Jukebox

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Jukebox

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 7.2 (Spring 2014)

Juke Box e una magica invenzion. Fred Buscaglione, Juke Box (1959)

We love our jukebox musicals. Of the twenty musicals playing on Broadway as of this writing, six are of the jukebox genre, i.e. built around a preexisting pop or jazz songbook. At least three more are announced for the near future. This is noteworthy, considering that the whole notion of the jukebox musical has only been around for about thirty-five years (getting started about the time of Ain’t Misbehavin’), and there were years in which none of them premiered on Broadway until 2001.

When You First Got Formed

In retrospect the concept seems obvious: if the songbook is popular, the show putting it before the public comes, in effect, presold. And better yet, as long as the reprise of old hits is done well, the audience will probably go home the happier for having re-experienced something it already knows. The appetite for familiar tunes was pithily explained by comedian Chris Rock: “You are always going to love the music you were listening to when you first got laid.” With all respect, though, Rock stated it too narrowly; you are always going to love the music you were listening to in your musically and emotionally formative years whether you got laid or didn’t. A jukebox musical, whatever its dramatic blueprint, is first and foremost a delivery vehicle for that kind of  nostalgia. This is a popular thing and to a great extent a good one.

It is no easy trick, though. Almost every song tells some sort of story. The stories in most songs, even the simplest ones, imply surprisingly extensive contexts, and taken together, these contexts tangle rapidly. There exist only a few possible fundamental ways to minimize those tangles.

Ways To Do It

The simplest way is to do what the creators of the songs themselves did: don’t try to tell a story, coherent or otherwise, just sing the songs. Recreate a concert, or, as Rain, the Beatles tribute show does, imagine what a Beatles concert would have been like if the Beatles had ever performed their later music live. The concert approach, however, is not all that clearly a theater performance. Theater generally implies at least some feint in the direction of narrative. Moreover, concerts lack a fourth wall, and I would contend that the fourth wall is key to what happens in true theater, even if the wall gets breached in the course of the proceedings. (More on this problem below.)

A step toward true musical theater is a cabaret or revue performance, where the songs are presented as set-piece performances that make use of theatrical artifice. Perhaps cast members at time perform the role of audience, as happened in Ain’t Misbehavin’. Even here the theater label is iffy, hinging perhaps on the hard-to-maintain The line to theater proper is definitively crossed with what one might call the curated cabaret: where the “story” is the narration and perhaps a token reenactment of the audience’s love affair with the music in question, e.g. Beehive (an anthology of girl-group and female performer songs of the 50s through the 70s, in which the youthful cast – not actually veterans of that era, of course – narrate what it was like to be a young woman listening to that music).

But on Broadway the two most usual approaches demand more theatricality still. One (call it the “original story” approach) simply makes a head-on attempt to fabricate an original narrative that threads all the songs together. The other retells the one narrative naturally connected with the music, the history of the creative talent behind the songs (“the biopic approach”). This review considers two exemplars of each.

Resisting Assimilation

Rock of Ages (the Helen Hayes Theatre and on tour) tells an “original story.” Backing the action with one-time monster hits originally performed by bands from the great era of “hair rock” like Styx, Twisted Sister, and Starship and performers like Pat Benatar and Jon Bon Jovi, the book presents a stock love story set against the struggle between a rock bar called the Bourbon Room, apparently a stand-in for the Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles, and community leaders and real-estate developers who scheme to close it.

Because the songs are selected songs from the entire hair-rock “hymnal,” one would think that Chris Arienzo, the book author, could have easily located songs roughly appropriate to the story line. In practice, not so much. The narratives in the songs resist assimilation more than one might expect. Take, for instance, how Rock of Ages uses SISTER CHRISTIAN, which came out in 1984, performed by Night Ranger. The title itself is unhelpfully a misnomer; the song was actually originally about composer Kelly Keagy’s sister Christy. The lyrics express concern that Keagy’s sister (ten years the composer’s junior), who is growing up, may miss out on her chances at a full life. The song is ambiguous about what maximizing those chances may mean: staying young a bit longer or negotiating a mature relationship with “mister right.” There’s authority in the lyrics for either position, an ambiguity which may explain its reported popularity at high school graduation parties. In any case, “motoring” is somehow part of the process. So geographical mobility seems tied up with growing up effectively.

