Have you ever been listening to your favorite album and thought, man this would be a great song for a soundtrack or musical? Well your not alone. In fact, there are musicals that do just that. They take popular songs and use them within the narrative of a story, film or stage. These are called Jukebox Musicals. The tradition goes back at least to the early 1950s, although there are even earlier notable attempts. Both the success and quality of these productions vary widely. While the Beatles A Hard Day’s Night might be counted among the critical and commercial winners, there far more (think Elvis, Miley Cyrus, and Mariah Carey) jukebox failures.
I know what you’re thinking. Well, if I can make a musical play and not even have to write the songs, then it must be really easy. Songs, already commercial hits, seem a ready-made formula for success, right? Unfortunately, that is frequently not the case. In fact, I’m hear to say that this is a more difficult way to go. When working with pre-written music, you fall into a weird space.
For example, American Idiot was a play on Broadway that used music from the Greenday album of the same name. However, punk/pop music isn’t written to be performed by a large cast (and yes, I know you’re going to say Greenday day hasn’t been punk since Dookie). But regardless, their music is written as a rock band and not a Broadway play, so you fall into this strange, avant-garde way of producing. You have to make the songs work and almost have to exaggerate them in order to fit on a life stag–with a full cast of performers. This requires out-of-the-box thinking while stuck within confines of a commercial song. Personally. I was not a fan of what they did to the music of American Idiot. It seemed forced, and some of my favorite songs seemed a little too over the top, which came at the cost of emotional and aesthetic depth. With songs about drugs and heartbreak, losing depth makes you lose interest in the characters because they don’t feel real.
On the other hand, you have jukebox musicals like Rock of Ages, which uses 1980s glam metal to speak to its narrative. This works really well because glam metal was all about being over the top. The characters are ridiculous, the songs are ridiculous, and the story is a comedic romance. You get the fantasy glamour of an otherwise run down Sunset Strip that is rampant with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The popular songs fit the setting and the characters. It works.
Now, how does the jukebox musical compare to original scores when talking about other Broadway musicals?
The traditional musical is not without its own risks. For example, who could have predicted the off-Broadway, then surprising Broadway breakout hit, Avenue Q. The story was, to say the least, an original concept. Additionally, all the songs were original as well. Here, you’re also taking a chance. With all original productions like The Book of Mormon or Wicked, which use original music, you gamble that your songwriting abilities are going to be sufficient enough to carry the narrative and the audience. However, that risk allows the writer more freedom as you get to write about whatever you want–you can write alongside your story, not having to artificially force some “hit” into the plot.
So what’s better? The jukebox musical? A musical with an original score? That’s really a debate I’ll leave up to you. So whether it’s another Mama Mia or Jersey Boys, you just never know until the curtain goes up.
What do you think?