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Wikipedia Musicals

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Today I’d like to discuss a relatively new form of musical theatre. We had the revue and the book musical. Both of which had original songs either as one-offs like in a revue or songs that propelled and commented on the plots. But now we have a wholly new variety of musical theatre, one that I have dubbed the Wikipedia musical. I’m thinking of Jersey Boys, Summer, Cher, and now the Temptations musical, Ain’t Too Proud.

Some call them jukebox musicals but I don’t quite think that’s right. But before we go into that let’s have a look at the genesis of the Wikipedia musical. How did they evolve from traditional musical comedy.

Way back in 1968, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman opened a little show at the Village Gate downtown. The show was Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Blau and Shuman along with a fantastic cast gave us a musical revue of the songs of French composer Jacques Brel. It ran for four years downtown, was performed all over the world, including Paris, and in 1975 there was a film version that was basically a film of the stage show. It was a tremendous success.

Uptown at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s E. 75th Street theatre a little revue based on the music of Fats Waller opened. The show, Ain’t Misbehavin’, opened in February of 1978 and was such a success it quickly transferred to Broadway in May, opening at the Longacre Theatre. The show ran over 1,600 performances. Pretty impressive for a little five-person musical revue.

These shows were what I would call “staged radio.” Though one thing that separated Ain’t Misbehavin’ from other songwriter revues was that the five characters each had separate personalities which added to the fun. And like in today’s Wikipedia musicals, there were lots and lots of copycats many of them unsuccessful. Think of Eubie! (Blake), Side By Side By Sondheim, Jerry’s Girls (Herman), Perfectly Frank (Loesser), Words and Music (Sammy Cahn – who also narrated the show!), and many others.

Flash forward to Mamma Mia!. Here was the first jukebox musical that actually had a plot. And the show was tremendous fun even though nobody really paid attention to the machinations on stage. But all was forgiven because the show didn’t take itself seriously. It opened in London in 1999 and then toured around the US finally opening on Broadway in 2001. Flimsy or not, the show was a true musical utilizing (squeezing in) the ABBA songs to the plot. No one begrudged the astounding worldwide success of this fun, breezy show.

Now, we have a sort of amalgam of the jukebox revues and the full-fledged jukebox musical. Only, in the case of the newest shows, the stories are told chronologically with the songs having little relationship to the plots. And there aren’t really any full-fledged characters and, in the case of Jersey Boys, Cher, and Ain’t Yoo Proud, not a whole lot of dialogue scenes. Mostly, it’s the characters speaking directly to the audience filling them into the timeline of the events. And that’s why I call them Wikipedia musicals.

One current exception today is Beautiful that is basically is a timeline of the career of Carole King. The difference in this bio-musical is that Beautiful has an excellent book by Douglas McGrath with strong characterizations, actual, traditional Broadway sets, and a very strong production. Beautiful is really a play with music because the music doesn’t further the plot. Only two times do the characters actual sing their feelings. So the score is almost a soundtrack to the play. But it all works, if you’ll excuse the expression, beautifully.

Though Ain’t Too Proud, Cher, and their ilk mostly have excellent production values, costuming, lighting and really terrific performances, they’re mostly variety shows with narration. And it should be said that the form has its hits and also its flops. Summer didn’t last long this season, and Cher is, perhaps surprisingly, not the success we expected. Maybe this is just a fad and the pendulum will swing back.

Only time and the box office will tell.


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