The theme (youthful determination to live a full life and being willing to drive somewhere in order to fulfill that determination) is enough to make the song somewhat appropriate for the moment in the show where Sherrie, the dewy heroine, decides to ditch Kansas and take a bus to Los Angeles, defying her parents in the process. But the devil is in the details. Her name isn’t either Christian (a word which imports its own powerful associations) or Christy. For that reason if no other, no character can sing the song as part of the action. Instead, other performers sing it in snippets as, in between the snippets, Sherrie quarrels with her parents and storms out, arrives in LA, meets Drew, her boyfriend-to-be, and gets herself hired at the Bourbon. In other words, it’s relegated to background music while a lot of exposition gets exposed; it’s rather on-point for background music, but background music it remains. There are several big hits reduced to musical backdrops in Rock of Ages.

Low-Quality Laughs

Or take the defiant HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT, a 1980 song indelibly associated with Pat Benatar. The song was surely critical to the development of Benatar’s persona as a tough, fearless personality, and specifically a female one. (She would later go on to sing Love Is A Battlefield, along the same lines.) In other words, this is a song that Benatar has branded as a woman’s song. Rock of Ages plays against this branding and has the song sung for laughs by Franz, the son of the German developer who aspires to raze the Bourbon. Although Franz is nominally straight, he is played with effeminate manners that could not go less consistently with the “ballsy” quality the song evokes. And in the show, the song is addressed to his father, not the predatory lover the lyrics unmistakably evoke. This rendering essentially throws the song away for some low-quality laughs (a mistake the movie of the show does not repeat, handing HIT ME over to the very ballsy Catherine Zeta-Jones).

So even with the benefit of a very large songbook, Arienzo find it hard to make his selections fit tightly. He gets one freebie, of course, naming a character after a name from one of the songs; the ingenue of the piece is named Sherrie, which sets up a predictable dramatic inflection point using Steve Perry’s OH SHERRIE (1984). But the songs get little opportunity to serve as expressions or illuminations of character or devices to move the plot. Porter, Hammerstein, Lerner, and Sondheim are not facing serious competition here.

Coals to Newcastle

The net effect of the imprecise join between song and action is that the songs are somewhat reduced in stature, and largely played for parody. And that requisite parody begets a coals-to-Newcastle problem; the songs already were parodic; they had to be. The reigning style for the original artists who sang these songs was histrionic  – no Sinatra-esque reserve or delicacy, not even a Beatles-esque sense of play. This sheer bigness was amplified by the scale of the concert arenas, the light shows and pyrotechnics, with which these artists mostly worked. The problems of the songs’ personae, the characters supposedly singing the songs, however important to the personae themselves, would probably not be felt by the singers, and would obviously be ridiculously unimportant to an arena-ful of strangers. Everyone in the audiences therefore understood that the singers held their own displays of operatic emotion at an ironic distance, just as the ritualized displays of emotion by the concert-goers (moshing, waving lit cigarette lighters, flashing, throwing underwear, rushing the stage) contained their own self-conscious irony. The singers and their audiences were both enacting the roles of overly emotional adolescents. The parody in Rock of Ages can thus get a bit attenuated. Real dramatic power is not possible.

So, if the songs can’t inspire serious feeling, and if, in keeping with the spirit of gentle parody, the love-plot is a tissue (girl meets boy, boy blows initial chance to get together with girl, girl demeans self by having cheap rebound sex with rock star, girl is rejected by rock star and descends to stripper-dom before she and boy rediscover each other and true love), is there anything to get serious about, any bottom to this pool of easy inconsequentiality? There certainly aren’t any actual big issues, although there is one bogus one: the importance of rock.

