Memorable songs? Jukebox shows have made us lazy listeners

A scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was criticised for its unmemorable music. Photo: Helen Maybanks
A scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was criticised for its unmemorable music. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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Okay, okay – I know it’s called Hemley on TV. But anyone who knows me will know I also have a (pretty big) passion for musical theatre, so this week’s column sees me break from the small screen temporarily to address another issue I’ve been thinking about…

How many times have you heard someone talking about a new musical, only to say: “I liked it, but none of the tunes were particularly memorable.”

I hear it quite often – recently when listening to people talk about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example. The consensus on that show seems to be that people think the production values are great, but that it has been somewhat let down by the music – because the songs are not considered particularly memorable.

[pullquote]I’d also suggest that we’ve become too used to seeing shows featuring existing material – jukebox productions[/pullquote]

It doesn’t help, of course, that that musical uses one particularly well-known and already established song, Pure Imagination. Given how known (and loved) song that is, the writers and producers shot themselves in the foot a bit by including it. It invites people to say: “The only stand out song was Pure Imagination.” But that’s because they already knew that song before going in.

I actually think it’s remiss of people to comment on the memorability of a show’s songs after just one listen. I accept people may not necessarily like the songs they hear in a musical, but I don’t accept that they should be coming out humming any of them after one viewing. In any given musical, the chances are you have just sat through 20 or so songs that are unfamiliar to you. Of course you won’t be able to hum them when you leave. I have many favourite musicians who I follow, but when they release a new song, I’m not likely to be able to sing it after just one play. It takes time to get to know music well.

The advantage many shows used to have was the idea of songs being released from shows as singles – or on concept albums, so audiences could at least get to know music before going into a production. Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar are examples. I also remember buying Hannah Waddingham’s Our Kind of Love, from The Beautiful Game, long before I went to see that show. It gave me an idea of what I was going to get more generally, and gave me something to look forward to (knowing that that particular song was coming up).

As that happens less and less today, it’s rare to go into a new musical knowing the songs first. So don’t be surprised that you won’t remember them when you come out. The main thing is you enjoy the music sufficiently enough to want to download or buy the CD of the cast recording. Then you listen to that, get to know the music better, and by the next time you see that show, you’ll know the music and probably enjoy it that much more.

I’d also suggest that we’ve become too used to seeing shows featuring existing material – jukebox productions. I don’t have a problem with jukebox shows at all, but maybe they have made us lazier when it comes to hearing new songs in original productions.

Even when a musical doesn’t bowl you over when you first see it (as happened to me with Les Mis) you can grow to love something, can’t you? I’ve now seen that show seven or eight times. And I’m glad I didn’t completely dismiss it after my first viewing, which seems to be what happens today.

6 Comments

  1. Too often an audience presumes to understand the “form” of a musical. People don’t go to see a play and think that they will know the form – so why imagine a musical needs to follow a prescribed one? When was the last time someone came out of the theatre and complained that there were no memorable monologues? We need more experimentation with both form AND content in musicals.

  2. I’d have to say that I have just listened to the Donmar cd of Parade. It’s very very rare that a musical is so absorbing on the very first listen. I can’t imagine how intense this must have been on stage.. Parade is haunting, melodic, beautifully chilling and .. totally memorable. I am kicking myself that I missed the production at the Donmar. There are plenty of shows that I have seen where there have been some stunning stand out songs.. but the soundtrack didn’t ever get released. Howard Goodall’s Girlfriends .. Jeanne.. and Trafford Tanzi .. to name a few..

  3. Great editorial. I am an American theatregoer, and the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” cast album came out in the U.S. the same time it had its U.K. release last fall. Being a huge fan of the storyline (and always curious to see how adapters handle it), the U.S. buzz had been weak so I initially approached listening to it only for completist purposes. In fact, the score grew on me quickly. I wound up seeing it twice in London this past March. (As for “Pure Imagination”, I personally think it is used to more powerful effect in this version than it was in the ’71 film, sort of the cherry on top of the sundae of original numbers.)

    I’m not a fan of jukebox musicals myself (though, as a piece of theatre, I was deeply impressed by “Jersey Boys”), but your comments could also apply to the Disney stage musicals. I’ve seen “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” in Chicago and found myself quite bored; the new songs always come off as superfluous (they don’t really add to the storyline, just the runtime) and the old songs never sound as impressive as they did in the movie.

    Also, it goes to show how long it’s been since the ’80s when Andrew Lloyd Webber shows were pilloried for reprising the “big” numbers over and over just to drill them into people’s heads…

  4. I have been guilty of putting forward this criticism myself! It does not mean however that a show does not work; often songs can work perfectly well in context without being “a tune you can hum”. What I mean by memorable though is a number that moves or excites me; musical theatre fans will know exactly what I mean by the rush you get from a brilliantly conceived & executed song and it is those songs that I remember, that I rush home to download, that inspire me to buy the cast recording, that let me re-live that rush.
    I like Charlie, but I don’t have any desire to hear most of that score out of the theatre – it didn’t excite me much. I quite like “Believed to be seen” but my favourite was “If your mother were here” which I seem to be completely alone in enjoying. It’s the only one I have on my player.

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