Once upon a time, the novelty of musical entertainment was a box containing wax or paper cylinders that, once a coin was deposited into the machine, the selected song would play.
Early versions of these machines predate the radio but once radio broadcasting went mainstream – meaning that music could be had for free, the pay-to-hear music boxes became the go-to device for listening to popular songs while at one’s favourite hangout.
Those boxes were called jukes or jukeboxes.
They presumably got their name from the American South, from the Gulla-Geechee language spoken by the Creole people, who would go to juke joints to drink, dance and generally get rowdy.
By definition, juke or jook means rowdy, disorderly or wicked.
Fascinating history lesson but what does it have to do with musical theatre? Great question!
At the height of their popularity, these jukeboxes, no longer confined to the bayous of Louisiana were installed in every venue possible, from dance clubs to dive bars – the places where carrying at least a knife was advisable.
In the US, where their popularity soared, they featured in malt shops and restaurants where kids congregated after school, and they always contained the latest hit records by all the top stars.
A single jukebox might contain five or six records each from Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Fats Domino.
From those random groupings of songs – some from the same artists, it wasn’t much of a stretch to compile a single artist’s, group’s or year’s music into a choreographed stage show, with or without a storyline.
It helped that musical films such as An American in Paris and Rock Around the Clock were wildly popular; if they could make money by presenting loosely associated collections of songs, why shouldn’t a repertory company or performing troupe?
And so, the first jukebox musicals were crafted…
Early Jukebox Musicals
Obviously, recording artists could not exist until there was a way to record them. And then, once recording methods were established, who would become a recording star would be decided by public opinion, reflected in record sales.
Finally, there had to be enough records by said artist to fill a respectable number of slots in a jukebox.
The long and the short of this analysis is: jukebox musicals could not exist before the mid-20th Century.
Admittedly, early efforts at weaving a single artist’s work into a musical were paltry; in fact, most of the early attempts yielded musical revues rather than anything remotely resembling the day’s Broadway shows.
The lone exception to the shows put together in the 70s was Elvis, a 1977 production that detailed his life and career. Ticket sales were no doubt driven, at least in part, by his legions of grieving fans; he had died that year at only 44 years of age.
You might wonder about Beatlemania…
Indeed, the Beatles were quite popular and their music was ‘covered’ - performed by other artists. Inevitably, the Fab Four’s popularity led to their being the subject of a Broadway musical.
This Broadway production, which ran from 1977 to 1979, was remarkable for nothing if not its technical aspects.
Against the backdrop of the turbulent 60s, Beatles music played as various newspaper headlines and video clips of newsworthy events flashed on multiple screens, topped by headlines that roughly corresponded to the same time the song being played was popular.
In that sense, Beatlemania too was a revue, even though it broke barriers for its innovative use of technology.
Trivia question: why weren’t the Beatles’ musicals considered rock/pop musicals?
The Jukebox Musical Gains Traction
Many believe that Mamma Mia!, the sensational musical comprising of ABBA songs was their first foray into weaving a musical out of their chart-toppers.
As well-loved as this engaging show is (you can stream it or rent it; some devoted fans have even bought their own copy of it!), it was not the group’s first time adapting their music and lyrics to suit musical theatre; Abbacadabra was.
If you’ve never heard of it, there’s probably a good reason: the show was created as a children’s television programme and the songs were altered to be more suitable for young audiences.
For instance, the slightly menacing Money, Money Money became Mon Nez, Mon Nez, Mon Nez – My Nose, My Nose, My Nose – a song topic that would no doubt thrill any child between the ages of two and five!
By this time, Disney Studios had firmly established themselves as American film musical producers for that demographic. They satisfied English-speaking audiences's craving for musicals (and, later, audiences of other languages) and ABBA filled any gaps for musicals that the American musical producer left.
Rather tellingly, the ABBA men went to collaborate on several stage musical ventures…
As the Swedish group’s star was rising, the American musical was still looking backwards. That decade, two retrospectives premiered: Always… Patsy Cline and Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.
Both musicians had died very young and in plane crashes. As they were much revered, the best way to pay tribute to them was to write new musicals about their life and art.
Still, not all was tragedy on Broadway, even if the rest of the decade’s jukebox shows was spent on looking back. Two shows, The Leader of the Pack and Return to the Forbidden Planet both featured sounds from early 60s rock’n’roll.
