It's not a very creative time for the Broadway musical. The scores of three of the four shows nominated for the Tony Award for best new musical are of pre-existing pop music: • American Idiot, with songs mainly from the album of the same name by punk rockers Green Day; Million Dollar Quartet, documenting a fabled recording session by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley; and Fela!, set at a concert by Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti at the club he called his Shrine. • Critics call them jukebox musicals, as opposed to the traditional book musical, in which story and songs are created together. They are mostly the products of commercial calculation. • "These jukebox shows are done because if you start with songs that are popular, you almost have a guarantee that people will come,'' said Didier C. Deutsch, a veteran record producer and musicologist who reviews Broadway shows for European publications. "A book musical requires so much more. With a jukebox musical, you can build the story line, fake or real, around the songs to flesh out your story. It will either fly or not, but at least half the battle is won because you already have the songs. If you have to create a book musical with songs attached to it, there's much more work involved.''
You can blame this unoriginal state of affairs on Mamma Mia!, the ABBA fest that was one of the first successful shows to construct a musical around a catalog of pop songs. Producers have taken note that it's still playing to virtually full houses on Broadway, not to mention spawning endless tours and a hit movie.
Since Mamma Mia! opened in 2001, musicals have been fashioned from the songbooks of Billy Joel (Movin' Out), the Beach Boys (Good Vibrations), Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys), Bob Dylan (The Times They Are A-Changin'), '80s heavy metal (Rock of Ages) and Frank Sinatra (Come Fly Away), among others.
Memphis, the fourth nominee for best musical this year, does have an original score (book and lyrics by Joe DiPrieto, music and lyrics by David Bryan), but its generic depiction of the rise of rock 'n' roll in 1950s Memphis sounds like it wants to be a jukebox musical.
Basically, all the shows up for the Tony for best musical this year are presented like concerts. For the first time, each nominee has a band onstage, instead of being tucked away in the orchestra pit, where only the back of the head of the conductor is visible to the audience.
American Idiot is the most exciting, innovative show I saw this season, brilliantly exploiting the intrinsic theatricality of pop music. Still, director Michael Mayer strenuously objects to it being labeled as a jukebox musical.
"It's so not that. I think more than anything, that bugs me,'' said Mayer, also co-author of the musical's book with Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day.
Mayer is master of the rock musical, having also directed the 2006 smash Spring Awakening, and he came up with the idea of putting the American Idiot album onstage. He crafted a book about three guys on an angst-ridden odyssey through post-9/11 America.
"Because the album is so cohesive, it is a story,'' he said. "I embellished the story and created new characters and a different kind of scope for it. Every new piece of material that we've incorporated has come out of a character need and a story need, and not the other way around. The jukebox musical is always about taking songs and trying to link them together, and that's just not what we did here. Ever.''
However, there is scant dialogue in American Idiot, whose story is told almost entirely through potent numbers like Jesus of Suburbia, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Holiday and Wake Me Up When September Ends, as well as a few songs from another Green Day album, 21st Century Breakdown. On Broadway, the music is pummeled out by a powerhouse band and energetic young cast. It's a far cry from the scene-song-scene-song format of the standard musical.
"I knew going into this that if people wanted book scenes leading into songs, they were not going to be happy. But if they were prepared to receive it the way you receive an opera, which has very little talk, and all of the story happens inside the music and the lyrics, then they'll have a better time,'' Mayer said.
One of the rationales for the rise of jukebox musicals is that they draw young people into theater, and that is definitely true for American Idiot, with its set full of video screens.
"A lot of people who have come to American Idiot by virtue of their relationship with Green Day have never seen a play before,'' Mayer said. "Maybe they saw their high school production of Oliver! and didn't like it. By and large, they're just not interested in theater of any kind. Now you're introducing a new audience to the possibility of telling a story through music, of putting narrative onto the same stuff they listen to on the radio.''
American Idiot was deemed ineligible for the Tony for original score, and that irks Mayer, who argues that it was a rock opera in the first place and includes quite a lot of music written specifically for the stage production. He points out that The Who's Tommy, a similar sort of musical based on an album, won the 1993 award for original score.
With Broadway awash in jukebox musicals, the lineup of Tony nominees for original score is the weakest ever, having to stretch to include the incidental music of two plays, Fences and Enron, to fill out the category. Memphis and The Addams Family are the only two conventional scores nominated.
Though Mayer has been responsible for two of the most hard-rocking Broadway shows in Spring Awakening and American Idiot, he hasn't given up on the old-fashioned musical. His next project is a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
The need to develop new audiences for musical theater came through during an interview I had with Aaron Johnson, leader of the crack Brooklyn-based band Antibalas, which plays for Fela! If he wasn't actually in a Broadway show, the trombonist-conductor told me, he wouldn't dream of attending one.
"I never expected I'd be doing something like this,'' said Johnson, whose orchestrations were nominated for a Tony. "I haven't been to a Broadway musical since I was 15 years old and saw Jelly's Last Jam, and I don't really have any desire to. It's just not what I do.''
Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones (another alumnus of Spring Awakening, for which he did choreography), is a colorful extravaganza of African jazz and pop music and dance. In the performance I saw, Sahr Ngaujah was riveting in classic Fela songs such as Water No Get Enemy, Zombie, Coffin for Head of State and Sorrow, Tears and Blood, many bristling with populist political content. (BP, which drills for oil in Nigeria, was a frequent target of Fela's passionate critiques.)
What I enjoyed most about the show was the 10-piece band, and especially the piercing "high life'' horns. Johnson told me that the funky music wasn't improvised as much as I thought. "It's a common misconception that it's loose, jamming music,'' he said. "There are a few spots that are ad libs or maybe we vamp before a cue. But for the most part, it's all composed and there's a rhythmic structure. Fela called it African classical music.''
With the musicians onstage in jukebox musicals, they become part of the story, especially in Million Dollar Quartet. Three of the four principal cast members are musicians first, and they had to learn how to act for the show. Two of them are especially persuasive: Levi Kreis, who is sensational as Jerry Lee Lewis, and the rawboned, resentful Carl Perkins of Robert Britton Lyons.
Million Dollar Quartet, set in Sam Phillips' Sun Records studio a few days before Christmas 1956, is stuffed with rockabilly staples such as Blue Suede Shoes, That's All Right, Great Balls of Fire and Hound Dog, plus some gospel mixed in. With the actors playing the music, there are sometimes refreshing bits of spontaneous business. At the matinee I saw, Eddie Clendening, who plays Elvis, broke a string on his guitar and proceeded to change it on the fly during Sixteen Tons.
"It happens more than you'd think,'' director Eric Schaeffer said. "We have two boxes of guitar strings onstage. Everybody knows how to change them. That's what would happen in real life.''
Though Million Dollar Quartet really rocks the Nederlander Theatre, I found it to be the least compelling of the jukebox musicals I saw. The songs are awfully familiar after all these years, the narrative isn't terribly gripping (Presley has left Phillips for a larger label and the others will soon follow), and the finale borrows a little too much from Jersey Boys.
Schaeffer's involvement in the show is interesting. As artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Washington, he made his reputation with a series of acclaimed productions of works by Stephen Sondheim, the paragon of musical theater, no matter how much his shows stretch the boundaries of the art form.
I asked Schaeffer if all these jukebox musicals on Broadway sounded the death knell of the traditional book musical.
"I hope not,'' he said. "I think we're going through a phase, and right now people just want entertainment more than ever. They want familiarity, they want something that is like their best friend, and that's why they're gravitating toward this stuff. We're at a tricky place right now, but I think the book musical will come back.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.