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Howard Sherman: Jukebox or box-set musical? It’s time to make the distinction between hit shows

Always splashing in the same bath: Spongebob Squarepants on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus Always splashing in the same bath: With composers ranging from Panic at the Disco! to Brian Eno and David Bowie, the term ‘jukebox musical’ is appropriate for the new SpongeBob SquarePants musical. But is that the case for other shows? Photo: Joan Marcus
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‘Jukebox musical.’ For musical theatre purists, it’s a term of derision. For producers, it’s the promise of marketing the music of a well-known star, with songs that audiences already love and are happy to hear again. For songwriters, it’s a chance to have their work on Broadway, in some cases creating a new earning stream and in other cases even revitalising their careers.

But let’s forego our value judgments and even our commercial appraisals. What about the term itself?

‘Jukebox musical’ has been applied to a range of shows. Mamma Mia! used the songs of Abba in the context of a new story unrelated to the band’s history. Jersey Boys deployed the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in recounting the group’s own history. Rock of Ages featured an array of 1980s rock songs in an original story set in that era. In retrospect, some now even consider revues to be jukebox musicals, including Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Movin’ Out.

The number and – don’t scoff – variety of these shows reveals that we’ve been collectively using the term too profligately.

After all, jukeboxes initially were designed to hold a wide array of music to be selectively programmed by those with spare change. Their capacity grew when the devices switched from vinyl singles to CD albums. But the underlying result was typically eclectic, with the patrons of diners and bars serving as their own DJs, in the era before that meant mixing and scratching, mingling existing recordings with new beats.

So while the horse has already fled the stable, and the expansive use of the term ‘jukebox musicals’ is likely to stick, it makes the most sense with a show such as Rock of Ages or the new SpongeBob SquarePants musical, opening in just over a week’s time on Broadway. The latter show features a score by, among others, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and David Bowie and Brian Eno. Yes, you heard me correctly.

That’s certainly a diverse jukebox but, it should be noted, most of the songs are original to the show (which I haven’t seen yet, as it’s still in previews), not tunes yanked from catalogues. Instead of mining the work of a single composer, the show opted for a variety of musical voices, rather than any singular style, yoked together by orchestrator and arranger Tom Kitt.

Another musical that deserves to be put in the ‘jukebox’ category, without judgment, would include Urban Cowboy, which combined pre-existing country tunes with original songs by Jason Robert Brown and Jeff Blumenkrantz.

So what might best serve as the proper nomenclature for those shows that take deep dives into the work of a singular composer or songwriting team? After all, we are in the age of personal music devices and streaming, where we commune with music one-to-one via headphones as we go about our day, curating our own soundtrack, with no jukebox required. The era of streaming subscription music services even negates the need, and market, for physical albums.

Even if the term is slightly old-fashioned, and I confess unlikely to catch on, I would place Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!, Lennon, Good Vibrations, Beautiful, Movin’ Out and their kin under the rubric of ‘box-set musicals’, invoking those multi-disc packages that allowed both avid fans and budget-conscious newbies to really explore the work of a single artist or band.

It’s a vastly more accurate term for most of these shows, and even boasts its own – admittedly snarky – theme song, Box Set, from the band Barenaked Ladies. Some sample lyrics from said song:

“I never thought words that like product / 
Could ever leave my lips / 
But something happened to me somewhere 
/ That made me lose my grip / 
Maybe it’s a lack of inspiration
 / That makes me stoop
 / Or maybe it’s a lack of remuneration / 
I can’t recoup
 / But if you want it folks, you got it / It’s all right here in my box set.”

Does theatre have room for distinguishing between jukebox and box-set musicals? I think so. After all, they’re not going away, so we might as well give them their due. And if SpongeBob really hits, its multi-composer approach may prove very popular.

For producers, however, it will become ever harder to come up with new box sets, as all of the best-known catalogues are snapped up, for good or ill. Though, come to think of it, a Barenaked Ladies musical could be lots of fun.

This week in US theatre

Steve Martin returns to Broadway just over a year after his musical Bright Star had a relatively brief run but earned a coterie of fans. He’s back with a play this time, Meteor Shower. It marks the Broadway debut of comedian Amy Schumer leading a cast of four, which also includes sketch comedian Keegan-Michael Key (fresh from a summer stint in Hamlet at the Public Theater), Jeremy Shamos, and one of my favourite actors, the radiant Laura Benanti. Jerry Zaks directs the comedy of two couples in, per the synopsis, “a marital free fall” over the course of one night’s dinner. It opens Wednesday (November 29, 2017).

Uma Thurman makes her Broadway debut as the title character in Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, a Washington socialite navigating both the personal and professional. Willimon is a specialist in tales of Washington intrigue, having created the US version of House of Cards. His earlier play of politics, Farragut North, become the George Clooney film The Ides of March. The Parisian Woman’s cast also includes Phillipa Soo and Blair Brown, under the direction of Pam MacKinnon. It opens Thursday (November 30, 2017).

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