Jukebox Heroes
Pop-inspired musicals such as My Way may not be Beckett, but they do put asses in seats—which just might save local theaters from the ravages of this recession

First, the bad news: Devotees of serious, highbrow, theatrical entertainments may be waiting a while for something to lure them to the local playhouse.

Now, the good news: If you like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald, Green Day or any number of other music stars, times have never been better. Theater may be facing its latest, greatest crisis thanks to the current economic collapse, coupled with the rapid proliferation of new ways to spend leisure time without leaving your home (Netflix, Guitar Hero, et al.), but the sun is shining brightly on the phenomenon of the jukebox musical.

Ka-ching-a-ding-ding
David Grapes
Ka-ching-a-ding-ding

Basically the weaving of a new story out of established songs, the jukebox musical has existed in some form for decades, with its direct ancestor the musical revue, which pulled songs from noted musical composers such as George Gershwin and performed them in a greatest-hits context.

But telling a new story, or at least using existing hits to tell any story, came into its own with Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story in 1989. A trickle of jukebox musicals from that point turned into a torrent, with the smash success of the Abba-infused Mamma Mia! in 1999.

Since then, dozens of shows have been staged based on, inspired by or just using songs from artists as varied as Earth Wind and Fire to 1980s heavy metal bands. Some have been monster successes, such as Jersey Boys, based on the music of the Four Seasons, and Movin’ Out, which used Billy Joel songs. Others have lent credence to the argument that the jukebox musical is American theater fiddling as American culture burns: Musicals about John Lennon, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan were terrific bombs.

Local stages have been spared those ridiculed offerings, but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon hasn’t hit our fair shores. William Mittler’s So Alone,based on the music of Johnny Thunders and the New York Dolls, predated the recent surge when it debuted at STAGEStheatre in 1995; it has received two subsequent productions. Brian Newell’s The King,an Elvis fantasia, has received numerous productions since it debuted at the Maverick Theater in 2002. Last month, the Johnny Cash-inspired Ring of Fire played in La Mirada, and this weekend, the Laguna Playhouse unveils the Frank Sinatra homage My Way, hoping to duplicate the torrid ticket sales of last summer’s Ella and a Hank Williams musical in 2007.

Even South Coast Repertory, which has long shied away from musicals, opens its 2009-2010 season in September with Putting It Together,a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. With their built-in audience base and the fact that many of the shows, including the Laguna Playhouse’s My Way, are skipping across the country and come to a new town fully intact, reducing production costs and rehearsal time, it’s clear theatricalizing the catalogs of mega-huge pop stars is a fact of theatrical life. And get used to it, even at theaters that might prefer to mount more “important” shows.

“Now is not the time to do Beckett,” says Andrew Barnicle, artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse. “People aren’t responding to the darker stuff”—or much of anything else, for that matter. “This is the worst storm I’ve ever seen, and we all have to ride it out. Any time you get 400 butts in the seats is a great thing, and you can’t keep doing what you want to do only to disappear. I’d much rather live on to fight another day.”

Unlike crabby critics, who dismiss the recent glut of jukebox musicals and revues as simple regurgitations of pop songs inside a theater, Barnicle makes no excuses for staging My Way, which, rather than telling a narrative story or creating something entirely new, uses four actors on a nightclub set singing a host of Sinatra classics.

“Of course it’s legitimate theater,” Barnicle says. “I think to say some particular genre is stupid because everyone knows all the songs is a bias that is unreasonable and provincial. I’m certainly not angry with [the concept]. Sure, we’d all love to do the things that come purely from the depths of our hearts and souls, but there is still scenery and performing and acting and lights and a throughline of interpretation.”

Jerry Patch, the longtime literary director at South Coast Repertory and current director of artistic development at New York City’s Manhattan Theatre Club, agrees that jukebox musicals are as inherently theatrical as any other genre. “First of all, that’s exactly what the Greeks were doing,” he says. “They weren’t doing new plays; they were doing theatrical presentations of old stories that were integral to their culture. It was ritual, and [using known songs to bring people into the theater is] a new way of enacting that ritual in the theater.”

In other words, crooning selections from the Sinatra catalog might not tell a linear story, but the songs define an era, an iconic American performer, a feeling of cool and hip. And, those pesky critics aside, who’s to say that isn’t as valid a story, or as important a ritual, as those of Willy Loman, Stanley Kowalski, and Felix and Oscar?

My Way at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS; www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., ?2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Check website for additional days and times. Through Aug. 23. $40-$70.

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