No Threat

Rock’s energetic defiance of cultural conformity is a theme both in this show and in We Will Rock You, to be discussed in a moment. As already noted, in Rock of Ages, the Bourbon Room is targeted for extinction by developers who partly sell their scheme to the powers that be based on the notion of cleansing the Sunset Strip of rock-and-roll culture. In rebellion and in tribute to the Bourbon Room’s importance, rock fans riot. This is bad history (the actual Sunset Strip riots started in 1966, and not in reaction to plans to close the Whisky a Go Go, which was not under threat – and remains in business to this day). And it is dramatically unconvincing. If the onstage band “Arsenal,” which both serves as a dramatic character, the house band of the Bourbon Room, and provides the show’s actual musical accompaniment, is any yardstick, the fans are rioting about not much. Yes, Drew, the young hero, sings Twisted Sister’s I WANNA ROCK, and the community activist Regina sings the same group’s WE’RE NOT GONNA TAKE IT after drawing the connection to rock music in WE BUILT THIS CITY, evincing the rock community’s defiance of cultural and social gentrification. But given that Drew is pictured as not all that talented and not predestined for genuine stardom, and given that, in the end, the dreams that Drew and Sherrie take with them – to Glendale – are no longer of rock stardom but instead of domesticity, rock must be deemed an attitude, and moreover an attitude that colored the past but not the present, for an audience filled with theatergoers who may have crowded the Strip in their golden youth (if they were lucky) but who have now moved on to their own individual Glendales.

At least the songs in Rock of Ages could mostly be sung without irony – if delivered away from the arena. The same could not be said of most of the songs in We Will Rock You (2002, a revival tour now active in the U.S.), built around the songbook of Queen, surely the most dadaistic supergroup of all time. Sincere emotion is only evoked by actual experiences, reducible to narrative. And many of Queen’s promiscuously allusive and logically inconsequential lyrics are not about discernable narrative. To choose the most obvious example, the pieces of Queen’s multi-movement 6-minute masterpiece, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (1975), though some critics think they hear a narrative in it, its fragments cannot easily be reconciled as a single story, and if there is a story buried there, it certainly is not very literal. (Did the central character actually kill a man? Is he really being judged at some kind of celestial trial? What means the character’s terminal lapse into apathy (“nothing really matters much to me”)?)

Fantastic Storyline

Many of the songs in We Will Rock You exhibit this propensity. KILLER QUEEN is a fine example; so is ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST. It would have been a challenge indeed to craft a story around any one of them; to craft one around all of them inevitably meant in some way changing them all. Queen’s accomplishments were too varied and too idiosyncratic to dramatize any other way.

Again, this show is of the “original story” variety. There had to be a storyline, and there is one. But where the narrative of Rock of Ages is mundane, We Will Rock You’s is fantastic and futuristic, filled with allusions to the Queen oeuvre. Briefly, it concerns the young people in an unimaginable future where there is only one corporate entity that has taken over all channels of culture. The entity is dominated by the Killer Queen, a videogame character who has escaped from cyberspace into our world. Like the developers in Rock of Ages, the corporation’s bent is anti-rock-and-roll, and, unlike the developers, the corporation has managed to erase almost all memory of it. Into this world comes a mysterious avatar of the old glories of rock-and-roll, a reincarnation of Freddie Mercury (Queen’s lead composer and singer) named Galileo Figaro. He joins forces with a rebellious young woman named Scaramouche and a male outlaw who has chosen the nom-de-guerre of Britney Spears to overthrow the existing order. This can only be accomplished by a pilgrimage to the ruins of Graceland (in the original British production, Wembley Stadium, where Queen gave its greatest concerts) to achieve a nirvana known as the Bohemian Rhapsody. Even a summary this brief gives a notion of how thoroughly the allusions in the Queen songbook have been mined, but also how thoroughly the songs would have to be rewritten to fit the storyline.

