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Defending The Jukebox Musical: 10 Of The Best

The jukebox musical often gets a hard time among theatre fans - the Marmite of the theatre world, a lot of people automatically write every jukebox musical off as trash, but they're really not all bad - some of them are up there with the best shows in the West end.


In this post, I'm going to talk about 10 jukebox musicals I've seen that I love, like and tolerate.


Before I start, what is a jukebox musical? Put simply it is a show based around the existing catalogue of an artist or group of artists, rather than contain songs written for the show itself. Some jukebox musicals tell the story of the artist(s) in question through the medium of their songs (though not always in the context they were written) while others put a different story at the heart of the show, inserting the songs to move along the narrative. Some work well, some do not. I'm going to talk about some of the not so good ones after, but first these are my 10 favourite jukebox musicals. Prepare to disagree with me!


10. THE BAND

The second attempt at a Take That jukebox musical, following Never Forget, this one had four of the five members of Take That on the creative team and told the story of a fictional band (whose back catalogue was all Take That songs) through the eyes of a group of fans who idolised them both in their teenage years and as adults.

On paper, the show shouldn't have worked. While there were cheesy moments in the show, it also had a lot of heart and succeeded in making the audience laugh and cry without moments of eachother.

A movie version of the musical titled Greatest Days is currently in development and due for release next year.


9. SUNNY AFTERNOON

This musical was a semi-autobiographical story of The Kinks told through their music and enjoyed a two year run on the West end. Call me ignorant but I didn't know much about The Kinks and only recognised a couple of their songs but wanted to see this anyway. I didn't expect much from it which is maybe why I came out of there impressed.


8. ON YOUR FEET

Absolutely massive on Broadway, the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan seemed like an odd choice for one of the biggest theatres in the West end, as they are nowhere near as big in this country. I went to the first preview, only knowing a handful of songs beforehand. This was a show that surpassed my expectations, and while I came out of the theatre more likely to conga than I would have before, I didn't feel the need for a repeat visit like I often do with shows I like.


7. WE WILL ROCK YOU

One of the most successful jukebox musicals, using the vast and incredible Queen catalogue, this was a fictional story written by Ben Elton, rather than tell the story of the band like the recent movie Bohemian Rhapsody did. I saw this twice in its run, absolutely loving it at first, but cringing through the second visit (mainly due to the unnecessary shoehorned in pop culture references such as Gangnam Style). The talent on stage was amazing but the show itself fell flat a bit. The songbook is what puts it in my top 10, and I am interested to revisit the show on its UK tour next year. The sight of the Freddie Mercury statue over the Dominion theatre during this shows 12 year run remains absolutely iconic.


6. MAMMA MIA

I really don't know about this musical. I hated the movie so put off seeing the musical for a long time, only to be pleasantly surprised when I did see it. I have seen it a further three times since, seriously disliking the experience two of those times, but being blown away on the other two. I think it is really dependant on the audience as this show notoriously attracts the worst audiences in the West end. I'll never forget the time a woman stood up in the middle of the audience and decided she wanted to screech the lyrics of 'I Do I Do I Do I Do' herself.

Using ABBA's amazing songbook, it is hard not to leave with a smile on your face, even if you have got a hen party next to you wolf whistling at every opportunity. 'The winner takes it all' will always be an amazing theatre moment, and I will forever be relieved that somebody with more talent than Pierce Brosnan sings 'SOS' in the show, but this is the epitome of a Marmite musical, especially when it comes to my own personal taste.


5. TINA

The level of excitement I had for this show was crazy. I bought tickets right at the front for the first preview, and came out of the theatre bitterly disappointed. It was a testament to how important previews are because by the time I saw it for a second time a month later, it had transformed into a pretty amazing show. On my third outing, it solidified itself as one of my favourite jukebox musicals, in part due to the tremendous performance from leading lady Adrienne Warren.

The show tells the story of Tina Turner through creative use of her songbook. Moments such as 'I Don't Wanna Fight' and 'Private Dancer' are standouts but the showstopping moment for me was the beautifully staged 'We Don't Need Another Hero'. With a joyous encore ensuring everybody is on their seat, this is a show that went through a journey but came out the other side as one of the best shows in the West end.


4. THE BODYGUARD

It seemed like such an obvious idea - turn the Whitney Houston movie into a musical, but add songs in from the remainder of her career. Telling the story of fictional diva Rachel Marron as she faces a stalker, the show mixes emotional performances told through songs with numbers performed to the real audience as part of Rachels shows. Whitney has one of the best songbooks of any artist so it is hit after hit after hit here, from the opening 'Queen of the night' right down to the finale 'I wanna dance with somebody'.

