Enough With All The Jukebox Musicals On Broadway!

Britney Spears, Diana Ross and Cher are among the artists' whose discographies could be fueling a new crop of stage shows.

Broadway has turned into Branson: As the cost of putting on a show escalates, a lot of producers don’t want to take as many risks anymore, so they cater to baby boomers’ nostalgia banks—and piggy banks—while serving up old hit tunes assembled into some semblance of a musical. The result can be more K-Tel commercial than art, but it sells, so the jukebox shows keep coming, like a darling old record that keeps skipping through eternity.

Mamma Mia

The trend started with Mamma Mia!, which became a smash in 2001, partly because people were looking for any refuge in the wake of 9/11 and also because beloved ABBA songs were cannily strung together into a familiar (i.e. lifted from a movie) mother-daughter plot that the tourists could snuggle up to.

In 2005, Jersey Boys also struck gold, this time using Four Seasons ditties to help tell the story of that group’s rise and fall—sort of like a VH1 Behind The Music, but live and for big money. Some other such shows failed miserably, but Motown: The Musical found an audience for 775 performances, despite a script that didn’t exactly propel dancing in the street. (The slimmed down version that returned in ’16 was a total flop.) Also, Beautiful, about singer/songwriter Carole King, is a bonafide smash, and On Your Feet!, the story of Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan, danced a conga for over 21 months, so the trend is mounting again. (The current sensation Springsteen on Broadway is the ultimate twist on the jukebox show: The actual artist sings his own hits!)

I liked some of these productions for what they were, but never thought the genre would become such an overriding way of life that we’d find ourselves continually girding our loins for the next one. Now that the two types of jukebox shows have been established—one type with hits shoehorned into an unrelated plot and the other using the hits in a biographical retelling of the artist’s career—the Top 40 floodgates are wider open than the exits for Home For The Holidays. (Alas, there’s hardly anyone there to even leave.) If a castrato drama with Mark Rylance is too hard for you, we are awaiting tuners about Cher and Donna Summer, and you can bet all their best known songs—and triumphs and sorrows—will be incorporated, one after another.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

But that’s just the tip of the jukebox. Also in the works (some definite, some rumored) are shows using the songs of Jimmy Buffett, Pat Benatar, Petula Clark, the Go-Gos, Tina Turner, the Temptations, Diana Ross, Britney Spears, Meat Loaf, Soul Train, Bert Berns, Alan Jay Lerner, and the Bee Gees. (That last one should get John Lloyd Young to star—the Jersey Boys Tony winner does a mean falsetto. Yes, as a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, I’ve totally given in to this trend and am apparently even doing free consulting for it.)

Granted, some of these musicals could be enjoyable—and there are some I’m even looking forward to. But the onslaught of them reflects a serious dearth of imagination and a grave emphasis on pandering on the part of theatrical taste-makers. Way back in the day, when the financials were less threatening, producers would take a chance on dramas featuring great actors like Julie Harris, Geraldine Page, and Kim Stanley, and even if they flopped, some noble attempt at creativity had usually been made. Today, it’s a mad scramble to find any singer who’s had a few successful records and scrap that together into a story that will bring tears to the AARP crowd. The plot doesn’t matter—it’s generally just singer wants to make it, singer makes it, singer becomes a has-been. (Oops, I mean icon.) It’s all about the old music, which has no dangerous edge anymore, it’s merely comforting enough for people to dip into their 401Ks and have another date with nostalgia.

As these shows run out of big acts and start scraping the bottom of the charts, they’ll have to somehow make an obscure singer’s two hits into a satisfying evening. What next—LaToya Jackson? Vanilla Ice? Andrew Ridgeley? At least with a superstar like Cher, you have lots of great songs, plus plenty of drama. (Act One: “You’re a lesbian?” Act Two: “You’re a man?”) But let’s still put a lid on this out-of-control juggernaut as soon as we can. Spare me! Wake me up after they go-go.

Closet-Busting in America

Angels in America
A better theater trend might still involve nostalgia—the three productions I’m going to talk about are revivals—but at least they all happen to deal in what can be considered a condemnation of the closet, always a welcome topic. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is coming back to Broadway this season (with Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane), the plot partly involving the damaging effects of a closeted Mormon Republican and creepy self-loathing lawyer Roy Cohn.

Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is also returning (with Jim Parsons, Matt Bohmer, and Zach Quinto). In the bristling play which premiered the year before Stonewall, a character I always thought of as a closeted gay lashes out at the open queens at a birthday party and even gets violent about it. What’s more, the birthday boy makes his guests call someone they truly loved, and they all end up shattered by their calls, though it’s possible the host is merely forcing them to be open and deal with it. Maybe the new production will manage to keep the period angst (and stick to the script) while somehow making the characters more prideful than pathetic.

Torch Song/2nd Stage
And already off-Broadway is a trimmed version of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (now called Torch Song), about an out and proud gay man who ends up standing up to his phobic mother. Everyone should come out—to see all three.

Chastain Ups Her “Game”

Molly's Game/STXfilms
Some movies are digging into the past in interesting ways. Jessica Chastain delivers in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, playing real-life Colorado-born poker host Molly Bloom, for whom the stakes were inordinately high. At a lunch last week at La Grenouille, Chastain got up for a Q&A moderated by critic Thelma Adams. During the talk, Chastain admiringly described the movie’s lengthy script—Sorkin is famous for his words—remembering a six-day shoot with Idris Elba where they made it through 47 whopping pages of dialogue. Another scene called for her to not have slept, so she kept the shooting schedule as is, with Chastain getting off a flight and going right to the filming, exhausted (but still knowing all her lines).

Idris plays Molly’s lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, a character Chastain said loosely reflects Sorkin’s own trajectory. (He is skeptical of Molly at first, then comes around. And both Charlie and Sorkin have a daughter.) “I think it’s really great to cast Idris Elba as him,” she said, smiling. “First of all, the fact that he sees himself as Idris Elba is amazing!” As for Molly: “She had to change herself physically so people would pay attention to her or she’d be invisible. There were pictures of the Kardashians and J. Lo in my trailer. We [Chastain and the costume designer] would talk about when the plunging necklines would happen.” As for what some awful men do about those necklines, Chastain talked about the disturbing times we live in, and when she quoted something Trump said that was related to this problem, she prefaced it by specifying, “I don’t ever want to say his name.”

She didn’t. Love her.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto