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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

On Theater: Jukebox musicals are B'way's ticket to ride

The Beatles, snapped on their 1964 U.S. tour

The Beatles, snapped on their 1964 U.S. tour by photographer Curt Gunther. Gunther's photos from the tour are on exhibit at the Morrison Hotel SoHo Gallery in Manhattan, though mid-July 2010. CREDIT: Curt Gunther Photo Credit: Curt Gunther Photo/

It's not fair to judge a production before it opens. I know the rules, and the reasons for them.

But, really, I can't help it this time. I cannot squelch the dread rising whenever I hear the radio ads for a fall Broadway offering called "Rain."

Subtitled "A Tribute to The Beatles on Broadway," the show promises - threatens? - to recreate a "full range of The Beatles' discography live onstage." In other words, come October, the Neil Simon Theatre will be turned into another of the mausoleums where performers imitate real artists in a replica spectacle disguised as a new musical.

The cast may well copy the sounds, and maybe the looks, of John, Paul, George and Ringo with dedication, even eerie verisimilitude. Of course, so did "Beatlemania," a laughable, clone-culture artifact from the late '70s, which promised to deliver - with what now seems prescient shamelessness - "not The Beatles, but an incredible simulation." The show took up a legit theater for two years. At least, however, that was during a Broadway slump, and nobody pretended that this tourist trap was what we traditionally cherish as a genuine new Broadway musical.

But times have changed, or at least become more welcoming of a karaoke culture that strikes me as just a pulse away from that big old animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disneyland.

Two years ago, we got "Rock of Ages," a skank-happy trip back to the big-metal hits and mullet hair of the 1980s, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Last season, the Nederlander Theatre was turned over to "Million Dollar Quartet," a recreation of a 1956 Memphis jam session with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Both sound-alike simulations were taken seriously enough to get multiple Tony nominations, including in the influential category of new musical.

And both are still running. Thus, when "Rain" comes in, three prime pieces of coveted Broadway real estate will be occupied with the theatrical equivalent of those nostalgic record collections sold on late-night TV.

I can't object to people who should know better enjoying a few nostalgia spasms over ancestral pop melodies. Such is the miracle of defining pop-culture eras. But what scares me - and I'm only slightly overstating the fear - is the possibility that, someday soon, theatergoers will come to New York to go from theater to theater to see decade after decade of dead pop-culture history.

I blame cautious producers, audiences that prefer the comfort of the familiar over the unpredictable and unknown, and ticket prices that discourage people from taking chances on an adventure.

I'm also sorry to say that I blame "Jersey Boys," a smashing, inventive, story-driven show that fooled lesser producers into thinking its success came just from a bunch of old pop songs and an audience that remembers them. As good theater, jukebox shows have been circling the drain ever since. As cash machines, alas, business could hardly be better - cheap to produce, with no star salaries. In fact, the more anonymous the face, the easier the transformation into a famous one.

An exception to the low-budget allure may turn out to be "Thriller," the delayed and possibly derailed Michael Jackson jukebox musical that the Nederlander Organization announced in January 2009, five months before Jackson regained his superstar bankability in death. Last month, it was announced that the producers are suing the estate for blocking the sale of the song rights for the show. Since Jackson was to have had approval on aspects of the show, lawyers for the estate say the contract is not enforceable.

Of course, nobody is saying that Broadway would be a cauldron of theatrical innovation without the rise of pop-clone theater. Much of the same creative bankruptcy has driven movie-clone musicals. For every rethinking of "The Producers," there are basketfuls of such tracing-paper disappointments as "Young Frankenstein," "9 to 5," "Legally Blonde," "High Fidelity" - oh, you know, just make your own list.

The coming season is heavy with movie adaptations. I'm intrigued by a few of them, especially "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" by the Lincoln Center Theater. On the West Coast, musicals are being tested for Broadway based on "Little Miss Sunshine," "Robin and the Seven Hoods," "Sleepess in Seattle" and "Leap of Faith," starring Raul Esparza and Brooke Shields. "Elf" is coming for Christmas.

"Catch Me If You Can" and "Pure Country" are on the horizon. "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "Sister Act" are on their way from London's West End. Much of the "Billy Elliot" creative team is working on "Bridget Jones" and, yes, Jerry Lewis wants to write and direct a Broadway version of "The Nutty Professor."

And, when in doubt, limited imaginations turn to musical biographies, even though they hardly ever work. In our near future are musicals about Vince Lombardi, Bruce Lee, Martin Luther King Jr. and Houdini.

The last one is titled "Houdini: An Original Musical."

Original musical. Some days I get nostalgic just hearing those words.


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