The Next Hit Jukebox Musical
from the writers room that is my humble living room, I bring you my pitches for the next smash-hit jukebox musical.
By Brooke Metayer
I barely passed chemistry in 11th grade and haven't taken a science class since, so I don’t have the tightest grasp on the neurological functions of the brain. But what I do have is an unwavering love for the cultural phenomenon that is the jukebox musical and an ever-present curiosity about whatever biological processes cause me to be overwhelmed with joy every time I watch the “Waterloo” scene in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
So, to satiate my desire to be right all the time and to have an excuse to talk about musicals on the internet, I used my somehow-not-expired college email to hit the Jstor database and do some light research to convince the world that we need more jukebox musicals.
I could bore you with the details and the citations, but I don’t want this piece to look like a high school English class essay. It basically comes down to this:
The jukebox musical takes the warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling of listening to a recognizable song and combines it with the kind of condensed outburst of relatable human emotions that can only be communicated through the layered production and spectacle of musical theater to create a scientifically proven smash hit.
I admit I was never a fan of singing competition shows—I despise listening to people standing on a shiny stage wearing ankle boots belt songs that only Midwestern moms know; the theater kid-ification of any popular song tends to sound pandering and disingenuous. But when placed against the background of a tumultuous narrative with comfortingly low stakes, I can make my wannabe art critic brain shut up for a couple hours and simply perform its biological duty to be entertained by people singing and dancing to songs I recognize. Dare I say… it’s camp?
Even with this perspective, I don’t think jukebox musicals get enough credit for being the lawless art that they are. Reviews like “punk rock and jazz hands do not mix, as I learned when I had to sit through this horrible musical” (by The Guardian) aren’t hard to find, as jukebox musicals are commonly derided for being baseless crowd-pleasers. But what’s wrong with pleasing a crowd?
They say that constraints lead to creativity. I often try to picture those writers rooms, a bunch of people dressed in business casual sitting around a table frantically shouting out ideas, sweat dripping onto the paper in front of them as they trying to string together some semblance of a cohesive narrative with one song about a walrus, one song about strawberry fields, and one about letting it be. The constraint of working with one set of predetermined songs has led to some of the most iconic stories in recent musical history.
In my experience, the best and most creatively unique jukebox musicals are the ones where there is an additional layer of constraint with all songs being from one artist/band’s discography. Like Mamma Mia!, Across the Universe, American Idiot, Desperately Seeking Susan, All Shook Up, and Jagged Little Pill. These musicals bring a collection of media that already have a cohesive throughline, by nature of that artist’s aesthetic and perspective, and add an extra layer of storytelling to give audiences a whole other piece of entertainment to latch onto.
Over the years I’ve become (ironically?) attached to the idea of jukebox musicals to go along with seemingly unlikely discographies. I think there is potential locked away in some collections of songs just waiting to be discovered. So, from the writers room that is my humble living room filled with Home Depot boxes and one floor pillow, I bring you my pitches for the next smash-hit jukebox musical.
Taylor Swift: Invisible
In this musical, we meet a girl, Betty, as she starts her freshman year of high school. The curtain opens to “Fifteen” performed by the ensemble. On her first day, she bumps into the most popular girl in school who craftily insults her new sneakers and sends a horrified Betty, face buried in her hands, running away to the school’s basement for solace, only stopping for a quick dance break to the tune of “Mean.” Betty, whose father is a basement repair man, is most at ease in this space. While down there, she meets a teenage ghost who has been lurking in the basement for hundreds of years. Betty is shocked, but is surprised to find that for the first time in her life, she is not afraid. They perform a duet to “Enchanted” before a bell signals for Betty to return to class.
Act two brings a passionate solo from the ghost to “Invisible” and an adorable performance of “Fearless” by Betty who has found confidence in herself thanks to her new crush. But the school is swirling with rumors of weird Betty and her weird imaginary friend. So when one of the popular boys asks her to tutor him in history class, she sees a chance to finally be in the in-crowd and escape the ridicule once and for all. The object of her affection has shifted, indicated by a performance of “Hey Stephen,” and she ditches her phantom love. Which of course prompts a performance of “Cold as You” by the ghost.
