Having spent the last couple of weeks celebrating my favourite regional theatre venues across the UK and favourite London theatres beyond the West End, this week I’m looking at some of the shows that play at them.
Jukebox musicals have become a staple of Broadway and the West End for a while now; familiarity, you could say, breeds contented audiences. As Mamma Mia! used to tag the show in their advertising, “You already know you’ve going to love it!”
In other words, you went in humming the tunes, rather than came out doing so. And Mamma Mia! recently celebrated its 22nd anniversary in the West End and announced a return date to resume performances at the Novello in August.
How you feel about a jukebox musical depends partly on how you feel about the music source it draws on; for me, Rock of Ages is the anti-Christ musicals, as it’s wall-to-wall songs I don’t know and don’t want to know.
But the best ones trade in a particular nostalgia for their period and the music that was made then: it’s rare for jukebox musicals to be made from artists who are still actively performing, because you can still go see them live. That’s the reason I think that The Cher Show failed on Broadway; what was the point of seeing a facsimile — or in this show’s case, three of them, with Cher shown at different ages — when people can still see the real thing?
- LOVE — Las Vegas
Among the greatest shows I’ve ever seen in my entire life, Cirque du Soleil’s sit-down Las Vegas spectacle Love is near the top of the list (it’s eclipsed only by another Cirque Vegas show, ‘O’); an amazing spectacle — and almost sensory overload — as some dazzlingly athletic circus acts, including the usual Cirque staples of trapeze, trampoline, bungee and skaters, are set to a soundtrack of Beatles classics.
Sampling some 120 songs to create 27 separate musical pieces, the score has been constructed by the original Beatles producer George Martin wit his son Giles as music directors; and is heard via 6,351 speakers; each spectator has three personal speakers embedded into their seats. There are also 32 digital projectors offering high definition, wide panoramic images to accompany the live action. It is simply breathtaking.
WATCH: Behind-the-scenes video, including footage of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sequence at the end:
Of course, it is far from the only Beatles jukebox show to have been created over the years; in 1977, Broadway had a multi-media experience called Beatlemania (that also played at London’s Astoria); in 2012 the West End offered Let It Be, a concert recreation of a Beatles gig, that my own review of which ended with the declaration, “Let it not.” But it nevertheless ended up playing three separate West End theatres — the Prince of Wales, Savoy and Garrick — as well as being a hit on the touring road.
- Mamma Mia!
Though Mamma Mia! was hardly the first jukebox musical, it is nevertheless responsible for creating the wave of the shows that followed in the early 2000s and continues to this day. Few, however, have matched its wit, joy and ingenuity, as Catherine Johnson’s book cleverly folds the great Abba songbook into a new story, set on a Greek island, of a young woman seeking to find out who her father is, ahead of her wedding that ends the show.
After premiering at London’s Prince Edward Theatre in 1999, and becoming an instant hit, its global roll-out was faster than any other musical in history, as it premiered in more than 50 countries on six continents. I’ve personally seen it many, many times, but particularly in London and New York (where I was at the gypsy run-through, the final invited dress rehearsal before paying audiences arrived, when it was the first new musical to open on Broadway after 9/11), and on its 10th anniversary performances in both those cities. I also, most memorably, attended its Stockholm premiere, which marked the first time that all four of the original members of Abba had seen it together.
WATCH: footage from the Broadway company:
The film version quickly became one of the most successful movie musicals in history, and also set up its own trend of regenerating interest in film musicals; but was — despite a cast led by Meryl Streep, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski — a lame imitation of the stage show. The 2018 sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, was better, at least because it was more original.
Another effective spin-off has been Mamma Mia! The Party, an immersive theatrical and dining experience that premiered in Stockholm in 2016 and invites audiences to attend the Greek wedding celebration of Sophie and local boy Sky, that plays out against a backdrop of wall-to-wall Abba hits that turns the taverna setting into a giant party.
In 2019, a London version opened in a specially created space at The O2 Arena; my review for LondonTheatre said it “could be subtitled, ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – again…. As it unfolds in and around us, the secret of the success of Raine Söderlundh’s production is to make the entire audience a crucial participant in the festivities. We are not merely observers but active partygoers, and it is in that spirit that the audience surrenders entirely to the evening. Resistance would not only be futile; it would be actively counter-productive.”
- Close to You — The Burt Bacharach Musical
Originally called What’s It All About? when this revue of the Burt Bacharach back catalogue first premiered at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in 2013, Canadian singer-guitarist Kyle Riabko stunningly presided over a complete reinvention of the pop composer’s repertoire, making each so ng sound as if freshly minted yet also like an old friend, which most of them are.
It transferred to London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015, and then — with it now called Close to You — to the Criterion. I became mildly obsessed with this adorable show, as it swept you up in the warm embrace of its love of the material, and director Steven Hoggett’s production lent movement to and interaction with it.
WATCH: Kyle Riabko performing A House is not a Home (in concert at Joe’s Pub, New York)
By contrast, an attempt to create a Broadway jukebox show of Bacharach’s catalogue that was called The Look of Love quickly tanked in 2003; alas, I never saw it, though it featured Liz Callaway, one of my favourite Broadway singers of all, and had choreography by the amazing Ann Reinking.
- Ain’t Misbehavin’
This revue of songs both written by and/or made famous by Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller originated at Manhattan Theatre Club’s cabaret space in 1978, before transferring to Broadway’s Longacre, before going on to play both the Plymouth and the Belasco in its 1,604 performance run to 1982. I saw it first on its London transfer to Her Majesty’s in 1980, when two of the original Broadway cast — Andre de Shields and Charlayne Woodward — reprised their performances; but in 1988 I was able to see all of the original Broadway cast when they joined forces to reprise the show at the Ambassadors Theatre.
