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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.

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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.

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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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