Retooling a Song

In the way he did this, the creator of the show, Ben Elton, deserves much credit. To choose but one example, the song RADIO GA GA, when Mercury so memorably sang it at Wembley, the piece was a nostalgic paean to the bygone best of the radio medium in the MTV era: 

Let’s hope you never leave old friend
Like all good things on you we depend
So stick around cos we might miss you
When we grow tired of all this visual
You had your time, you had the power
You’ve yet to have your finest hour
Radio – Radio.

Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) did not survive to see downloads replace CD purchases or YouTube take over the importance of MTV. Mercury’s song was a protest of sorts. Elton’s ingeious update is a protest of different sort: instead of a commentary, it is the bleat of a chorus of nearly robotic high-school graduates in an utterly conformist future, too brainwashed to protest against an Internet-powered takeover by corporate culture: 

We’re not alone, we have our friends
On cyber love we can depend
So stick around cos we might miss you
We need our graphics, need our visual
Complete control, you are the power
We use our lives up, hour by hour
Globalsoft – Globalsoft

In other words, the protest message is prompted by purported alarm that Internet culture could become totalitarian and drably homogeneous.

Rock Totalitarianism

But at the same time it must be said that (unlike Mercury’s original protest) the new message is suspect in the same way and for much the same reasons as the message of Rock of Ages was. It demolishes a straw man. The modifications of the market for popular music fostered by the Internet tend toward neither homogenization nor mediocrity, merely demonetization. And while demonetization may be a threat of another kind, it does not threaten the extinction of the creative spark in popular music or amnesia about what had gone before. We cannot say that rock and roll will never die, but if it does, it will not die from being forgotten nor from being gentrified to death. And a musical which hangs its dramatic hat on the tale of a fight to save it from such nonexistent threats just will not be taken seriously, whether it tries to be or not.

Beyond that, and ironically, Queen’s music is itself the vehicle of a certain corporate totalitarianism. WE WILL ROCK YOU and WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS are likely played every day around the world at the vast majority of athletic competitions. As soon as that repetitious Thump-Thump THUMP rhythm is heard echoing from the stadium PA system, how many sports audiences stamp in obedient conformity to the sound and sing along, and thereby pay tribute to the selling power of the corporate interests that control the teams and profit from the fans?

The example of both We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages suggests that there will probably be practical limits to the dramatic seriousness or range of “original story” jukebox musicals.

Biopic Nitpick

The biopic jukebox musical, by contrast, presents the songs primarily as artifacts in a story about the music’s creators. The creators’ songs justifiably appear simply as events in a story into which they already fit. They need not be, as in the “original story” jukebox musical, expressions of the characters’ own feelings or vehicles for moving the action along. Of course, if a song was written to reflect events in the life of the composer or the singer, then so much the better, but it’s not a requirement.  

That said, having the biopic’s ready-made pegs on which to hang the songs, though perhaps a guarantee of convenience, does not similarly guarantee artistic success. Motown the  Musical (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre) stands as a case in point. No doubt the oeuvre of the Motown record label between 1959 and 1988 (when the label was sold) contains an imposing array of songs, and its signature tambourine-and-baritone saxophone sound was unique and wonderful, and it ushered black talent into corners of mainstream culture where it had never before been welcome. And if the biopic structure is to be chosen to showcase pieces of that historical songbook, the obvious figure to focus on is Berry Gordy, Jr., the man who founded the label and headed it all those years. In other hands, the feat probably could be pulled off more successfully. But since Gordy was not only the focus but also the author of the musical, he not surprisingly fell victim to two temptations.

