There was a time, not so long ago, when the term "jukebox musical" was a bright new label on Broadway, one that could be mentioned without the hint of an exasperated look or a curled lip.
But here we are in a season that already has had "After Midnight" (songs from Harlem in the '20s and '30s), "A Night with Janis Joplin" (closed on Broadway, reopened Off-Broadway) and "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical." "Bullets Over Broadway" (standards from the '20s and '30s) and "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" (Billie Holiday) open this month, joining "Motown," "Rock of Ages," "Jersey Boys" and "Mamma Mia!" in theaters that once held shows with new music and lyrics by living artists.
OK, that's not quite fair. By the time the season officially ends April 24, we will have had a respectable number of musicals with new scores -- specifically, six, with two older Off-Broadway musicals ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch" from 1998, "Violet" from 1997) having their Broadway premieres while their creators are still around to notice.
But according to Rick Elice, co-creator of the gold-standard monster hit "Jersey Boys" (songs of The Four Seasons), the jukebox musical probably didn't even get its name until "Mamma Mia!" splashed ABBA songs into a slim story in London in 1999 and on Broadway in 2001. Now, the form is so entrenched that people born too early to put a coin into a jukebox probably can't remember a time when recycled music was not a Broadway bonanza.
Careful readers -- as well as Elice -- will now force us to define our terms. There are at least three different kinds of jukebox musicals. There is the revue, a plotless song and dance concert, the most influential being "Ain't Misbehavin'," the elegant and beloved Fats Waller show from 1978. There is the biography, exemplified this season by shows about Joplin, King and Holiday. Then there are such new-old musicals as "Bullets," Woody Allen's adaptation of his 1994 movie about the '20s, which used songs from the time and hasn't commissioned new ones for Broadway.
What they have in common, as Elice told me in a recent interview, is that all of them "repurpose, I guess that's the verb du jour, popular songs known in one context by serving them up in another context."
He contends, persuasively, that the so-called trend is as old as the Ziegfeld Follies, which combined theatrical extravaganzas with familiar songs in the early part of the last century. "And the jukebox wasn't even invented until 1937, so the term is a misnomer.
"Irving Berlin created the Music Box Theatre specifically to house revues from his shows. He was a shrewd businessman. He had written many great songs, but the shows closed so quickly. What could he do to get people to come back to these songs and buy sheet music? He put them in another show." Elice says the idea went back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway, explaining similar "repurposing" births for "Singin' in the Rain" and "An American in Paris."
But surely, the jukebox boom of the past few decades is not the same old thing. The first show I remember as something new and different was "Leader of the Pack." The 1985 bio-revue of the life and songs of Ellie Greenwich brought back plenty of the irresistibly trashy girl-group songs of the early '60s -- sung (by Darlene Love and Annie Golden) with the pouty, sneaking-out-to-do-something-naughty passion of their day. The show, which I enjoyed but which died a quick death, talked to aging demographics that remember swearing they weren't "Too Young to Get Married" and who never had to ask the meaning of "Da Doo Ron Ron."
Elizabeth McCann, better known as the veteran independent producer of high-toned work by Edward Albee, was a lead producer of "Leader of the Pack" on Broadway. "I went down to The Bottom Line to see it, and I fell in love with the music," she said. "I had never heard that music ... I was a little beyond it. But it was to die ... so wonderful."
She is still pondering how that little downtown show could go so wrong uptown. "It had the worst book in history," she told me, shortly after seeing the similar songwriting-girl-from-Brooklyn show, "Beautiful," admiring it and wondering how she and producing partner Nell Nugent could have made theirs work. "We had investors screaming from the back of the theater, 'Why isn't this better?' We had all kinds of issues. It was the only show I ever did that went from bad to worse. Usually, they go from bad to not-so-bad."
I asked if, indeed, that was the first modern jukebox musical. "Nell says we started the whole thing, but I'm not sure," she said.
She suggested I talk to Elice, whom I now believe knows everything there is to know about the history of the jukebox musical -- even if he objects to the term.
In his view, the first one of our time was "My One and Only," Tommy Tune's charming tap-happy show that attached a new story to Gershwin songs. "That was '82-'83. Then came 'Leader of the Pack.' Ten years after "My One and Only" came 'Crazy for You," another new show with Gershwin songs. It won the 1992 Tony for best musical," without a note of new music.
After that -- "Mamma Mia!" and the deluge.
In fact, there were so many people raiding back-catalogs for shows -- unsuccessfully -- that he and co-creator Marshall Brickman had trouble getting investors and theater owners interested in "Jersey Boys." Coming after the flops of "Lennon," "Good Vibrations" (Beach Boys) and "All Shook Up" (Elvis), he remembers "the jukebox became hated. Here we were with a different animal -- a play about guys who made something that happened to be these songs that people knew. Until the very last minute, it looked like 'Jersey Boys' was going to just end at the LaJolla Playhouse ... and no one would ever see it again."
That, of course, did not happen. "Jersey Boys," which tells the gritty story of the four singers from the perspective of each man, opened in 2005 and, according to the most recent figures from the Broadway League, has a total all-time gross of $452,314,647 on Broadway.
Such numbers may suggest why so many producers are still raiding baby-boom memories for shows that might come close to those numbers.
I asked McCann why we have so many jukebox musicals today. "For one thing, they're cheap. Also, there aren't that many people out there writing new music and lyrics. When are Rodgers and Hammerstein going to write another show? What about Jule Stein?"
Elice agrees about the money. "Investors look to hedge their bets, because that's what investors do." He disagrees about the scarcity of new talent, however. "Original shows are being written," he says, mentioning one he is working on now in San Diego. "They're just harder to get on."
Even for him.