Familiarity does not breed contempt when it comes to musicals. Musicals can provide recognizable context in which to enjoy a new story. In some cases, a story might not be part of the evening at all, leaving audiences to enjoy their favorite music sung and danced by incomparable Broadway performers. These shows fall into a subgenre of shows collectively referred to as jukebox musicals, and they have increased in popularity over the past 20 years.
In broad terms, the Jukebox Musical could be divided into book shows and revues. Revues predate the invention of the jukebox and were a prominent feature on Broadway as vaudeville stars came off the circuit and settled in New York City. The Ziegfeld Follies, for example, featured yearly revues of popular music, comedy routines, and dramatic interludes. These shows featured the stars of their time including Fanny Brice, Gypsy Rose Lee, Will Rogers, and Ed Wynn among others often performing work that was known and favored by the audience.
Cole Porter and The Gershwins were early pioneers of proto-Jukebox musicals, often repurposing their well-known hit songs from an original musical for a completely different show with new plots and characters. This keeps the catalogues of these early Broadway legends alive and vital. Shows like Crazy for You, Nice Work if You Can Get It, and An American in Paris are filled with familiar songs, providing new audiences the opportunity to experience them in the theater.
Jukebox musicals faded a bit in popularity with the death of vaudeville and the rise of the Golden Age of musical theater. With Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, and Lerner and Lowe writing new musicals featuring original compositions deeply interwoven within the context of specific stories, audience tastes shifted. These shows, and their subsequent revivals, became touchstones of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
As musical productions became more expensive to mount and tickets more expensive to purchase, the jukebox musicals has garnered renewed interest. Starting in the late 70’s with Ain’t Misbehavin’, the revue subgenre has been used to explore the work of masters and underappreciated artists alike. Shows like Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (available on BroadwayHD) often provided audiences with their first exposure to an artist whereas Smokey Joe’s Café and Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (available on BroadwayHD) give audiences an opportunity to enjoy mostly known classics.
Beginning in the late 1990’s, plot-driven Jukebox Musicals have predominated the landscape. The most enduring of these has been Mamma Mia!, but others including Rock of Ages, On Your Feet, and All Shook Up have been successful with audiences. One of the best received shows of this type has been Jersey Boys, which is returning to Broadway, and Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville is heading to Broadway in early 2018.
Whether reliving the hits from your favorite artist or experiencing these songs and show for the first time, jukebox musical provide yet another way for audiences to connect in theatrical community. Many audiences attending these shows are going to the theater for the first time, drawn by the music they love. Helping more people learn to enjoy theater is all for the good and in that way, jukebox musicals are an important part of the theatrical landscape.