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.

By , Contributor

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    Sahr Ngaujah belts it out in his lead role in ‘Fela,’ a show about Nigerian Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti.
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    ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ re-creates the night Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley jammed at Sun Studio in Memphis.
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    Alexander Brady and Charles Neshyba-Hodges in the Broadway Musical 'I'll Fly Away.'
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    Benjamin Walker (center) and the company in 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,' written and directed by Alex Timbers, featuring music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
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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.

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.

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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.

The low point for the jukebox musical arrived the same year that "Jersey Boys" clocked in on Broadway. Audiences were treated to a trio of bland songbook stinkers, several with absurd plots – "Good Vibrations" (the music of the Beach Boys), "All Shook Up" (Elvis), and "Lennon" (a trite hagiography of the Beatles). Toss in the Johnny Cash musical "Ring of Fire" and Twyla Tharp's Bob Dylan bomb, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," both in 2006, and you have a quintet of jukebox clunkers that made a mockery out of some of the most indelible pop music of the 20th century.

Which brings us to the unlikely developments of the recent Broadway season. The genre rebooted itself creatively thanks to a surprisingly strong lineup of new songbook shows in the 2009-2010 season. The season's high point came with the première of "Fela!" the life story of Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti, directed by Bill T. Jones, that was first originated off-Broadway in 2008. "Fela!" has strenuously avoided packaging itself as a jukebox musical, and indeed the unique portrait of this musical legend produces a kinetic blast of energy that feels less canned than most songbook shows.

So what are the common denominators in this creative renaissance? While none of this new crop of songbook musicals are unabashed artistic triumphs, they do share unique qualities. One theme is their ability to soak audiences in the musical spirit of the pop artists to which they're paying tribute, which creates the same visceral feel as a rock concert, but with added dramatic tension.

These shows also succeed in capturing the throbbing pulse of a specific time and place in history. "Million Dollar Quartet" imagines what transpired during one of rock music's most fabled jam sessions when Sun Records founder Sam Phillips corralled Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. While the country-fried script has its formulaic moments, the show is surprisingly moving and full of little frissons of excitement. Plus, there's no denying the rousing energy of the performances (including rock classics such as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "Great Balls of Fire").

"American Idiot" channels a similarly propulsive, if more anarchic, spirit. Based on Green Day's landmark 2004 album of the same name, this punk-rock opera bottled the angst-ridden spirit of adolescent restlessness and rebellion.

A portrait of a group of disaffected teenagers living and loving in George W. Bush's America serves up a flame-throwing riposte to a world of never-ending war, government spying, and incessant media blather. The show is full of the dark cynicism of youth, but also its idealism. While characters are largely archetypal and the narrative simple, the show is visceral and poignant.

An explosive, pulsating spirit also marks "Fela!" With a score of Afro-beat anthems, the show traces Kuti's life from his rise as a Nigerian folk hero to the heyday of the Shrine, the Lagos nightclub where he held court, and from his imprisonment as a political dissident to the government raid on his compound that led to the death of his activist mother.

Tharp's "Come Fly Away" doesn't break any new ground, even if the spirited dancing is a joy. It is essentially a story ballet, without much of a story. Still, audiences are immersed in the world of a swinging mid-century jazz nightspot, accompanied by the (recorded) singing voice of 'Ol Blue Eyes himself and a live orchestra.

Like "Jersey Boys" before them, "Fela!" and "Million Dollar Quartet" are stories based on the lives of the artists whose songs provide the building blocks for the scores. While these musicals tend toward hagiography, they succeed in capturing the pulsating heart of their subjects, whereas a show such as "Lennon" – also about a pop music icon – failed because it offered a flash-card caricature of a complicated and fascinating figure.

Each of these new jukebox shows takes a less-is-more approach. While many of the narrative thrusts are threadbare, they work within the confines of each show and avoid the overblown pomposity of '80s mega-musicals like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Misérables."

Interestingly, the latest wave of jukebox musicals can be traced back to that cheeky pop confection "Rock of Ages," which opened on Broadway more than a year ago. The show doesn't stick to immortalizing the music of one singer, but instead celebrates (and notably, skewers) an entire genre of pop music – '80s hair metal. Bursting with arena-rock anthems and sappy ballads by bands like Journey, Bon Jovi, Poison, and Pat Benetar, "Rock of Ages" is a satirical, yet affectionate, ode to an era known for its churning guitars, sing-along-choruses, and mountains of hair spray. While certainly not high art, it's an irresistible riot of frothy fun.

All of these jukebox shows traffic heavily in nostalgia. Still, nostalgia isn't always a bad thing and can even be redeployed in clever and creative ways that subvert, celebrate, and build upon its source material.

While none of this season's songbook shows are unqualified artistic successes, they have pushed the genre artistically and demonstrated that the oft-maligned species doesn't have to be a theatrical backwater. Whether you cringe or rejoice, the jukebox musical is apparently here to stay.

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