Prettified

First, he prettified himself, albeit he also prettified everyone else depicted as well. The framework is telling. The show opens with Gordy in 1983, sitting in his den, sulking like Achilles in his tent, refusing to attend a big televised reunion full of old Motown artists, apparently because all of the artists involved had left the label. By way of explanation for this mass departure, the show suggests that bigger labels had deeper pockets to lure away the talent Gordy had assembled. This slides over the fact, chronicled in many places (try Gerald Posner’s Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power (2002)), that Gordy had run the company like a plantation, contracting with artists and staff on terms that were exploitative to a degree unusual even in the highly exploitative music industry of the day. The contracts tied up the artists for many years, seized all publication rights, and – unbeknownst to most of the artists – charged back to them as expenses the costs of recording sessions, room and board while they were on tour, the salaries of their handlers, clothes and wigs, so that after earning millions of dollars for Gordy’s company, and believing they were rich, performers might find themselves barely solvent. Almost all of the performers left because of Gordy’s business practices, and ended up in litigation with their old employer because of them.

In dramatic terms, the issue is whether, by the inevitable big finale of Act Two, Gordy will have made up his mind to attend the reunion and in some measure forgive the defectors. But, because Gordy pictures himself as coming off his big sulk, his appearance at the show (no spoiler alert needed for this unsurprising plot point) demonstrates his magnanimity. And there is his biggest star, Diana Ross, ready to welcome him back to the circle of good feeling.

The trouble is, this is all incredibly false. Gordy wasn’t sulking; he was producing the show, because he needed to make money for a company falling on hard times. (For instance, he visited Michael Jackson to beg him to perform.) The question wasn’t whether he would forgive the deserters; it was whether they would forgive him. Diana Ross wasn’t radiating good cheer; she was snubbing her old fellow-Supremes, literally pushing one away from her in a moment so ungracious it was cut from the broadcast version of the show.

History Written and Rewritten

This wholesale rewriting of history weirdly coexists with the presentation of an enormous number of details that do tally with the public record: the Gordy family council that staked Berry Gordy Jr. to the seed money to start the company, the “quality control” sessions that picked the hits, the competition among song-writing teams, the group tours through towns that frequently were racially segregated, the collision of the Motown ethos with a civil rights movement it largely tried to ignore.

 Does it matter that Gordy makes himself a whole lot nicer than he really was, or that the ugliness of the drugs and the gambling and the sexual inconstancy that were pretty much endemic around Hitsville, and Gordy’s neglect of the record business while he made movies with Diana Ross get wholly or mostly airbrushed out? Comparing small things to great, one could argue that the same standard should be applied to Gordy’s treatment of Gordy as critics apply to Shakespeare’s fidelity to fact in his history plays. And perhaps on this analogy you could make a case that Gordy the dramatist owes no allegiance to historical accuracy.

Chain Gang Medleys

 But you cannot ignore dramatically inept steps that Gordy the dramatist takes in order to cram in a bunch of hits and provide an apologia pro vita sua. He ought to have done a lot less of both. Hits are rushed in and out the door in medleys like prisoners chained together moving through a courthouse; the opening number alone (a battle of the bands between the Four Tops and the Temptations) exposes us in short order to PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE, I CAN’T HELP MYSELF (SUGAR PIE HONEY BUNCH), AIN’T TOO PROUD TO BEG, BABY I NEED YOUR LOVING, I CAN’T GET NEXT TO YOU, REACH OUT I’LL BE THERE, and (I KNOW) I’M LOSING YOU. Even if you grew up with this music, you’re likely to get confused (partly by the doubling and tripling of parts, partly by the sketchy musical and character development) whether you’re supposed to be looking at Mary Wells or a spare Vandella, whether  at Brian Holland the songwriter of an unidentified member of the Four Tops. By contrast, to continue the analogy, you can generally keep the Plantaganets and the Tudors straight.