WATCH: Tony winner Nell Carter sings Honeysuckle Rose on the 1981 Tony Awards:
As Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times of that revival, “In their scrupulous re-creation of the Fats Waller show that first electrified Broadway a decade ago, the original cast and creators have conjured the same between-the-wars dream world as before… Though almost bereft of dialogue, this musical anthology expands beyond its form to become a resurrection of a great black artist’s soul. Perhaps the key to the musical’s approach, as conceived by the director Richard Maltby Jr., is its willingness to let Waller speak simply and eloquently for himself, through his art but without show-biz embroidery.”
I’d first discovered the show through its original Broadway cast recording, which still remains an indelible record of a magnificent company.
In London, a new production at the Tricycle in 1995 subsequently transferred to the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue.
- Smokey Joe’s Cafe
This amazing revue built out of the songs of hit-makers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is wall-to-wall hits — some 39 songs in all, including such standards as Fools Fall in Love, On Broadway (co-written with Barry Mann, and also coincidentally featured in Beautiful, see below), Hound Dog, I’m a Woman, There Goes My Baby, Jailhouse Rock, Stand by Me and Spanish Harlem (co-written by Leiber with Phil Spector).
WATCH: The company perform On Broadway:
The original Broadway production — directed by Jerry Zaks and choreographed by Joey McKneely — ran from 1995 to 2000, making it the longest running revue in Broadway history. A London edition ran at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1996.
- Jersey Boys
Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman’s book for Jersey Boys used Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ own stories and sometimes tangled relationships with each other to fold a veritable hit parade of great songs into it. Winning four Tonys, including for best musical when it premiered on Broadway in 2005 at the August Wilson Theatre, it also earned Tonys for its stars John Lloyd Young (as Frankie Valli and Christina Hoff (as Tommy de Vito). It ran there till 2017, and then re-opened two blocks away at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages on w50th Street, where it has run ever since in a scaled-down version.
WATCH: compilation video from the Broadway company
In the West End it premiered at the Prince Edward, wining the 2009 Olivier for Best Musical, and subsequently transferred to the Piccadilly. Ryan Molloy played the role of Frankie Valli for six years! It will now return to launch the newly refurbished Trafalgar Theatre (formerly the Whitehall and Trafalgar Studios), from the end of July.
- Beautiful: The Carole King musical
A couple of years ago the great (and still with us) singer-songwriter Carole King performed her seminal album Tapestry live in concert in Hyde Park; but this 2014 Broadway show does more, telling the back story of her life and her relationships on and off-stage, that included friendships with fellow songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, whose work is also hard in the show (including On Broadway, also featured in Smokey Joe’s Cafe above).
On Broadway, Jessie Mueller played King, singing such pop classics as It Might as Well Rain Until September, Some King of Wonderful, You’ve Got a Friend, You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman, Beautiful and I Feel the Earth Move.
WATCH: Jessie Mueller performs Will You Love Me Tomorrow on the Today Show:
In London, Katie Brayben starred in its West End premiere at the Aldwych. It had a UK tour in 2017, and another tour had just hit the road in 2020 when it was curtailed by COVID.
- Five Guys Named Moe
This effervescent revue of songs made famous by the great jazz musician Louis Jordan was created by actor Clarke Peters (who also starred in it). It premiered at Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1990 before transferring to the West End’s Lyric Theatre, where it ran for four years, under Cameron Mackintosh’s auspices, who also took it to Broadway in 1992 for rather shorter run. It won the 1991 Olivier for Best Entertainment, and another for Charles Augins as best theatre choreographer (he also directed).
WATCH: Footage of the Broadway company from the 1992 Tony Awards:
- Our House
This musical delight based on the back catalogue of British pop group Madness, including a set of songs that conjure smiles and happiness like House of Fun, Baggy Trousers, Driving in My Car and It Must be Love, opened at the Cambridge Theatre in 2002. With a book by Tim Firth, it told a ‘Sliding Doors’ story that followed two possible outcomes for its lead character Joe Casey (Michael Jibson, Olivier winner for playing King George III in Hamilton, made his professional debut in the role), who as a 16 year old breaks into a new housing development and when the police arrives, either does a runner or stay stop face the music, with radically different consequences for his life.
WATCH: The original London company.
Director Matthew Warchus, assembling a creative team that would subsequently work with him on Matilda (that came to same West End theatre in 2011, where it has run ever since), created an original and diverting musical that won the 2003 Olivier for best musical, but only ran for about 10 months. But there have been other productions since, including a UK tour that began an Ipswich’s New Wolsey in 2013.
- Sunny Afternoon
This musical, which told the back story of Ray Davies and the formation of his band The Kinks in the 60s, premiered at London’s Hampstead Theatre, before transferring to the West End’s Harold Pinter. Directed by Edward Hall and with choreography by Adam Cooper, it won the Olivier for Best Musical in 2015; plus Oliviers for leads John Dagleish (best actor in a musical), George Maguire (best Actor in a supporting role), and best achievement in music (Ray Davies)
WATCH: West End cast and Ray Davies perform Sunny Afternoon:
And still the keep coming….
Later this year, The Drifters’ Girl and Get Up! Stand Up! — new musicals telling the back stories of The Drifters and Bob Marley respectively — are scheduled to open at the Lyric and Garrick Theatres; while Broadway has MJ, a Michael Jackson musical, lined up for the Neil Simon Theatre, and A Beautiful Noise, featuring the songs of Neil Diamond, being planned.
But the show I’m still waiting patiently for is the one that uses the catalogue of The Carpenters. If any producers are reading, please hear my plea!
And now that we’ve heard my favourite jukebox musicals, next week we cross the Atlantic once again, to visit my ShenTens favourite Broadway theatres.
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design