April 25, 2024

"Where words leave off, music begins."  Heinrich Heine

As a child, I was utterly captivated by jukeboxes - those big, colorfully lit machines filled with music. For just a quarter, you could play three songs and immerse yourself in a world of melody. Sometimes, if you were lucky, a smaller version would be at your table in a restaurant or diner. I was so fascinated by this experience that I even had a "toy" replica that eventually wore out because I played it for at least eight hours daily. Along with playing with my toy jukebox, I would gather my neighborhood friends in my garage to put on shows built around my vast record collection. So, my affinity for jukebox musicals comes as no surprise.

But what exactly is a jukebox musical? 

A jukebox musical is a stage show or motion picture that weaves a story around a collection of well-known popular songs. They can also be revues of sketches centered around a catalog of popular hits. Some focus on the music of a particular writer or star, while others explore songs related to a specific genre or topic.

The Roots Of The Jukebox Musical

In numerous sources, I have read that The Beggar's Opera, written in 1728 by John Gay, laid the groundwork for jukebox musicals. That show is classified as a ballad opera, but it incorporated popular music from the era with revised satirical lyrics. While that is not quite the modern definition of a jukebox musical, it certainly set a trend that would evolve.

The first jukebox musical that caught my attention was Singin' In the Rain. That was the first time I realized that most of the movie's songs were pulled from one songwriter's catalog- who, in this case, was also the movie's producer, Arthur Freed.

Singin' In the Rain is brilliant. It seamlessly integrates those songs into the film's narrative. They genuinely help to tell the story, and it's impossible to imagine the movie without them. This is what sets it apart as a remarkable jukebox musical.

Little did I know that it was a common practice in musical movies to use a catalog of songs to create a musical score. I'm thinking of movies like An American in Paris, which features a score culled from the catalog of George Gershwin's hits, or the biopic Words & Music based very loosely on the lives of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart or even an early rock and roll movie like Rock, Rock, Rock which featured a catalog of songs by pioneers of rock and roll.

The Beatles even got into the act with their first film, A Hard Day's Night. And here's a fun fact: Andrew Sarris, one of the leading auteurs of film criticism, called A Hard Day's Night "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”

The late 20th Century: The Jukebox Musical Comes Into Its Own

By the late 1980s, the concept of a jukebox musical became more prominent onstage with the success of Buddy, which explored the music and life story of the legendary rock singer and songwriter Buddy Holly. And in 1999, with the debut of Mamma Mia!,  which featured a completely original story built around the music of ABBA, the genre exploded into a worldwide phenomenon.

Since then, we've seen countless jukebox musicals: Jersey Boys, based on the music of The Four Seasons; Beautiful, the Carole King story, and Motown, featuring the hits that came from the landmark record company.

The Jukebox Musical Today

It’s abundantly clear that musical theatre is experiencing a wave of nostalgia mixed with a modern sensibility and musicals like & Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and MJ are leading the charge. They attest to an undeniable trend that audiences gravitate towards the familiar melodies of their favorite songs.  When these songs are reimagined and woven into narratives that bring these classic hits to life in a new light an unstoppable phenomenon occurs and sales go through the roof.

"A jukebox musical offers more than just a night at the theatre; it offers a joyous reunion with the soundtrack of our lives."

  • James A. Rocco

These musicals are a magical blend of comfort, nostalgia and innovation that remind us of our shared human experience.  And perhaps most importantly, they show that in a world that's constantly looking forward for the next big thing, there's incredible value in looking back and reimagining the music that defined us.

Jukebox musicals serve as a testament to the timeless appeal of music. They transform familiar songs into theatrical gems. They drive ticket sales, take the box office by storm and captivate audiences by connecting generations through melody and storytelling. I guarantee they will work their magic on your stage and in your community as well.