THE JUKEBOX MUSICAL
April 8, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
There’s no other polite way to put it: the Jukebox Musical is a split proposition in more ways that one. For as many theatre enthusiasts it fills with dread, it has undeniably given pleasure to millions of people (Mamma Mia, anybody?) At its worst, it’s a lazy conceit with scores strung together by a parade of previously released popular songs. For those who demand more from a Broadway musical, sometimes a haphazard plot is constructed (or merely inserted) to keep the songs from being rolled out one after the other. As one example, take Mamma Mia’s poor excuse for one, which was more than just tired — it was recycled. Nearly the exact same story had been musicalized by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane on Broadway in 1978 for Carmelina (and THAT show was an uncredited rip-off of an original 1968 screenplay Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell that starred Gina Lollobrigida). So much for originality.
And guess what? Audiences couldn’t care less. They came for the ABBA songs and were not disappointed. The guessing game of which one of the lead character’s three old boyfriends was the father of her only daughter was surprisingly suited to nearly everyone’s satisfaction. Well, almost everyone. The night I attended the show in Los Angeles (a month before it was headed for New York in 2001), the entire audience seemed to “get it,” while my friend and I were left out in the cold. Not the first time that’s ever happened, and it won’t be the last. Always willing to listen to what an audience is saying, both my friend and I figured that Mamma Mia would wind up doing well. However, no one (not even the producers) could have imagined it would run on Broadway for 14 years. Its original London production is still running since the very end of the 20th century (1999, to be precise).
Like Mamma Mia, jukebox musicals feature the work of the same composer-lyricist team. Take Smoky Joe’s Cafe, for example. Most audiences were probably unaware that such hits as “Fools Fall in Love,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak” and “Hound Dog” were written by Jerry Lieber and Matt Stoller (although often with a little help from others). And when forty (!) of their songs were put into one revue, they became newly “discovered,” and the show ran for five years. There have also been shows with numerous artists contributing, such as the substantial hit Rock of Ages, which even generated a movie sale (although the film flopped).
Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out, with wildly original choreography by Twyla Tharp, was a justified hit. It even managed to tie the songs together in a compelling narrative thread without much in the way of any added dialogue, no mean feat. Though when Tharp tried this again quickly with a show devoted to the work of Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’ arrived nearly dead-on-arrival after struggling in its out-of-town try out cities. Movin’ Out also had a rocky road to Broadway, but managed to find its footing. Times They Are A-Changin’ did not.
Because of its incredible 11-year run (and the Tony Award it received for Best Musical), Jersey Boys has been more responsible for clones over the last decade than any other show. With its score made up entirely of hits made famous by the Four Seasons (all of them composed by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crew), audiences came IN humming the tunes. This was no revue, but a first-rate entertainment which gave audiences its money’s worth in both nostalgia and telling a terrific rags-to-riches story. Even its structure, with the switching of narrators to tell a quarter of each version of events from different viewpoints (and each one depicting a season), was refreshing and gave the jukebox musical genre a jolt.
Thus Jersey Boys paved the way for Beautiful, Carole King’s songbook musical that shows no signs of waning at the box office since it opened three seasons ago. But Jersey Boys has ultimately been responsible for more flops than hits. Over time, regretful shows of this same ilk included such misfires as Baby It’s You (the story of the Shirelles), Hot Feet (Earth, Wind and Fire), Lennon (John), Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys), and most recently Holler If Ya Hear Me, which ran a month in 2014, and featured the music of Tupac Shakur.
There has only been one revue of songs to my mind that was made into a cohesive, musically exciting and dramatically moving night in the theatre (which is the way I personally like my shows). Ain’t Misbehavin’ opened thirty-nine years ago today, well before Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys, and featured songs either written or made famous by Thomas (Fats) Waller. It was a genuine sensation that ran for nearly four years and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was, to this day, one of the simplest and most entertaining shows I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to explain what made it so special. According to the Playbill it was “based on an idea of Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz,” with Maltby also receiving a “conceived and directed by” credit. His work was so strong, his immaculate direction won him that season’s Tony over Harold Prince’s fluid and brisk staging of the Cy Coleman-Betty-Comden-Adolph Green musical On the 20th Century. Having seen both original productions, all I can report is that there was genius at work in each of them.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ had begun in a small cabaret space Off-Broadway at the old Manhattan Theatre Club on the Upper East Side, and almost from the time it first played to an audience, it seemed to have a powerful effect on all who saw it. It evoked the time of the Harlem Renaissance: a world of smoky joints and great music which made for a perfect setting. Not much more than a cabaret show, its creators were encouraged to lengthen and strengthen it to see if there was a larger show to be had. With its cast of five and small band it didn’t cost much to bring it directly to Broadway, where it was met with unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike. It made a star of Nell Carter, who almost immediately left the show for Hollywood and her six-year run as the star of the NBC-sitcom Gimme a Break!
Probably based on Carter’s stardom, Ain’t Misbehavin’ was taped and broadcast on NBC with its original cast on in 1982, four years after Carter, Ken Page, Charlaine Woodard, Andre DeShields and Amelia McQueen opened it on Broadway. It’s a shame it’s never been released on DVD, but if you’re up for it, there is a pretty decent copy that’s on YouTube. Take a look and see what pure joy sounds and looks like:
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/