Ever since Jersey Boys, it seems that almost every artist has tried to put their music on Broadway. And the use of the term "jukebox musical" has become more and more common, as every Broadway season sees shows that are connected to a singer/musician in one way or another.
Despite the blanket term used to describe them, jukebox musicals fall into several categories. The first is bio-musicals. These shows tell the story of an artist's life, using the music as a tool to drive the plot, while also show the subject's evolution as an artist. Examples of this include Summer, Jersey Boys, Beautiful, On Your Feet, and The Cher Show. Some of these have worked better than others. Jersey Boys is the earliest example of a bio-musical that many can think of. Since then however, more and more people have attempted to bring the lives of pop stars to stage. Some have been successful, while others focus more on making it fun for the people who know the music rather then properly structuring a plot.
The next group of jukebox musicals are new stories. Most often, these incorporate an artist's music into a separate story. Recent examples include Head Over Heels and Escape to Margaritaville as well as the upcoming Moulin Rouge. Because these do not follow an artist's life, they can create their own characters and shape the music to fit the storyline, rather than telling someone's life story through their music. Head Over Heels incorporated the Go-Go's famous "beat" by making a key part of the plot, and used the wide variety of the music to help character development. Escape to Margaritaville utilized the same mechanism for incorporating the music of Jimmy Buffet. While often fun and a lovely escape, these musicals have trouble gaining traction.
Moulin Rouge, which recently announced its Broadway transfer, utilizes a similar tactic to Head Over and Heels and Escape to Margaritaville, though without the music of one person. Instead, its catalog of songs came from many artists, allowing the music to fit into the plot exactly where it was needed, rather than using a song because the artist attached to the show sang it. The creative team also helped the music to blend together, something not true for similar approaches. In this respect, the show opened itself to a larger audience, as everything from Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" to Florence + the Machine's "Shake it Out" was in the show, and not targeted at a niche audience. The music of SpongeBob Squarepants was approached similarly, but artists were asked to write certain songs for the show, rather than songs being selected from various artist's existing catalogs. While it worked it one sense (each song made sense for its place in the show), it created a score that was not perfectly blended, though the creatives clearly worked hard at it. While bringing in a pop artist to write a score is not uncommon (Kinky Boots and Waitress are good examples) having multiple people work on the same score can leave a bit to be desired.
The last example of a jukebox musical is a revue. With no life story to follow, and no fictional plot, revues let the music speak for itself while allowing the performers to shine and act naturally with each other while performing. The recent revival of Smokey Joe's Cafe, which played Stage 42 earlier this year, is the perfect representation of this, and is one of the best demonstrations of a jukebox musical. The brisk 90 minutes of Smokey Joe's Cafe allowed it focus on the music and for the actors to develop their "characters" onstage without forcing a plot into a selective score. As I noted in my review back in August, "[Smokey Joe's Cafe treated us] to incredible performances from all the cast, culminating in a roaring rendition of "Stand By Me" that immediately puts the audience on their feet, only to be followed by the encore, "Saved"." It was perfect for a jukebox musical, showcasing the best parts of the music and not worrying about anything else.
While varied, and sometimes poorly reviewed, jukebox musicals won't be going anywhere anytime soon. Girl from the North Country, which I recently saw at the Public Theater has been critically acclaimed, especially for its use of Bob Dylan songs, and it will likely have a future on Broadway. They have become staples on Broadway, and bring theater to a wider audience. And even if I'm not a massive fan of all of them, who can argue with the fact that they spread the beauty of live theater and open the community to more people.