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20 July 2015

Mamma Mia, here we go again: why does the West End keep churning out tribute musicals?

Jukebox shows are beginning to dominate the West End.

By Liv Constable-Maxwell

The West End is churning out jukebox musicals like it’s going out of fashion. And with Burt Bacharach joining the line-up of musicians with shows based on their work, it doesn’t look like a trend that will fade away anytime soon.  

Bacharach seems to be thrilled at the prospect. “This is a love letter to me. Or a Valentine, or a Christmas present,” he says. “It’s brilliant. I can’t say enough about it.”

But it seems that The West End is dishing out these “love letters” left, right and centre. Of all the shows running at the moment, those that are tributes to musicians or bands include Beautiful (The Carole King Musical), Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Frank Sinatra: The Man and His Music, Let It Be, Sunny Afternoon, and Thriller Live. That’s not to mention the rumours of future tribute musicals in the making, which include David Bowie and his possible plans for Heroes: The Musical.

Even Green Day have managed to bag themselves a spot in the bright lights with their musical American Idiot. It’s “the story of three boyhood friends, each searching for meaning in a post 9-11 world”, and includes throwback hits such as Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Wake Me Up When September Ends. These are songs that spoke to young teens in the early 00s (myself included) with too much time and too many feelings.

Some of the musicians poached for the West End’s purposes are the most successful of the last 50 years – Green Day aside (sorry). Between them, these artists have racked up 31 Grammy awards, including 4 Grammy Lifetime Achievement awards, 4 Oscars, 14 Brit awards and a Eurovision Song Contest win.

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The current trend shows their work taking on slightly new forms.

The shows tend to work in one of two ways. They either tell the story of the musician’s life, or work their songs into a tenuously-structured plot line.

Let It Be, the story of The Beatles, does the former. In many ways, it’s a quickfire rundown of Beatlemania for those too young to have lived through it, or nostalgic enough to sit through it again.

“We don’t just want lookalikes,” said the producer of Let It Be, Jamie Hendry, speaking about casting for the show. “What we want are excellent musicians who can sing and play every note, and pick up on every nuance of the way the Beatles did it. We want them to look like, and feel like, a Beatle.”

The show aims to “recreate” the Beatles in this concert experience.

“It doesn’t force the songs into a narrative,” says Theo Bosanquet, journalist and editor at What’s On Stage. “It just does what it says on the tin”.

Mamma Mia is a jukebox musical of the second kind. Even if you haven’t seen the play, the extremely successful 2008 film is a good illustration. A particular highlight is when Donna, the Greek B&B owner played by Meryl Streep, has found out that three of her old boyfriends are at her B&B. Donner feels old and self-conscious, but her friends Tanya and Rosie come to the rescue. She can still be hip and cool. She can still be (cue the music) a “Dancing Queen”.

We Will Rock You does much the same thing. It is set in the future, and since music is banned they all listen to the same radio station (you guessed it, “Radio Ga Ga”). The protagonist refuses to conform to the “Status Quo”. He wants to “break free”. And so on…

For a band as successful and influential as Queen, it seems strange that this should be the culmination of their life’s work.

Despite the sharply rising ticket prices, the West End is currently considered to be in boom period. One only needs to look at the £520m revenue that the West End brings in annually to realise just why so many of the bands’ estates might be jumping at the opportunity to rake in the royalties.

Whether or not this boom is directly due to the rise of jukebox musicals is uncertain. What is certain, though, is the relative security of jukebox musicals in the industry.

“There’s a safety net in using songs from known artists,” Bosanquet tells me. “It’s much harder to get an original musical off the ground.”

Clearly there are some successful original musicals on stage at the moment. Bosanquet uses Matilda and The Book of Mormon as examples of shows that have become a success. But the fear still remains that jukebox musicals make it increasingly more difficult for new, original musicals to reach the mainstream.

“Not many people would want the entire West End to be made up of jukebox musicals, but there’s certainly a place for them. You need balance,” says Bosanquet. “I’d like to see more original musicals. It would be a shame if every show was just a back catalogue of a musician’s work”.

Bets are open for when 1D: The Story of My Life will take Britain by storm.

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