Student Blog: What Makes a Jukebox Musical “Work”?

There can be a place for such good, fun, silly, joyful pieces of jukebox theatre in the canon of our chaotic, complicated, subjective art form.

By: Sep. 10, 2021
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Student Blog: What Makes a Jukebox Musical “Work”?

If you were among the many who watched, with some mixture of pleasure, confusion, disgust, and laughter, the Cinderella starring Camilla Cabello that was released this past weekend, you know that the film is (largely) a jukebox musical, featuring characters who break out into existing pop songs, rather than original musical theatre pieces, to tell the story.

We all know that jukebox musicals can be difficult to pull off, and it seemed to many that Cinderella ... just didn't quite succeed. Musical theatre is my favorite art form-- I've come to accept the concept of characters breaking out into song and dance. I even accept, enjoy, and buy into many a jukebox musical -- but as I watched the townspeople of Cinderella sing Queen's "Somebody to Love" to celebrate the changing of the guard, it simply ... didn't make sense. It forced me to think about what it is that makes some jukebox musicals work, while others (like, perhaps, Cinderella), perhaps...don't quite.

Love them or hate them, Jukebox musicals have become a fixture of Broadway with their guaranteed audiences drawn by familiar music. Often, their watchability comes down to how each jukebox musical navigates the basic principles of musical theatre, which apply from the most traditional golden age show to contemporary rock musical. Particularly central is simply an understanding of the roles of music in a musical: primarily, it creates the world (e.g., helping establish the given circumstances), illuminates characters (expressing their desires and emotions), and is a vehicle for their actions. I was baffled and disoriented from the beginning of Cinderella because the opening number "Rhythm Nation" did not quite accomplish that primary opening-number job of clearly establishing the world. When many of the other songs tried to cut between/include a variety of characters, expression of character or action was muddied.

Another key principle is that of "rules of the world" - one of the most helpful dramaturgical/devising/theatre criticism concepts I've learned about. In musical theatre, as in any art-making, there is very little in the way of universal rules to be followed - in fact, innovation comes from breaking them! However, within a piece, it's important to clearly establish the rules of the world, and the conventions of the piece, and stick to them - or, if you are going to break them, do it in a clear, intentional, and meaningful way. One of the most important of these conventions is whether a song is diegetic: whether, in the world of the play, the character is singing and this song is heard as music by the other characters, or whether it is simply an expression of the musical theatre convention in which, when speaking is no longer enough, a character must break into song (but for the characters around them, nothing has changed). Musicals can include both diegetic and non-diegetic songs, and this can be particularly common in jukebox musicals about musicians, who frequently have reason to sing diegetically in the world of the play. Although it can be especially difficult to pull off, it is even possible to move from non-diegetic to diegetic in the course of one song. But the choice of convention - whether or not the song is diegetic - must be clear, and what often left me baffled in Cinderella was that very question, as songs seemed to fluctuate ambiguously between the two.

There are two broad categories of jukebox musical: those that are about the life of a songwriter/musician/music group etc, and feature the songs that they wrote, and those that simply use existing songs to tell an unrelated story. The former category is often more easily effective because as an audience we know that this artist/character did in fact write these songs, conceivably about the point in their life at which their character sings them in the musical: thus we can accept the song as accomplishing a similar task to a standard nondiegetic musical theatre song expressing a character's thoughts/desires/etc. These sorts of musicals also allow a lot of space for easily-logical diegetic songs, as we are used to accepting these pop songs in a diegetic context.

The second category, into which Cinderella falls, can be more difficult to accomplish effectively, but several features can make such a musical work. Perhaps the best-loved, most effective example of a jukebox musical not about the musician who wrote the songs would be Mamma Mia, so I will frequently use that show as a point of comparison. The first tactic most jukebox musicals of this category employ is that of working exclusively from the canon of one artist/band (e.g. ABBA), effectively establishing the world of the musical as discussed above by giving the show/world a cohesive sound. The lack of this consistency in Cinderella made it difficult to get oriented and comfortable with how musical expressions of emotion worked in the world of the piece. A second tactic, very connected to the first, is that of building the show (its vibe, even its story) around the existing music you wish to include. Mamma Mia as a show springs clearly from the energy and stories suggested by ABBA's music, and even Rock of Ages, with a score made not of the work of one band but of varied classic rock hits, finds its logic by being a story about the world of Rock and Roll. Although Cinderella's contemporary sensibilities may have come to some extent out of its contemporary soundtrack, the connection was much less clear.

And finally, this sort of jukebox musical can almost never afford to take itself too seriously. (The serious subject matter of Alanis Morrissette's music, along with her addition of original songs for the show, allow Jagged Little Pill to be an exception.) When we are using songs the audience recognizes to tell an original story - when audiences are being introduced to some new character and following their journey in some new world, and then this character suddenly starts singing a pop song the audience has known and loved forever, it's simply going to feel a little silly. And the best original-story jukebox musicals unapologetically accept that. Shows like Mamma Mia and Escape to Margaritaville recognize that the perfectly valuable purpose that they serve and can accomplish well is not serious social commentary but humor and fun and joy. What made Cinderella most laughable at times was its frequent failure to quite recognize this: its girlboss-ery was parodically oversimplified in book alone, but felt especially ridiculous when at any moment its characters might start singing Ed SHeeran or Madonna.

And yet, I still found Cinderella entertaining. Even when it felt laughably, perhaps objectively, bad, I found it really fun to watch - it was full of pleasant songs that I knew and loved, it offered fun big visuals and strong singing and dancing, and made me laugh. And though these simple qualities might not make something high art, or radically change-making, they are valuable sources of joy that musical theatre can be uniquely well-equipped to offer. It's a testament to that third point above - lighthearted offerings of entertainment can be fun and valuable enough in their own right that they need not take themselves deadly serious in order to have a right to exist. And when musicals combine the fun and spectacle that Cinderella does offer with an acceptance of this fact (along with a nice dose of more clearly crafted musical theatre writing), there can be a place for such good, fun, silly, joyful pieces of jukebox theatre in the canon of our chaotic, complicated, subjective art form.