The one thing a musical ought to do above all others is give us memorable songs; oddly, the experience of hearing mostly snippets of 56 songs from the Motown catalogue and three new ones written for the show makes one feel like a force-fed goose. And at the same time as we’re getting too much we’re getting too little. Our time is being wasted with the “back story” of young Berry thrilling to Joe Louis’ victory over Max Schmelling and resolving that being black won’t keep him back from big things. We. Don’t. Care. Just Give Us The Music. (Particularly if we know how uninterested the real-life Gordy proved to be in matters of race, running what was largely a color-blind company on the corporate end, hostile to Marvin Gaye’s efforts to sing about political issues, and initially resistant to Stevie Wonder’s drive to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.)

Paradoxically, audiences would probably come away with greater admiration of Gordy as the facilitator and curator of probably the greatest stable of performers and songwriters in the history of American popular song if Gordy the playwright had kept Gordy the character in the background, and simply allowed Marvin Gaye to spend more time radiating sexual magnetism, the Supremes gliding silkily, the Temptations creating multi-part ecstasy, Michael Jackson singing and gyrating as only he could do, Rick James being outrageous, etc., etc. Broadway audiences know from Sunday in the Park With George that great artists can be what Brits call right bastards. And more so with great impressarios. It’s the art that gets them forgiven, not the turning up at a big choreographed televised event at which a bunch of people you’ve cheated go through the motions of forgiving you.

Getting It Right

Most of the errors afflicting Motown The Musical are absent from Jersey Boys (August Wilson Theatre, on tour and in Las Vegas), featuring the oeuvre and telling the story of the Four Seasons. Though based on interviews with the three surviving Four Seasons and Bob Crewe, their producer and lyricist, the book is not by any of the parties depicted, though tunesmith Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe reportedly had veto power over the script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. If there’s damage control regarding people’s reputations, it avoids being gratingly obvious or hijacking the project. In fact, Jersey Boys goes the opposite way, by giving each of the four principals his own quarter of the show in which to render account. And, as Tommy DeVito comments at the outset, “How’d that happen? You ask four guys, you get four different versions.” Thus when, as seems to be inevitable in biopics, we reach the point in the tale where the creative team sunders acrimoniously, the members are allowed to badmouth each other, and it is up to the audience to weigh the evidence.

And though there are quite a few songs (albeit about half as many as in Motown), the show relies minimally on medleys, and also keeps to a minimum the relegation of great songs to the background à la Rock of Ages. There is, to be fair, a lot of editing to cut down the running time of the hits, but it seems to do far less damage.

Assembled Before Our Eyes

There are a couple of moments in the show that are musical nirvana. One is the moment when Gaudio walks into the other boys’ lives, sits down at the piano, and brings them together as he demonstrates CRY FOR ME, not a hit, a song no one who has not seen the show has probably ever heard. But gradually the other three join in with voices and instruments, and we can literally hear the distinctive Four Seasons sound being assembled in front of us. (Did it really happen this way? Doesn’t matter: it’s magic.) The other is Frankie’s rendition of Gaudio and Crewe’s masterpiece CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU, after a buildup which purports to show how only Gaudio’s persistence with DJs got the song on the air at all. When five brass players march onto an aerial catwalk to blast the all-important brass chorale accompaniment, there cannot possibly be a single pulse in the theater not racing.

That said, what makes Jersey Boys special is not just the music, but an intrinsically interesting story delivered with a good dollop of comedy. There are several “who-knew? moments”: when, for instance, we learn that Joe Pesci introduced Bob Gaudio to the rest of the group, or that the members had a relationship with the local godfather a lot like the fictionalized story of Johnny Fontane and the Corleones. Who knew that three of the members were involved in burglaries and two did time? Or that at one point the Four Seasons had a half-million-dollar debt to the IRS to work off?

