Thinking outside the box

Amber Riley, Graham Norton, Gary Barlow, Dannii Minogue, Mel Giedroyc and Martin Kemp
Photo credit: @BBCLetItShine

At the launch of the BBC’s latest TV talent show, Let It Shine, Gary Barlow claimed that “jukebox musicals have got predictable”. Barlow, most well known as being a part of Take That, is currently working on The Band – a musical using the group’s songs, but apparently not a piece of bio-theatre.

No doubt this is the sort of comment that’s designed to draw attention to his new programme (there’s no such thing as bad press?), but I felt it worthy of a response.

To start with, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of ‘jukebox musical’. Whilst many are used as the backstory of a band or artist, what it really means is that the score is made up of popular songs rather than being composed specifically for the show. That’s it.

Small Faces 6 Phil Weedon
The cast of All Or Nothing
Photo credit: Phil Weedon

It’s true that band story musicals often follow a very basic template: get the band together, initial success, management problems, independent success & a happy ending. However, given that these shows are based on things that really happened, what choice is there? But just because they’re fitting a template doesn’t mean they’re all going to be the same – or of equal quality. A good direct comparison here is Sunny Afternoon and All Or Nothing (musicals about The Kinks and The Small Faces, respectively). One reason Sunny Afternoon triumphs where All Or Nothing fails is the backbone of the show: the writing. Neither Joe Penhall or Carol Harrison had written a musical before, but Penhall’s stage pedigree allowed him to make more of the jukebox genre – the result is a snappy, clever show that engages the band’s fans as well as a completely new audience. Harrison, on the other hand, delivered a cliché-ridden, derivative script that seemed to be written almost exclusively for existing fans of the band, or people who are old enough to understand the many period-specific references. A band story jukebox can be done innovatively if it’s in the right hands.

It can be risky to try & make a new story out of an existing catalogue of songs, as you could end up with characters cheesily named after references in those songs (I’m thinking Extraordinary Girl in American Idiot, Viva in Viva Forever!, Scaramouche in We Will Rock You) – and a storyline that’s patched together just so certain popular songs can be incorporated. However, by building a new story the shows become more diverse and, as a result, much less predictable.

The cast of Lazarus
Photo credit: Johan Persson

What irks me the most about Gary Barlow’s assertion is that it was backed up with absolutely nothing. He gave no examples of shows that fall under his label of ‘predictable’, instead claiming that “there’s a lot”. Helpful, Gary, really helpful.

I’d like to point him in the direction of Lazarus. Yes, it’s technically a jukebox musical. It features an array of songs from David Bowie’s vast back catalogue, as well as three new numbers. The only thing you could possibly predict about this show was that it would be unpredictable; anything that Bowie has an involvement in is creative, and pushes the envelope. For starters, it’s basically designed as a sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth (a novel by Walter Tevis and also a film in which Bowie himself starred), and delves into science fiction & fantasy – hardly a predictable setup for a jukebox musical. Or any musical, come to think of it. Lazarus challenges your preconceptions of what a jukebox musical can be, and makes a bold statement with it.

So, Mr Barlow, you want to avoid the ‘predictable’ route with The Band? Fine, nobody should want to be predictable; theatre particularly needs to innovate to survive. But, thanks to our thoughtless & unsubstantiated comment, the stakes have been raised and you will be under intense scrutiny. No pressure.

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