Monday, 3 September 2012

Are New Musicals in the West End Learning From Jersey Boys?

At the end of summer, there will be a bunch of shows closing in the West End, including the long-running Blood Brothers (24 years) and Chicago (15 years). They will be replaced by some new musicals including Viva Forever! and Soul Sister, featuring music from the Spice Girls and Tina Turner, respectively. So many original musicals giving way to new musicals with pre-existing music, that follow the true story format of Jersey Boys musical!  We must ask: how is the the now-prevalent ‘jukebox’ musical being fine-tuned? How is this changing the scene for musical writers?
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Musical lyrics are better if written with a musical in mind
The storylines of Blood Brothers, by Willy Russell, and Chicago, by the musical duo behind Jersey Boys, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, are teary, moving and complex. It is hardly a surprise that both have captured attention for such a duration. But it is not just the original stories that make them so impressive as musicals. It is also the original music, created with a musical production of some sort, be it film (Chicago) or stage (Blood Brothers) in mind.
There is no doubt that the songs from these musicals work well in their respective plots. The Cell Block Tango could never have been conceived outside of the Chicago plot, and it is so much the better for it. Tell Me It's Not True is the tear jerker it is because of Mrs Johnstone’s situation in the telling. The stories have infinitely more warmth and scope thanks to the music and lyrics that fit the book like a glove.
Which is why looking at the list of shows which is replacing the summer closures makes for initially depressing reading.
Accommodating pre-existing hits makes for dodgy plotting
Soul Sister, Let It Be, and Viva Forever! each rely on the pre-existing hits of a band. Such an approach, employed by Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You musicals in the West End at the moment, makes the expense of a songwriter unnecessary, but also tests the plotting skills of the book writer. That is, coming up with a credible plot to fit pre-existing hits is tough. Any line of the book can become a corny musical intro.
Although Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You have a large, ready-made fanbase (and this is why they are big, modern box-office successes), their plotting is essentially weak. In contrast, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert also takes pre-existing songs, but works them more loosely into a ‘drag-act’ plot which has performance at its centre. It works much better because the songs are being sung as performance, rather than worked into plot.
A musical plot that tells ‘the story of the band’ is the best fit with any pre-existing songs
But the ‘jukebox’ musicals that work best are those that take the true story of a band, and explore that – like Jersey Boys.
It is for this reason that we are most looking forward to Soul Sister, which has just come to the West End this week. We love Tina Turner’s songs, and her personal history with abusive husband Ike is interesting. We think the personality behind the diva image could be really engaging. Surely in this context, the Tina Turner hits we all know and love will fit perfectly, just as do Oh, What A Night and Rag Doll in Jersey Boys.
Let It Be, the Beatles musical, also relies predominantly on the hits, concerts and history of the band itself. It will incorporate real video footage, a concert structure, and will retell the story of the band’s rise to fame from modest Liverpudlian roots. It is described on their official website as a ‘concert-jam’ to celebrate 50 years of the band. It sounds to us like a British Jersey Boys, and – since we loved Jersey Boys – that is a real compliment.
The plot of The Spice Girls musical, Viva Forever! also has performance and an artist’s development at its centre. It is not the direct story of the Spice Girls, but does take its inspiration from their zero-to-hero pop journeys.
Jersey Boys got it right
Does this mean that musical producers are learning their stuff about the controversial jukebox musical? It's not hard to see that they are here to stay, as they bring large audiences keen to hear songs they already know and love. However, the way to go, in order to clean up the act on the messy plots of We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia! (both big hits, but neither recognised as particularly tightly written) is to stick with true, touching stories that the public know.
The Jersey Boys marked the beginning of a change in the way new musicals are developed – hits that act as a net, catching a ready-made audience, and a true story that won’t run the risk of being non-credible. It looks like the new musicals in town have learned from this American import.
It is sad news for music and lyric writers themselves, and doesn’t even leave much space for talented plotters and book-writers (there must be some out there, the team behind Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You aside). As for the new musicals themselves? We're hopeful. If they are anything like the Jersey Boys musical, we can’t wait to see them.

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