The parts of the story that aren’t sensational are nonetheless poignant and well-told: from Bob Gaudio’s deflowering to Frankie Valli’s loss of a beloved daughter to the never-quite-healed rift between Frankie and Tommy. The revelations are a little unexpected to those of us who grew up seeing the group’s squeaky-clean appearance, and, even in these confessional times, still somewhat surprising in that this is in effect an authorized project. For instance, Bob Crewe, who had veto power, as noted, allowed himself to be portrayed not merely as gay (no shame there, but something not always shared with the world) but also as extremely swishy (a bit more controversial), a serious adherent of astrology (no comment) and a somewhat mendacious businessman. Meanwhile, if there was a mention in the show of Crewe’s role as the group’s principal lyricist, I missed it. It must be concluded that he concurred in the book authors’ giving his portrait significant warts and in the process less artistic credit than due, so as not to distract attention from the main story. (Would that Gordy had displayed such modesty!)

There are also many moments in the show that are just laugh-out-loud funny, as when man-of-the-world Tommy advises Frankie that there are two kinds of women in the world: “Type A: they play hard to get, then they bust your balls. Type B: they jump right in bed with you, then later on they bust your balls.” Or, about New Jersey: “Of course, certain individuals aren’t crazy about living in a state where you have to drive through a landfill, next to a dump, next to a turnpike to cheer for a team that’s from New York, anyway!” One way you know something funny is about to be said is when Nick opens his mouth. It is interesting, because he is the only member of the group not interviewed by the creators of the show (having died in 2000), but they give him some of the best lines, typically delivered in the driest of dead-pan, except for one surprising and memorable moment when his voice rises to a screech.

But How Theatrical, Really?

From these observations, the rise of the jukebox musicals appears to have bestowed a mixed blessing. The material, though popular, is more intractable than it might seem. It is hard to produce a great musical when one cannot shape the songs at a nearly molecular level, the way more conventional musicals do as a matter of course.

But there is also another problem: the tendency to pull the audience away from truly theatrical experiences. There is usually a fourth wall in a play; there is no fourth wall at a rock concert. At a concert or at a comedy club not only the audience as a whole but individual members of the audience become part of the performance, become performers of a sort. With that in mind, consider these two speeches of Lonny, the second-in-command of the Bourbon Room in Rock of Ages, the first to a member of the audience, the second to another character: 

(To a WOMAN) Look at this one. She’s practically beggin’ for it… Aren’t you, you nasty little, Playbill holdin’, freak machine. Nurse get this little lass a Riuniti on ice… so nice. (pause) Now where was I?

LONNY

Well, I’m not just a sound guy, Drew. I also happen to be a narrator. A dramatic conjurer!

DREW

I don’t get it.

LONNY

“Rock Of Ages.” (handing DREW a show program) It’s the musical you’re in. (off DREW’s blank face) It’s not important. 

The first is pure comedy club heckle, creating discomfort by denying individual audience members the anonymity the fourth wall ordinarily affords, the second a threatened violation of the fourth-wall principle that among the characters only the narrator is privileged to “know” he/she is in a performance.

Or consider the moment in Motown at the 25th anniversary special show in 1983 when Diana Ross asks the audience to help out with REACH OUT AND TOUCH (SOMEBODY’S HAND). The actress playing the role physically leaves the stage, joins hands with a member of the audience and urges each of the ticket-holders: “Now take the person’s hand sitting next to you and hold it high in the air and sway back and forth.” If they comply, the result could be viewed in at least one of two ways: a) the entire audience is now pretending to be part of something that happened in 1983; or b) the pretense that the onstage characters are in 1983 has been punted aside. Under the first theory, the audience has been pulled through the fourth wall. Under the second, the cast has yanked itself the other way through that wall, the better to allow the audience to wallow in a shallow and content-less paean to the betterment of the world, thereby cheapening both the performers’ professionalism and the audience’s critical standards.

Using a Finite Resource

In short, the rise of the jukebox musicals may give rise to more enjoyable evenings in theaters than enjoyable evenings of theater. Given that theaters are a finite resource, this should weigh in our contemplation of just how much and how frequently we should welcome these shows on our stages.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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