But as she eventually comes to realize how dense (that’s a pun) Stephen is and how she messed up something beautiful with the ghost, she goes searching for him to win him back. This resolution journey begins with “The Way I Loved You,” then moves into “Should’ve Said No” and ends with an apologetic “Tied Together with a Smile” as they proclaim that they have both overcome not only their fears of the other side, but also commitment. Bows are set to “I’m Only Me When I’m with You.”
Think Mean Girls meets Phantom of the Opera. Of course there’s also a performance of “Haunted” somewhere in there.
Fall Out Boy: From Under The Cork Tree
Two friends/secret lovers who are co-captains of an adult recreational softball team have a dramatic fallout, conveyed through a mid-field dance battle to “Dance, Dance.” We find out the fallout was fueled when their prized cork-carved championship trophy went missing and they immediately blamed each other, saying the other has always been jealous of their softball success. This is punctuated by the song “Getting Busy Living or Get Busy Dying.”
Each offended by how quick the other was to point fingers, they go their separate ways to start competing teams in their neighboring hometowns in the southwestern region of Ohio. They successfully avoid each other until their paths cross again when their respective teams are set to play each other at the national championships.
Trapped in the same training facility in the days leading up to the big game, they partake in elaborate shenanigans to incite the downfall of the opposing team and mock the other’s newly found hometown fame, singing bitter songs like “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued” and “Champagne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends.” However, when a mascot in a hedgehog costume takes a fall from the top of the two-story high bleachers, the friends find themselves sitting side by side in a hospital room, waiting to check in on their spiny mammal friend.
With this opportunity to recount the events of the night the trophy went missing from both perspectives, they piece together that it was the mascot who stole the trophy out of jealousy that they didn’t make the team. The friends/lovers apologize with “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, a Little More Touch Me,” realizing they were so quick to assume the worst is each other because of the insecurity they felt from secrecy of their romantic relationship. They promise to commit to each other fully and shamelessly to an upbeat rendition of “Sugar, We’re Going Down.”
The grand finale is set to a rendition of “Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year” as the ensemble dances in the bleachers.
One Direction: Girl Almighty
When a young woman, Olivia, is hit by a double-decker bus in London and suffers from amnesia, the people around her, who all secretly hated her, see this as a chance to turn their vain, insufferable friend into someone they actually like. Her boyfriend, who had been rehearsing ways to break up with her, tells a make-believe recount of their relationship through “What Makes You Beautiful” to paint her as someone who wasn’t self-absorbed, but actually deeply insecure. To which Olivia replies with “Stockholm Syndrome.”
Her fake best friend, who was always offended when Olivia wouldn’t agree to partake in her plans to go out to the city late at night, convinces her that this was actually her favorite activity with renditions of “Midnight Memories” and “Best Song Ever” set to large dance numbers with back flips and a lot of stomping and clapping. Meanwhile her sister saw this opportunity to turn the pessimistic, nihilistic Olivia into an upbeat, motivated version of herself with “Live While We’re Young.”
She has a brief moment of skepticism as she sings “Don’t Forget Where You Belong” and flips through a photo album.
Eventually, the ensemble of friends sings “Never Enough” when it turns out they don’t actually like the new and allegedly improved version of Olivia and it becomes clear that they’ve turned their headstrong, confident “Girl Almighty” into an agreeable shell of a personality. So they push her in front of a bus again to reverse the amnesia and the curtain closes to “End of the Day.”
Honorable mention to “Illusion,” which is performed by her boyfriend’s best friend, who is secretly in love with Olivia, in a partially successful attempt to persuade her that it was them who were actually the ones in love. Also honorable mentions to “Fools Gold” and “Over Again” because they have to fit in here somewhere.