Ah, the jukebox musical, where to begin!? For years, theatre fans everywhere have argued its place on the Broadway stage. A now popular format, the jukebox musical uses already existing pop music at its core, to weave together a new story on stage. Though The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 is said to be the first of its kind, the genre really only found its momentum after Mamma Mia! turned ABBA’s music into staged gold. Since then, pop has continued to dominate, though to various degrees of success. Critics seem unwilling to praise the era, but fans keep buying tickets all the same. So, we must ask ourselves, is it time to move on from the popular genre or is there still a space to tell these stories?

Let’s be honest, jukebox musicals are a lot of fun! The music is very accessible and opens the musical theatre world to those who might not normally spend time at the theatre. We Will Rock You for example, saw Queen fans immersing themselves into our world to hear new versions of songs they already loved. American Idiot did similarly with Green Day fans. Producing big shows with popular music reminds the average joe that theatre is still alive and well, and worth a trip. More so, popular shows can become tourist attractions in their own right, drawing visitors to theatre districts and contributing to local economies, especially in smaller towns. Productions like Mamma Mia! and Rock of Ages have become cultural phenomena, generating revenue for theatres, restaurants, and other businesses. This is why so many jukebox musicals end up touring the United Kingdom and the United States. As an easy and accessible night at the theatre, they do very well in smaller cities that don’t always have access to big scale musicals.

The company of & Juliet. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

However, those same fans can be quite protective of the music they love. Critics and theatre goers alike often find fault in new jukebox scores because they are too attached to the versions they already know. Although Jagged Little Pill was well received with 15 Tony Award nominations, some Alanis Morissette fans found the new tracks lacked the edginess she is best known for. It appears fans expect the new musical to feel more like a tribute concert. They seem disappointed to find out that, not only is their favourite performer not on stage, but the music will also have morphed to better suit the format of a musical.

And these changes are inevitable. Musical songs are meant to move the plot along. When a character feels too overwhelmed to speak, they sing. This is a key component to the musical structure. However, most pop music has not been written to prioritize storytelling. The lack of emotional depth can hinder character development and give actors little to work with on stage. When this happens, we are left with two-dimensional characters who must rely on entertainment value to keep audiences entertained. While pop music is catchy and accessible, the lack of storytelling it provides can really hinder the overall arc and themes of a show. After all, weaving together a story through a limited catalogue of pop songs is no easy feat. Though some, like Moulin Rouge! or & Juliet have successfully done so, musicals of this style often end up the result of great music, weaved together by a weak and disjointed book. It’s no wonder so many find themselves being criticized as fluffy, entertaining, and fun, but not much more. Escape to Margaritaville, I’m looking at you.

In recent years, the West End has been inundated with jukebox musicals: Mamma Mia, MJ The Musical, Moulin Rouge!, Jersey Boys, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, The Choir of Man, Tina, Aint’ Too Proud etc. These are only some of the jukebox shows currently or recently playing here in London. But with so many running at one time, is there enough space for original musicals to thrive as well? Some critics argue that with limited theatre space comes limited success, and this influx of already popular music is hindering the new musical’s chance of survival. When the average citizen decides to spend their well-earned money at the theatre, are they more inclined to spend on a show that has music they already love, or will they take a chance on a new score, which they know nothing about? What happens to the poor artists who are creating everything from scratch but can’t compete with the musicals that already have a huge following? It might be time to prioritize those composers who are braving the creative world all on their own.

Myles Frost as Michael Jackson in MJ the Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Though we can harp on the negatives, the truth of the matter is: jukebox musicals sell. And some have done really well. In fact, some are great because they are also biographical. Many productions, like Tina, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Jersey Boys work because the music is used to tell the story of those who first performed it. This not only educates audience members in a famous artist’s life, but also keeps their music in the right world. Suddenly, it makes sense. The pop score has a reason for being there, and allows the story to always move forward, as the main character writes, performs, or records their songs in the context of the show. As an homage to the original artists, biographical jukebox musicals can be educational, fun, and inspiring if done the right way.

And so, I ask my initial question again: is there still space in the industry for the jukebox musical? While they come with their fair share of challenges, the genre does continue to captivate audiences and inspire creativity in the world of musical theatre. They offer a unique blend of nostalgia, entertainment, and cultural significance. But it’s all about balance. It is as important to honour the amazing music that has come before us as it is to celebrate new creative work as it grows and develops. As long as audiences are willing to buy tickets to both, I’m sure we can find a place on the stage for both the fun and the serious, the new and the old!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Join StageAgent and Ace Your Auditions

Enjoy the ultimate theatre research and networking platform. StageAgent helps performing artists save time, improve their craft and discover opportunities.

Create Your Profile

Display your headshots, credits and skills to showcase your talent.

Read Expert Guides

Prepare for your next role by studying our expert show guides.

Find Audition Materials

Explore hundreds of monologues, scenes and audition songs.

Discover Audition Notices

Find performing and backstage opportunities in your city.