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
Matthew Hemley
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.

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