It costs a lot of money to mount a show on Broadway. You pour more than $10 million into a production, and there’s no guarantee of recouping your investment. Producers, therefore, are looking as much of “a sure thing” as they can find.
They’ll borrow from existing known quantities (The Lion King), but that’s risky too.
There’s no guarantee that the upcoming musical adaptations of Catch Me If You Can, Monsoon Wedding, or even The Lord of the Rings will ever appear on Broadway, or if they do, that they’ll make back the investors’ money. Even new shows by star composers Stephen Sondheim and John Kander and Fred Ebb are having trouble finding backers.
Enter the jukebox musical: a Broadway style musical using existing songs from an artist’s catalog. Why hire a composer and lyricist when you can push buttons on a jukebox? No musical rewrites needed. More importantly, audiences already know the songs (With the price of theatre tickets today, audiences want to be sure they'll be entertained).
What is spurring the latest development of these musicals is the success of Mamma Mia!, which puts the songs of ABBA onstage. So far, the show has grossed over one billion dollars worldwide. In 2004, there were versions playing in twenty different countries. The Broadway version opened in 2001, and is still running as of July 2008, with over 2800 performances.
Other success stories include the 2006 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Jersey Boys, featuring the songbook of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. The musical We Will Rock You, which is built around the songs of Queen, opened in London to dreadful reviews in 2002 but nevertheless played in a dozen countries and has been seen by six million people. A sequel is in the works. Movin' Out put the choreography of Twyla Tharp to the music of Billy Joel and brought in the audiences in New York, running for 3 years (1303 performances)on Broadway and touring in the United States for 3 years. However, in 2006, The Times They Are A-Changin', Tharp's show based around Bob Dylan songs, closed after a mere 28 performances.
While producers hope the jukebox musical make for a quick ROI—there’s no guarantee in show business. The songbooks of the Pet Shop Boys and Rod Stewart proved severely unprofitable in London. Other notable jukebox musicals that didn't thrive on Broadway in New York:
Currently in development are these shows:
Though composers and lyricists are removed from the show creation process (and participate only in collecting royalties out of the gross receipts), this does not necessarily make the development any easier. In a traditional book musical, characters burst into song to express their emotion-- and indeed, the songs are expressions of character. However, with a jukebox musical, the dramatist is faced with the challenge of creating in reverse: characters and even plot from the songs. E.g., what situation propels a character to launch into "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Surfin' Safari?"
Penelope Patsuris. “The Dead Do Broadway.” Forbes.com 27 October 2004. <http://www.forbes.com/2004/10/27/cx_pp_1027deadcelebmusicals.html> 23 December 2004.
Robert Simonson. “The Broadway Juke Box.” Playbill.com. 13 August 2004. <http://www.playbill.com/features/article/87880.html> 23 December 2004.
Bruce Weber. “The Broadway Musical Is Changing Its Key.” New York Times 26 December 2003. < http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/26/arts/theater/26WEBE.html> 23 December 2004.