Broadway musicals: The new jukebox heroes
Broadway musicals that ground themselves in the songbook of a famous pop artist are energizing the Great White Way.
Don't look now, but the much-maligned "jukebox musical," a theatrical genre that critics and audiences had deemed as stale as month-old bread, is enjoying a remarkable resurgence on Broadway.Skip to next paragraph
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Also dubbed the "songbook musical," because it employs the back catalogue of a famous pop artist as its launching point, the genre is in the midst of a commercial and creative rebirth. For evidence, look no further than the raucous, snarly punk anthems of Green Day's "American Idiot," the smooth-vocal croonings of Frank Sinatra in Twyla Tharp's latest dance musical "Come Fly Away," the indelible hit songs of rock 'n' roll's greatest icons in "Million Dollar Quartet," or the propulsive sounds of legendary Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti in "Fela!"
Not only have critics (for the most part) and audiences embraced this season's lineup of jukebox shows, but so has the industry's top kingmaker, the Tony Awards, which air on June 13 at 8 p.m. Three of the four jukebox shows – "Fela!" "American Idiot," and "Million Dollar Quartet" – have been nominated for Best Musical. In total, the four shows have garnered 19 Tony nominations.
While revues like "Smokey Joe's Cafe" were precursors to the genre, the jukebox musical largely exploded into existence in 1999 with that blast of sugary pop, "Mamma Mia!" inspired by the songs of Swedish supergroup ABBA.
An artistic high point arrived in 2002 with "Movin' Out," visionary choreographer Twyla Tharp's genre-hopping dance show in which she took the tunes of Billy Joel to fashion a tale of five friends coming of age during the Vietnam War era.
The genre's commercial apex came with the "Behind the Music"-style biographical show "Jersey Boys," about the roller-coaster comebacks of 1960s pop supergroup, The Four Seasons. That megahit swept the Tony Awards in 2006, including Best Musical, and has become a box office behemoth.
Still, to most theater observers, the jukebox musical had long since passed its sell-by date. In fact, critics reacted with contempt at the parade of cookie-cutter musicals. Yet theater producers just can't resist the advantages of marketing a show about a famous pop or rock artist with a wheel-barrel full of instantly familiar songs.