Friday, October 2, 2009

#91-Jukebox Musicals

It was the decade when...

People wanted to hum the showtunes on their way into the theatre.

What's the giant sucking sound you hear? It's the sound of artistic inspiration being drained away from Broadway Theatres. In a decade when Stephen Sondheim (SONDHEIM!) couldn't get his newest musical produced on the Great Way White (the closest he could get was a Road Show), and the first in which an original musical did not win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Rialto saw an influx of musicals that threatened to put musical theatre writers out of work altogether. The jukebox musical. Part of the great feedback loop that is commercial pop culture, a culture in which every product and source of entertainment is a reference back to a previously consumed commodity, jukebox musicals traded in artistic ambition and original scores (the lifeblood of Broadway) for nostalgic comforts and instantly recognizable musical hits from yesteryear.

Usually described as a "fun!" show that'll "make you want to stand up and dance," a jukebox musical more often then not features skittles colored sets and costumes, a cast of scantily-clad pulchritudinous young performers, a hackneyed plot cribbed from older, better musicals, and, at the center, a score by a once-cool baby-boomer rock&roll icon or band, sung and arranged with all the subtlety of a Cher Oscar dress.

Pop music's most sacred cows couldn't escape Broadway's gravitational attraction; even John Lennon (Sans THE BEATLES catalog. Great idea that!) was summoned from beyond in one of the more embarrassing entries into the genre. The Beach Boys, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Earth Wind & Fire (don't ask), The Bee-Jees, The Four Seasons, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan(really...don't ask!), and yes, ABBA were represented on Broadway in the Aughts with varying levels of commercial success, from blockbuster to Joe Allen wall art.

The only thing that these shows really had in common was a cynical fear that American audiences only wanted to buy tickets to something they could be certain they already liked before walking in the theatre. But at $120 a pop, who can blame them? Unless the American Musical Theatre can find a way to make itself both vital artistically and affordable financially I fear we have far more jukebox in our future. In 20 years time I don't want to have to sit through "Lucky: The Britney Spears Story."

You AUGHT to remember.

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