OPINION: Are jukebox musicals taking over the theatre world?

26 Mar
Posted in: Features
Author: Amanda Reynolds
Jukebox Musicals taking over the theatre world...

With Rock of Ages confirmed to return this year, amongst other current touring shows such as JERSEY BOYS, BEAUTIFUL and THE BAND (now announced for the West End too), Amanda Reynolds asks: are ‘jukebox musicals’ taking over the theatre world?

A ‘jukebox musical’ is a musical which compiles and incorporates popular music of a time period of specific artist/group. There seems to be a fashion at the moment for this style of musicals. The new Tina Turner musical which starts at the Alydwch Theatre in London this month is just another musical to add to the ever-growing list. Thriller (Michael Jackson) has been running in the West End for over 10 years and Bat Out of Hell (Meatloaf) is just about to receive its West End revival less than a year after closing. Not to mention Mamma Mia! (ABBA) which has been in the West End for 18 years. With the rise in popularity of these style of musicals, are we running out of venues and funding for original musicals? 

Clearly, producers and theatres do not think so. Whilst these ‘jukebox musicals’ certainly attract the attention of the public, probably in a way that new musicals may not, it doesn’t always result in fantastic productions. Theatres obviously rely on paying audiences. Shows have been cancelled early or not even made it to the theatre due to a lack of funding and ticket sales. But, as with celebrity casting, I wonder if this ever-prominent style of musical is designed to tap into the same market – appealing more widely to the mass general public who may not have previously been theatregoers. On one hand, this is a positive thing – we all want more audience members attending the theatre to fund new projects and keep the theatres alive. But is it at the cost of fresh, new musicals and creative teams?

Some of the big hits on Broadway like Waitress and Dear Evan Hansen have captured the world’s attention. In London’s West End, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has recently won numerous Awards after transferring to London’s Apollo Theatre from Sheffield. These are all new musicals, with fresh and innovative storylines and scores. Not focusing on the music of a particular artist or time period and yet they have had huge success. Evidently, the paying audience do not always need to be a fan of a certain artist to attend a show. Again, Hamilton has recently opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre and has been a sell-out success. The hype around this musical, in particular, certainly helped to make these winning ticket sales but so did the outstanding story, score and choreography. 

In the UK, we have so many talented composers, directors and producers who are producing new material – we just often aren’t aware of it. Venues such as The Other Palace, smaller Off-West End theatres and festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe have shown us that the talent is there but they are not getting the chance to be showcased and developed in larger theatres. It seems a shame that audiences are often missing out. Off-West End and smaller fringe venues often receive far fewer audience members and less marketing so are unlikely to receive a transfer to a major West End theatre.

Not to mention the fact that often in the West End shows can run for years (take Thriller for example), which on one hand is good because fans get to see it multiple times and it allows more visitors to see the show, but on the other hand, also does ‘clog’ up theatres meaning there often are only a few theatres available for new shows or allow transfers from Broadway.

The benefit of original shows where the score and plot have been written alongside each other is that they often have a deeper message, songs interwoven and leave an impact on the audience. This is certainly not always the case. It is a matter of personal taste and preferences, but of the productions I've seen recently, it is usually the original musicals that have been far superior. Often in ‘jukebox’ musicals, the plots and characters can be vague, quite sketchy or lack meaning due to the songs not being part of a story or linked in any way. 

Should it be a case of bums on seats, appealing to mass markets (which obviously all theatres need)? Or should it be about developing original musicals with new music that people will have not already heard? What are people’s thoughts? Are you a big ‘jukebox musical’ fan? Would you prefer more original shows in the West End and on tour?

Amanda Reynolds is a theatre blogger with a passion for musical theatre. To read more of her work, head to her blog musicalmanda HERE.