My Complicated Relationship With Musicals

The Jukebox Musical

Mamma Mia, here I go again, answering questions nobody asked
Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The Jukebox musical, on the off chance that anyone reading this is unfamiliar with the concept, is a musical that peppers its story with pre-established songs, rather than write new ones. Examples include Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You, well, any rock opera based on a specific artist, and the majority of TV shows that decide to do a musical episode.

They’re… not my favourite. Not really. As Joss Whedon put it, when discussing “Once More With Feeling,” the classic musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, jukebox musicals (or musical TV episodes, in his example) tend to have the characters say how they feel, then sing a recognizable pop song with a similar theme, instead of singing a song written to express their feelings in that moment, which is how musicals are supposed to work. And he had a point. There’s a reason “Once More With Feeling” is an enduring classic, with sing-a-long screenings in movie theatres, and the Flash musical episode “Duets” is… not. Not much of a classic at all. Save for this one song, one of their only original numbers, co-written by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator/musical genius Rachel Bloom.

Rachel definitely wrote “I’m your super, that has a double meaning, friend!” I would bet on it.

Another example, one summer my parents and I took a relatively spontaneous trip to New York, and saw the Broadway musical of Bullets Over Broadway, starring Zach Braff, who’s great do not comment arguing otherwise. It was basically the movie, only every five to ten minutes or so they’d pause the story and do a 1920s showtune. Let’s… let’s not get into the troubling elements of Woody Allen as a person, I still haven’t really come up with an answer for separating art from artist, so if you want to reject his entire body of work based on the Soon-Yi of it all (and any other allegations that I can’t think of just now), sure go for it, I ain’t gonna challenge you on that. I’m just saying, entertaining and engaging though it often was, their big finale number was “Yes We Have No Bananas,” and you cannot tell me that was germane to the plot, or a satisfying resolution to the story’s themes.

This is not to say that jukebox musicals are inherently bad. I’m not saying that at all. I couldn’t possibly make that argument, because Moulin Rouge exists.

I mean come on.

The difference being, Baz Luhrmann is actually doing things with the songs, mashups and new arrangements and fitting them into the story in interesting ways. So it is possible to make a good jukebox musical, provided you, you know, put some work into it instead of having a character just announce that the leads need help with their relationships and then suddenly have three people sing “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” adding nothing to the story but killing three minutes.

Man but “Duet” let me down a little. That was the only time Jeremy Jordan and Carlos Valdes ever had a scene together, too. Disappointing.

Also, a company in Edmonton used to do the best jukebox musicals for the Fringe Festival. They’d take a recognizable (often public domain) story, give it a pop-culture twist, then fill it out with pop songs. They had Swinging Without Annette (Shakespeare’s As You Like It in a 50s freak show starring Annette Funicello), Kiss My Asp (Antony and Cleopatra as a teen comedy), my personal favourite Three Very Lovely Girls in Space (Chekhov’s Three Sisters starring the women of the Brady Bunch… in space), and some others, and each one I saw was a delight. And they usually made me love a song I’d never have liked that much. I think I only like “Burning Love” by Elvis Presley because that was the finale/curtain call number for the one about Henry the 8th and his wives as an episode of The Bachelor. That and the cover from the end of Lilo and Stitch.

So… if I like musicals… but can’t write songs… would this be an option?

Short answer, no, not long-term. Licensing music for theatrical productions can be complicated, expensive, and probably one-time deals.

Doesn’t mean I’m not tempted, though.

Next Page: Songs get stuck in your head, and stuck to your script

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