It seemed, for a while, that the jukebox musical was doomed to hindsight… until just before Y2K.
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The Jukebox Musical Matures, Diversifies
For most of the 90s, jukebox musicals continued their trend of looking back. Among the titles of that decade were:
- Saturday Night Fever – the stage show based on the 70s smash film
- Disco Inferno: loosely based on Dante’s work, it featured music from the disco era
- Forever Plaid: male vocal harmony groups of the 50s
- The Marvelous Wonderettes: female vocal harmony groups of the 50s and 60s
- Five Guys Named Moe was based on a musical short from the 40s
- Boogie Nights: the lone British offering of the decade (save one), which also showcased music from the 70s
And then came Mamma Mia!
It obliterated any record set by Rodgers and Hammerstein – it out-performed both The Sound of Music and The King and I, legendary shows by those ‘song and dance’ producers. It surpassed Beauty and the Beast for the number of shows played.
Rumour has it that, on any day of the year, you can find tickets for Mamma Mia!, put on by any given theatre company, anywhere in the world.
The show is raucous and fun, ultimately relatable to anyone who grew up during the disco era, anyone who has ever been a single parent and anyone who longed to discover who their absent parent really is.
And, of course, anyone who likes to be a part of the show: for its encore, the cast invites the audience to stand and sing with them!
Mamma Mia! did for the jukebox musical what Phantom of the Opera did for book musicals: it made the genre appealing, accessible and relatable. No longer would musical theater be targeted to patrons of certain sensibilities; Mamma opened the floodgates to the greater public.
Audiences have never been hungrier for musical entertainment.
The first decade of the new millennium brought forth more than 40 musicals of this type; some showcased the music of a single artist or group, such as Tonight’s the Night, featuring the music of Rod Stewart or Jersey Boys – the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Others addressed an era or facet of popular music, such as Rock of Ages (80s glam metal) or On the Record (Disney songs) – although there is some debate over whether that last should be considered a true jukebox musical or a revue.
As you might guess from some of these titles and/or descriptions, these shows do not have the gravitas of My Fair Lady or Fiddler on the Roof.
But then again, the times are different and audiences want feel-good familiarity, not concept musicals that will make them think or preach at them.
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The Future of Jukebox Musicals
The glory of jukeboxes didn’t last long. Portable radios and, later, portable devices pretty much cancelled out the jukes’ practicality.
They did enjoy a brief resurgence when compact discs came on the scene; today, they still enjoy a bit of a novelty effect thanks to their MP3 format, which allows the storing of more music, more compactly.
Still, the Golden Age of jukeboxes, and of the music they featured, is long gone. Does the same hold true for jukebox musicals?
We need only to look at box office receipts for The Cher Show (2018) that depicts her life and songs. It ran for just over a year and won several Tony Awards. It is not an original Broadway show; rather, it premiered in Chicago and then joined the catalogue of Broadway musicals for that year.
Is Cher a bit too dated? How about Britney?
Once Upon a One More Time is a story about princesses, set to the very pop music of that former Disney star. Its debut is set for next spring, with Keone as the choreographer.
Did you enjoy the film Clueless? It’s not exactly Mean Girls but it does feature similar elements and songs from the film. It opened off-Broadway last year; talks of it going international are underway.
Do you like Cabaret shows? You’re in luck! Moulin Rouge is headed your way in about a year; don’t miss out on your chance to buy tickets.
Fact is, everybody is now getting in on the act: French artists put on Hit Parade, Mexico staged Si Nos Dejan and German artist Udo Lindenberg broke away from his rock roots to become writer and artistic director for Beyond the Horizon.
In this decade alone, Take That regaled us with The Band, Richard Hawley gave us Standing at the Sky’s Edge and The Spice Girls treated us to Viva Forever!
None of them are Tony Award winners. None of them is quite of the same calibre as West Side Story, even though they mean to speak to a more youthful audience, as West Side did.
Clearly, with titles ripped straight from Top 40 charts, we shouldn’t expect grandiose opera or anything that compares to the likes of, say, a Gilbert and Sullivan production.
What you will get is a hefty dose of fun and perhaps a dash of reminiscence… and, if you’re in luck, perhaps the best musical adaptations ever conceived.
If you find it hard to distinguish between operas and musicals (don’t worry, many think they are one and the same!), you need our exposé on the different types of musicals…