “unaccountably opened on Broadway… it was too late for me about halfway through Act 1.”

With its ‘70s songbook, “Disaster!” is the newest Broadway entry in the “jukebox musical” genre, the term for a stage show that uses pre-existing music. Think “Mamma Mia!” or “Rock of Ages.” 

And “Mamma” is a key reference in this genre, as the musical, which is based on the music of ABBA, is often credited with kickstarting the popularity of this kind of show. “Mamma” became a huge hit – a movie version was made in 2008 – and closed on Broadway just last year after opening in 2001.

Musicals including “Jersey Boys,” which told the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as the Billy Joel musical “Movin’ Out” and the recent Carole King musical “Beautiful,” among many others, all followed. 

Some criticize this genre for its reliance on already-written songs. 

“All these years on, isn't it starting to look a bit lazy, a bit sub-panto, to keep on using pop hits rather than starting new musicals from scratch?” Guardian writer Barbara Ellen asked in 2006. Upon attending several of these musicals, including “Mamma” and “Movin’,” she wrote, “Cross-pollination of the arts is nothing new and it doesn't do to be precious, but who really wants this kind of thing?”

But others take the view that these shows can be good and that the genre as a whole shouldn’t be unfairly maligned.

Sarah Larson of The New Yorker wrote, “Done well, jukebox musicals, which are by nature about popular music, can have great music and dramatic insight, too. I propose that we stop being embarrassed by them, and I hope that producers and librettists continue to make the genre better. Great pop music can be celebrated well and enjoyably.” Ms. Larson cited the 2013 jazz musical "After Midnight" and the Carole King musical "Beautiful" as two jukebox musicals that are also impressive shows.

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