The Winner Takes It All: Jukebox Musicals and the Broadway Economy

Mamma Mia
At least Pierce Brosnan wasn’t involved this time. Image courtesy Hart-Theatre.org.

There’s nothing more disappointing then when you’re talking to someone who says they like musicals, and then they tell you their favourite is Mamma Mia!.

 

No offense, Benny and Björn, but Mamma was likely only popular because of the ABBA songs in it. (Further proof? Let’s not forget about Chess: The Musical, also penned by B&B, which ran for not quite two months). Would anyone really be interested in watching a show about a girl who doesn’t know who her father is, then mentally distresses her mother when she invites all three to her wedding? That doesn’t sound like a feel-good toe-tapper out-of-context to me.

This is the problem I have with jukebox musicals. Instead of crafting new songs to tell a specific story, old songs are used to tell someone else’s story (yes, that was a Chess pun). Some of them don’t run very long — like Million Dollar Quartet, which ran for just about a year — but Mamma ran for almost fourteen years. Jersey Boys has been running since 2005. What is it about these recycled soundtracks that can make them so popular?

It’s likely the familiar tunes that keep drawing people. The husbands trudging into the theatre know that even if they hate the story and the costume, at least they’ll know the songs. It’s not that I hate these shows — is there a human on this green earth that can resist “Dancing Queen?” — but it bothers me that this is what makes the tourists buy tickets and what contributes to keeping the musical economy from falling on its face. According to BroadwayWorld grossesMamma made over $600 million during its run and never really declined in popularity. Totally original shows, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, ran for only about a year and a half, and despite its star power (with Dexter star Michael C. Hall and Glee‘s Darren Criss taking over the title role), the show never recovered after Neil Patrick Harris left his Tony-winning part.

So, the next time you stand in front of the TKTS booth, trying to decide which matinee should fill your afternoon, ask yourself if you could go home and listen to the soundtrack and get the same experience. If so, I suggest you see another show.

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