I saw two different productions of this, at the Adelphi and the Dominion. The staging of the Adelphi was jawdropping, and then it became bigger when it returned to the West end - Beverley Knight doing a swan dive on stage during the opening number is something I never knew I needed in my life, but I'm glad its there. I kept going back to this show time and time again, both times it was in the West end, and it remains a show I love to pieces (though when it comes to musicals Beverley has been in, Memphis will always be top)


3. BAT OUT OF HELL

This is where I lose all credibility. Inspired by the classic Meat Loaf album, Bat Out Of Hell isn't so much a jukebox musical of his songs, but rather a jukebox musical of songs written by Jim Steinman. To say it split opinion would be an understatement.

I went in to this show knowing four Meat Loaf songs (one of which wasn't even in the show). The first time I saw it, I was blown away... almost literally by the effects on the stage.

Don't get me wrong - this isn't a show without its failings. The plot verges from nonsensical to nonexistent, a lot of the acting is far too over the top and borders on panto, and some of the choreography looks like it would be better suited to Hairspray rather than this but still I love it. I find myself more invested in the secondary love story behind Ravens parents Falco and Sloane, rather than Raven and Strat.

Its flaws are far outweighed but its strengths. Starting with the songbook itself - I may have only known 3 of the songs going in but I came out obsessed with all of them and have spent the last few years listening to them repeatedly. Then there is the talent on stage - sometimes you can forgive a show for being a bit cringey when you are faced with some of the most incredible voices on stage. Lastly, and the biggest factor in why I love this show so much, is the phenomenal staging. From a car being pushed into the Orchestra pit, bats flying over the audience (when they work) and Strats motorbike exploding on stage to then morph into a giant heart, this was a show full of spectacular sights and kept me coming back repeatedly during both of its West end runs.

Not the most intelligent show by a long shot, but an enjoyable bit of theatre nonetheless and one that has remained one of my favourites. I am aware this is a view not shared by everyone, as realised when my friend walked out in the interval, leaving me to sit through act two alone.


2. &JULIET

Jukebox musicals can come with a reputation of being a bit crap, and I am guilty of having that mindset at times. When &Juliet was first announced, I expected the worst. The story of Romeo and Juliet if Juliet had lived told through the songs of Max Martin seemed like a recipe for disaster. How wrong I was.

Days after first opening in Manchester last year, I saw comments from friends who had seen it about what a special piece of theatre this was. Accepting how wrong I likely was, I hopped on a train to Manchester to experience it myself and had what can only be described as happy tears through this remarkable show.

If you don't know, Max Martin is responsible for writing some of the biggest songs of the 90s and 2000s for artists such as Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Ariana Grande and Katy Perry. The songs play along with a knowing wink at the audience - this show isn't trying to be serious, it's trying to make the audience smile and laugh. It knows how ridiculous it is, and the fact it is in on the joke makes it all the more amazing.

While in Tina for example, a character shouting "What's love got to do with it?" as a not so subtle segue into the song leaves the audience cringing and moaning, the similar moments in this show fail to have that effect. For example, Juliet singing 'Since U Been Gone' to the back from the dead Romeo while he protests through it will have you howling with laughter, while the way 'It's gonna be me' is played is pure genius.

The staging is also fantastic with some great set pieces - a highlight of which is Romeo's entrance (not a euphemism). The show features nearly thirty well known hits from the past two decades but also adds a brand new original song 'One More Try' which holds up as a great musical theatre song. It's not all about Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway (no, not that one) will steal every scene going especially if you're lucky enough to see Cassidy Janson bring the house down with Celine Dion's 'That's the way it is'.

This show really came out of nowhere and took me, and a lot of people, by surprise. In light of how tough things are at the moment, this is the feelgood show everybody needs right now and is top of my list to see again when theatres reopen.


1. BEAUTIFUL

It was a close call between the top two, but this ultimately won out.

The story of Carole King isn't just told through songs she is famous for performing herself, but also for the huge catalogue of songs she has written for other artists. On top of that, this show also features songs created by her friends and rival songwriting team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. That means this show features songs from a range of artists such as The Monkees, The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers as well as all of Carole's well known songs.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I didn't know many of Carole Kings songs when I went to see this show for the first time. I was first taken to this show as a birthday present and fully expected to not like it. I definitely wasn't prepared to love it as much as I did.

