Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Behind the jukebox

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What bands deserve musicals?”

In theory, a jukebox musical should be a wonderful thing. The songs, presumably, are good enough to have won the affections of a generation of listeners, and even before the show premieres, they’ve been tested under fire. If they’re all by the same artist, or emerge from a world with a common sensibility, evocative stories will naturally suggest themselves: Drive All Night, the Bruce Springsteen musical, never made it past the workshop stage a decade ago, but we all know intuitively what it would have been about. In the hands of a capable author, a collection of prewritten songs can serve as a promising source of constraints, and even encourage the breeziness and looseness of structure that so many good musicals have in common. It’s no accident that the greatest of all movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, was essentially conceived in the jukebox format: the script was written on demand to accommodate existing songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, and if the result is so intoxicating, it’s partly out of the sense that so much magic was lying around the MGM backlot, just waiting to be picked up.

Of course, jukebox musicals are usually anything but transcendent in practice, generally for three distinct reasons. At its worst, our familiarity with the songs is substituted for the heavy lifting that an original musical requires to draw in the audience: like a comedy that falls back on easy cultural references in place of real humor, a jukebox musical turns into an exercise in recognition, providing a sort of simulation of emotional engagement instead of the real thing. Hearing a famous song emerging from the mouth of an actor onstage also violates one of the central illusions of the musical, which is that the music represents a spontaneous outpouring, a way to express feelings that can’t be conveyed in any other form. Finally, in an ideal musical, as Stephen Sondheim notes, each line ought to advance emotion, character, or story, rather than serving as an exercise in virtuosity for its own sake. A song originally recorded to occupy a spot in a studio album can’t be expected to carry a narrative in which it was never meant to appear, and even if it fits reasonably well, it tends to feel like it’s just marking time.

Stephin Merritt

Still, it seems likely that we’re going to see many more jukebox musicals. Broadway is like any other form of show business: with costs escalating and audiences diminishing, it seems safer to stick with an established brand than to convince theatergoers to take a chance on something new. Hence the endless string of musicals based on established properties, no matter how improbable—Carrie, Rocky, Spider-Man—and the reliance on existing back catalogs and songbooks that can be relied upon to sell tickets. It’s understandable, but it also ignores one of the most seductive aspects of the musical, which is its underlying strangeness. All theatrical genres involve some suspension of disbelief; at the end of the day, we’re looking at painted performers exchanging lines on a clearly artificial set. A musical emphasizes that weirdness, reminding us with every number that we’re witnessing a heightened, externalized version of our own inner lives. It takes real craft and heart to entice an audience into taking that leap, and if it tries to trick us into thinking that we’re just seeing a concert with dramatic interludes, something crucial is lost.

An ideal jukebox show, then, would be built around a body of work that is already predicated on that strangeness, in which singing one’s feelings is both vaguely absurd and unavoidable. That sounds a lot to me like the Pet Shop Boys, who, in fact, already have a jukebox musical of a sort—Closer to Heaven, which combines original songs with tracks from the Nightlife period. It’s a nice little soundtrack, and it comes from a duo whose sensibilities have always been ironically theatrical, but I don’t play it much these days, perhaps because it’s a bit too polished and professional. (This is why I suspect that a Stephin Merritt musical, which might sound great in principle, would fall flat on the stage: he’s so facile a writer that we’d end up with a series of clever pastiches, rather than the awkward unburdening of feeling that give musicals their most unforgettable moments.) What I’d love to see is a musical that comes more from their secret heart, perhaps the B-sides collected on Alternative, tracks recorded for the anonymity and solitude of the club that only uneasily work on stage. Because a great jukebox musical shouldn’t come from the jukebox at all, but from the deep cuts, the private moments, that allow us to feel as if we’re encountering these emotions for the first time.

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