I've just finished watching the final part of the excellent "Story of Musicals" on BBC Four. A three-part documentary, it charted the rise of British musical theatre from its revival in the 1960s with "Oliver!", through the mega-hits from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, though to the latest hit shows. And popping up very near the end was the "jukebox musical".
The idea of a jukebox musical is very simple: take a selection of existing music, usually tied together with a theme (songs by the same artist/composer, or of the same genre) and fit a plot around them. Traditionally, this would involve the story of the life of the performer/composer in question ("Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story" springs instantly to mind) with their songs incorporated, but all this changed in 1999.
That year brought us the jukebox musical that changed it all - "Mamma Mia!". And it's a musical that I flatly refuse to ever watch. Or even consider to be a "musical" at all. But there was a problem with this opinion of mine; I didn't really know why I held it!
However, after watching the BBC's documentary, I think I now know why - and there are two reasons.
Firstly, the sheer pointlessness of them. The whole idea of a jukebox musical is that you have a pre-existing audience for the show; in the case of "Mamma Mia!", the huge fan base for ABBA's music. "We Will Rock You" followed a couple of years later and, of course, used the popularity of Queen's back catalogue to get bums on seats.
In the documentary, Ben Elton (writer of the book for "We Will Rock You") suggested that it was perfectly logical to take an artist's work and turn it into a musical because people enjoy the music and want to go to a theatre and see it performed live by a high-quality cast. Now, I completely agree with this, and if anyone ever dragged me to see "Mamma Mia!" or "We Will Rock You" I would only entertain the notion because I enjoy the music of ABBA and Queen. But if people are going to see these shows because they enjoy the music, what the heck is the point of thinking up a crummy plot to link them all together?! Why not just get a group of fantastic singers and dancers and simply perform the music as a concert? The effect would be the same.
But as a musician, the main reason I can't connect with these jukebox musicals is not that I don't see the point. It's all about emotion.
When I see "Les Miserablés", and hear Eponine and Marius singing "A Little Fall Of Rain", I am reduced to a soggy, tearful wreck every time. It is, in my very humble opinion, one of the most emotive pieces of music ever written for a musical, and its setting and the back story behind the relationship (or lack thereof) between the characters singing it make it such a powerful piece of music.
Both ABBA and Queen have a piece of music in their repertoire that could perhaps come somewhere near to this level of emotion: "The Winner Takes It All" and "The Show Must Go On" respectively. But I can't emotionally link them to a contrived storyline in a musical because I know that the setting is not what the pieces were originally written for. The emotion is being forced onto the song, rather that being what you experience as a result of how the song was written. "A Little Fall Of Rain" works so well because it was written to underpin the emotive force of the scene in which it appears; it is perfect for the job because it was written for the job.
The current trend in the West End and on Broadway seems to be creating musicals from the plots of popular films. Indeed, I recently saw "Legally Blonde The Musical" at the Alex theatre in Birmingham - and it was great fun. Because, as with "traditional" musicals, the songs within it were written specifically for it. In that respect, it is no different to creating a musical version of a Victor Hugo novel, or the life story of Eva Peron.
Musicals work when the songs work because they are serving the purpose that they were originally written to do, rather than when you stick a greatest hits album on "shuffle" and see what comes out.