The songbook is beyond incredible - 'You've got a friend', 'Natural Woman', 'I Feel The Earth Move', 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' to name just a few, this show is one flawless song after another. What gives this jukebox musical the edge over the others on this list is the story. Full of heart and emotion, this is the story of Carole King growing as a singer, a songwriter and a woman. The moment she has the courage to leave her husband repeatedly elicits a reaction in the audience stronger than anything I've seen before.

I became a big fan of not only this show, but also Carole King herself. I even bought tickets to see her concert in Hyde Park several years ago, which featured the cast of Beautiful joining her on stage. Sadly, that show was released on DVD so a closeup of my face in the front row singing along to 'You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman' will be immortalised forever.

This show also shares something with &Juliet in the form of Cassidy Janson, one of the most talented West end stars - the way she brought life to songs that were written before she was even born was a sight to behold. Her performance in the closing night of this show in the West end remains one of the best theatre experiences I've ever had.


Now, the not so good...


Those are my own personal top 10 musicals, proving that not ALL jukebox musicals are awful. However, let's be honest - some of them are.

I have sat through some stinkers through my time:

Motown The Musical - Bar none, my favourite type of music of all time. This show features so many Motown classics, how could it go wrong? Well, give them an award for a miracle because somehow they managed it. The fact they try to cram 66 songs in to two hours, meaning so many songs are started but never finished was infuriating. I wanted to love this show but I came out of there really hating it.

Viva Forever - A musical based on the songs of the Spice Girls written by Jennifer Saunders was surely going to be amazing? Lord have mercy. Rather than the obvious choice of telling the story of the girls, this ridiculous musical was based on a girl called Viva who lives on a houseboat. Need I say more? I still have nightmares about one of the characters inexplicably screaming "ZUMBA ZUMBA" midway through a rendition of 'Too Much'. You don't have to look far to find the reasons this show flopped so badly.

Son Of A Preacher Man - One of two musicals featuring the songs of Dusty Springfield, I cite this as one of the worst, if not THE worst, musical I've ever seen. The highlight was the cast singing 'I Don't Know What To Do With Myself' while caressing chairs. It was creepy and wrong and should never be seen again.

Head Over Heels - A jukebox musical based on the music of Belinda Carlisle and the Go Go's. I went to see this on Broadway as a last minute show, and regretted it instantly. A strange, strange show.


There are some others I've seen I don't really have much of an opinion of. Jersey Boys is well loved among many but it just felt a bit nothingy for me - I came out of there neither loving or hating it. Thriller Live I wouldn't even call a jukebox musical as it is essentially a tribute concert to Michael Jackson - as big a fan of Michael as I am, I really didn't like this show. Cilla was decent enough but could have been a lot better - hopefully the forthcoming touring production starring Sheridan Smith ups the ante a little bit, and Million Dollar Quartet was one of the most boring things I've ever witnessed.


So what about the future of jukebox musicals?

Broadway currently has Ain't Too Proud, based on the Temptations as well as Alanis Morisettes Jagged Little Pill. Recently, they have had The Cher Show and Summer based on Donna Summer. Could we see any of those in the West end in the near future?

Coming soon are My Best Friend's Wedding based on the music of Burt Bacharach, MJ: The Musical which tells the story of Michael Jackson, Once Upon A One More Time, featuring the songs on Britney Spears telling the story of classic fairytales, and What's New Pussycat? featuring the songs of Tom Jones.

There are also plenty of artists who could lend themselves to a good jukebox musical if done right. I would personally love to see musicals featuring the songbooks of Kylie Minogue and Celine Dion. And surely the recently released Rocketman about Elton John is destined for a stage soon?


So - jukebox musicals can be amazing and they can be awful. But that's true for all shows surely? Take Andrew Lloyd Webber - some of his shows fit in both of those categories according to a lot of people, so why do jukebox musicals get singled out with so much negativity?


Next time you hear about a new jukebox musical, walk past one or get a ticket for one, have an open mind. You might be proven wrong. Or you might be proven right. But you never know. A jukebox musical is still a musical and still deserves a chance.


So what do you think? Do you agree with me on any of this or disagree?

What are your favourite jukebox musicals?

What is your least favourite?

Which artist would you love to see have a jukebox musical made?

Let me know in the comments or at twitter.com/ATDazzles or facebook.com/ATDazzles



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