Mark Shenton: Our love of jukebox shows mustn’t be allowed to drown out original scores
“You already know you’re going to love it!” proclaims the advertising slogan for Mamma Mia!, now heading for its 20th anniversary in the West End.
The onward march of jukebox musicals that Mamma Mia! precipitated has accelerated in the years since. Just this week, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical opened at the other end of the Aldwych, bookending the London block where its Abba sibling is also running.
I missed the opening night, so going a night later after already reading the mostly favourable reviews including Tim Bano’s four-star one for The Stage, my expectations had already been suitably adjusted. The show certainly delivered on its headline promise to put Tina in the spotlight, if not exactly under a microscope.
On April 19 not one but two jukebox shows opened: Bat Out of Hell, based on two Jim Steinman albums popularised by Meat Loaf, transferred to London’s Dominion Theatre after its summer debut at the London Coliseum last year. An Officer and a Gentleman also premiered at Leicester’s Curve, ahead of a national tour, with a score that features Up Where We Belong from the original film soundtrack and other pop classics as Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Livin’ on a Prayer, Heart of Glass, Material Girl, Don’t Cry Out Loud, I Was Made for Lovin’ You and The Final Countdown.
Next week, meanwhile, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical opens at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
And it doesn’t stop here. Next up on Broadway, after a prior engagement in Chicago from June 12 to July 15, is The Cher Show, with a book by Rick Elice (who co-wrote Jersey Boys, the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons smash hit). Also in the works are new musicals based on the pop careers of Britney Spears and Pat Benatar, while this season has also already brought Escape to Margaritaville (based on the songs of Jimmy Buffett) to Broadway’s Marquis Theatre. And the West End will soon welcome The Band – constructed from Take That’s repertoire – to the Haymarket over Christmas, as a stop-over on its current national tour.
There’s an apparently insatiable appetite for jukebox musicals both among producers willing to put them on and audiences wanting to see them. How you respond largely depends on just how much you love the songs to begin with. I adored, for example, Close to You: Bacharach Re-imagined, which came to the Menier in 2015 then transferred to the Criterion, and gave a brilliant new spin to the Burt Bacharach catalogue.
But, sometimes, the genre can throw up surprises, too: who knew that Bob Dylan songs could provide such an evocative accompaniment to Girl from the North Country, which transferred from the Old Vic to the Noel Coward? In 2015, Sunny Afternoon, constructed around the songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks, won the Olivier for Best New Musical, while Motown the Musical, transferred from Broadway, has become an enduring hit at the Shaftesbury.
My only anxiety about jukebox shows’ ongoing success is that it may come at the expense of musicals with genuinely original scores. Given that these shows build in a level of insurance to attract audiences, producers may be keen to play it safe rather than investing in shows with new scores. And that would be a crying shame for Broadway, the West End and beyond.