I’ve bordered the top and bottom of today’s entry with logos that all have something in common. It’s probably easy for you guys to guess what that is. That’s right; all six of these theatrical works feature a score by a pop or rock-and-roll musician. With, of course, varying degrees of success: there’s the smash hit Mamma Mia! that ran for over a decade and then there’s a show like Holler if Ya Hear Me crashing and burning beyond words. With the advent of Sara Bareilles’s Waitress hitting Broadway this season, it would seem that jukebox and pop-star-penned musicals are becoming ever the more…well, popular.
I am never 100% sure how I feel about this trend. On the one hand, I like that these shows bring non-thespians into the theatre…and some of them are really fun…I remember seeing Mamma Mia! for my 16th birthday and having a blast. Furthermore, more than once, these shows have also been critically acclaimed; John Lloyd Young and Jessie Mueller both won Leading Tony Awards for their parts in Jersey Boys and Beautiful, respectively. (However, of the most recent jukebox/songwriter driven shows, only Once and Jersey Boys snagged the Best Musical Tony.)
On the flip side, I worry that the recent explosion of such productions is a sign of the over-commercialization of live theatre. Others share this view even more strongly- I seem to recall a social media celebration when Rock of Ages finally posted its closing notice. Their animosity toward such shows is not totally unfounded: after all, are not truly great works of art the ones that are wholly original and bring something thoughtful to the table? That’s not to say that jukebox musicals don’t have important stories to tell. But it can be argued that a lot less blood, sweat, tears, and heart go into their development. (Feel free to dispute this generalization in the comments section!)
Interestingly, for all their commercial success and “star” attachments, the pieces in the aforementioned category often fall short to one or two huge original shows (at least from what I’ve observed). Thoroughly Modern Millie was the Best Musical winner of 2003, but it closed long before losing competitor Mamma Mia! did. In a similar vein, Green Day’s American Idiot lost to Memphis but subsequently developed a far more passionate following. I make note of this because the upcoming Waitress is going to have a very tough time, critically and financially, going up against a massive blockbuster: Hamilton. But whether or not Sara Bareilles can beat Lin Manuel-Miranda for Best Score remains to be seen; it is far from impossible. Recall Cyndi Lauper’s big win in this category for Kinky Boots a few years back, which angered many people riding Matilda‘s bandwagon.
These are a lot of “what-ifs.” But, if the past is any indication, we can conclude that anything is possible in the great world of performing arts. And, naturally, that jukebox/songwriter contributions to theatre aren’t going anywhere.