The Jukebox Musical and What To Do About It

Noel Katz

To understand what's so awful about jukebox musicals, we have to talk about what makes great musicals great. I'm going to use Fiddler on the Roof as an example, but the same scenario applies to all non-jukebox successes. Three writers sit in a room together and start discussing the story they wish to tell. For Joe, Jerry and Sheldon, it's going to be a portrait of the world their parents left behind in tsarist Russia. They take a little inspiration from Sholem Aleichem's tales of a Jewish dairyman. Together, they agree that the tsar forcing Jews to leave their little town will be the final beat of the plot. The composer goes to the piano and taps out the slow trudge of emigrants who don't want to leave, carrying all their worldly possessions on their backs. What might those be? "A pot...a pan" offers Sheldon. What would the town rabbi say in this situation? ponders Joe. From hundreds of conversations like this, together, as a team, they create what eventually becomes the longest running musical in Broadway history.

Ideas from one collaborator spur other brighter ideas from another. Their being in the same room is an essential component in creating a great show. The songs grow organically out of the scenes and each line sounds natural coming out of the character that says them. If you're looking to create a great musical, you'll want to replicate this process.

OR you can do the opposite. You can eliminate the composer and the lyricist from the process. You can start with a set of songs everybody already knows and likes. You can then hire a script-writer (and I've noticed it's usually someone who's never written a musical before). This scribe hobbles together a plot in which, it is hoped, the old songs will make some sense in their new context.

It's challenging - isn't it? - because each song grew out of a different impulse. The songs probably weren't written to be part of a story; certainly not this story, which is newly assembled. If it's a rock song, often it was written to express the rock star's heart, in his own idiosyncratic voice and personality. Now the songs are being jerry-rigged to fit new characters. It’s like wearing someone else's clothes.

And that lonely librettist invents many characters, while the songs may have been tailored to one singer. It's said - correctly - that musicals aren't written so much as they're REwritten. When changes were made to Fiddler on the Roof, the collaborators made countless adjustments with each other until score, book and lyrics were of a piece. On a jukebox, the writer has nobody making any adjustments. The songwriters' work was over long ago.

So that's why jukebox musicals are so ineffective. (Some, of course, are better than others.) The songs can't organically grow out of character and situation because they were never meant to. Inorganically, they're being retrofitted into a musical, furthering a musical's plot. But my point is not that jukeboxes are inevitably bad.

What concerns me is the way they sap resources. The theatre world has a limited number of investors; Broadway has a limited number of theatres. There's only so many directors who can mount musicals really well. When a jukebox is produced, people, places and companies that might otherwise be involved in creating something 100% new are now engaged in the repurposing of pre-existing hits. 

This is rather discouraging to those of us who spend our lives creating new musicals with original scores, face-to-face with like-minded collaborators. Used to be, writers played new songs for producers who might decide a show is worthy. Now our scores are compared to the hits of yesteryear you can hear on the Classic Rock station. It's a problem Sondheim never faced.

And those Golden Oldies are, well, golden. The songs used in jukebox musicals have usually already earned their writers well over a million dollars. And the royalties collected by ASCAP or BMI keep coming with every replay on air.

So I’ve a modest proposal, based on the old Robin Hood idea of robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Let’s see ASCAP and BMI stick up for the little guy, those musical theatre creators who haven’t made millions, by sticking it to the zillionaires. When any song is licensed for use in a Broadway musical, the producers of that musical should have to pay a sizable surcharge. This money would go into a fund that would support the development of original shows. Producers who opt to present jukeboxes would thus pay more than the producers of truly newly-minted material. The super-rich songwriters, who’ve already made a fortune on their songs, would barely miss the added income they would have gotten from jukeboxes that didn’t happen.

But of course, they’d never do it. The rich always find ways to screw the poor, and add to their riches. Sound a little like the government? Well, I’m not here to make any statement about politics, but I will talk about voting.

When you buy a ticket for a show you are, in a way, voting for the type of show you want to see. So many seats have been sold for Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages over the years; naturally, the idea of putting on a show where the audience already knows the score walking in seems like a financially sound one. But it wasn’t long ago when audiences showed comparatively more interest in new shows where they didn’t know every song in advance. They actually came to the theatre for the joy of discovering new music.

Sound like fun to you? Then vote that way! By buying seats for new musicals. And don’t send the opposite message: Never spend a dime on a jukebox musical. (Actual jukeboxes that take coins are O.K.)