In an article about jukebox musicals, an array of pop singers gather on a stage with many of them raising their arms into the sky.
Illustration by Flora Arthur, Indiana University
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In an article about jukebox musicals, an array of pop singers gather on a stage with many of them raising their arms into the sky.
Illustration by Flora Arthur, Indiana University

Is it right or wrong to say there is comfort in familiarity?

A jukebox musical is a musical production that uses pre-existing songs instead of songs created for the musical itself. Jukebox musicals have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses that are important to consider when deciding whether to see one.

Jukebox musicals can take on many different forms. Some, such as “On Your Feet!,” a musical about Gloria Estefan, tell the story of an artist’s life. Others, like “Girl from the North Country,” which features songs by Bob Dylan, use songs from a solo artist or group and tell a fictional story. A jukebox musical may even use songs from a variety of artists, as demonstrated in the Broadway hit “Moulin Rouge.”

When most people think of a jukebox musical, their minds immediately go to “Mamma Mia!,” which features songs by Swedish pop group ABBA. While it can definitely be argued that “Mamma Mia!” helped popularize this musical genre, jukebox musicals have been around for much longer. In fact, the ballad opera “The Beggar’s Opera,” which premiered in 1728, combined familiar music and music that was parodied or even stolen from other operas. As a result, many have dubbed it the first jukebox musical. Since then, jukebox musicals have evolved, using familiar music to tell stories.

Despite their use of popular music, jukebox musicals have received their fair share of criticism. Critics often cite a show’s shoddy plot construction, as the writers are confined to the pre-written soundtrack they curate for the show. The confines of an inflexible soundtrack often make it more difficult to craft an engaging narrative.

That isn’t to say that jukebox musicals can’t attract an audience. Take “Jersey Boys,” for example, a musical that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. During the week of March 25, 2007, the Broadway musical grossed over $1 million. Nevertheless, for every jukebox success, there is a jukebox flop. One example is the musical “Disaster!,” which features various songs from the 1970s. The show never reached capacity during its entire Broadway run, and its highest gross was $473,885, during the week of March 27, 2016.

One virtue of the jukebox musical is that it attracts new fans to musical theatre. For musical theater neophytes, a jukebox musical can be a great starting point. It will feature songs, and perhaps even a story, that they may already be familiar with.

Their potential familiarity can also make jukebox musicals memorable. If someone knows at least a few of the songs, they may end up walking out after the show remembering them better, perhaps even remembering the show itself. This could potentially lead to a return viewing. The person might also be more inclined to support the artist(s) more by attending concerts, purchasing merchandise or purchasing their music.

Even for those who are already fans of the artist(s), a jukebox musical can offer the opportunity to discover something new. Perhaps the show uses a lesser-known song by the artist(s), one that audience members didn’t know. Not only can they learn a new song, but they may discover a new favorite.

Jukebox musicals can also be great publicity for the artist(s) who wrote the music. With the wide-reaching audience that can come from musical theatre, they’ll be able to reach a larger fan base than ever before. People who are already fans may bring their family and friends, who will then be able to discover artists that may end up being their new favorites.

However, the marked familiarity of jukebox musicals can also prove to be their downfall.  If a huge fan of an artist attends a jukebox musical, it’s likely that they’ll know the majority of the songs. What happens if the style of a song they like is changed? If it is changed to a style they don’t like, this can lead to them not attending future performances.

This familiarity can also cause the show to be boring. It can be challenging to create a plot based on music that has already been released. A lackluster plot combined with well-known songs could potentially lead to boredom. The songs could have been heard before, and the plot could either be too predictable, or not about something particularly interesting.

To this day, the number of jukebox musicals in existence continues to grow and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. In addition to & Juliet,” and Moulin Rouge,there’s also “A Beautiful Noise” (which chronicles the life story of Neil Diamond), and “MJ” (which tells the story of Michael Jackson). Currently out on U.S. Tours are Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life & Times of the Temptations,” “Jagged Little Pill” (based on music by Alanis Morissette) and “On Your Feet!.” “Mamma Mia!” will also be headed out on a U.S. Tour soon, as will “MJ.”

While jukebox musicals can be a polarizing genre, it’s clear that they will continue to co-exist with traditional musicals, at least for a while. When they have a well-written plot, jukebox musicals have the potential to be quite successful, as seen with shows like “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys.” A successful show can help both the viewers and the artist(s). The viewers are exposed to music they love and music they might not know yet, and the artist(s) are given the chance to broaden their fan base through their own musical. Regardless of one’s feelings toward them, jukebox musicals will likely be a part of the future as a tool for artists: both those new to and familiar with Broadway.


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