Jukebox musicals get no respect. Maybe it’s because they’re so hard to bring off.
In fact, you can count on two fingers the Broadway shows that have successfully combined dialogue with existing rock-oriented pop songbooks to tell a story: “Mamma Mia!,” the film version of which opened nationwide on Friday, and “Jersey Boys.”
Over the last 40 years, the gap between musical theater and pop music has gotten progressively wider. A few recent shows - such as the last two Tony Award-winning musicals, “Spring Awakening” and “In the Heights” - have begun to reverse the trend by writing great new scores in a contemporary pop idiom.
But there still seems to be an overwhelming urge to use beloved pop music in a theatrical context. Most of the successful shows to have done this don’t use words to tell a complicated story. “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a musical revue, for instance, “Forever Plaid” a fake concert and “Movin’ Out” a ballet slumming on Broadway.
It’s the books - the story line and spoken dialogue - that make “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys” unique.
“People don’t realize how hard it is to put a catalog of songs together and make a show work,” says Bob Gaudio, the member of the Four Seasons who wrote the music for all their songs and helped create “Jersey Boys.” “It may be easier to just start from scratch and write book and music together.”
If you want proof just hard it is to succeed with a book musical using old rock songs, take a look at recent Broadway seasons. “All Shook Up,” a fairly good show using hits associated with Elvis Presley, hung on for six months after opening. The savagely panned “Good Vibrations,” exploiting the Beach Boys’ back catalog, survived less than a month. The list could go on and on.
It takes a special knack to write a book to show off familiar songs. Catherine Johnson, a serious British playwright and TV writer, came up with an original tale to showcase the ABBA songs in “Mamma Mia!”
In it, a young woman looks up three of her mother’s old boyfriends to discover which is her father.
For “Jersey Boys,” Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning collaborator and a former musician himself, and Rick Elice, a playwright and former ad man, turned the lives of the Four Seasons into a finely wrought work of art.
These writers always credit the directors who first brought the shows to the stage as major contributors to the shape of the musicals, as well - Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed the movie, for “Mamma Mia!,” and Des McAnuff for “Jersey Boys.”
Although Gaudio doesn’t mind the comparison with “Mamma Mia!,” Elice isn’t comfortable with calling “Jersey Boys” a jukebox musical.
“I would bet that they went about the process of creating ‘Mamma Mia!’ exactly the opposite of what we did, that they came up with a list of songs and then retrofitted the plot around them,” he says. “With us, it was here’s the story of this group. Let’s use the song to move the story forward.”
Actually, Johnson told The Dallas Morning News in a 2003 interview that the plot of “Mamma Mia!” just popped into her head the first time she discussed the idea with producer Judy Craymer. Then as she listened to the ABBA songbook, the tunes folded naturally into the story.
“What Bjorn had done suggested a narrative. You could really feel how he grew as a storyteller,” Johnson said of ABBA’s primary songwriter, Bjorn Ulvaeus. But the plot also had a personal element for the book writer. “There is quite a lot of me in there. I brought up children by myself.”
In comparison with “Mamma Mia!,” though, “Jersey Boys” is a much more intricately crafted piece. Brickman and Elice don’t just show the rise of the Four Seasons. They also put the issues and tensions that brought the group down on public view.
“We first met with them very skeptically,” Elice recalls. “These guys grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong side of the (Hudson) river. There was the mob element. There’s a whiff of the Rat Pack, a whiff of the old Vegas. We realized it was a great story, and they very courageously said, ‘Go ahead and show us what you had in mind.’”
“Jersey Boys” ruthlessly shows the infighting and high living that caused dissension among the members of the Four Seasons - not least when Frankie Valli’s solo career took off - as well as the brushes with organized crime.
“As they say, ‘warts and all,’” Gaudio says. “I hate that expression, but it’s true. Frankie and I agreed, ‘Just stick with the truth.’”
One thing that makes the libretto of “Jersey Boys” so special is that it doesn’t give just one version of the truth. The writers divided the story up into four parts, used a different member of the Four Seasons to narrate each and themed each quarter with a season of the year.
“It solved a big problem for us because the people telling us stories kept contradicting themselves,” Elice says. “The audience can decide who to believe.”
Elice says the songs in the first half of the show follow rather accurately the chronology of the group’s rise to fame. In the second act, though, the writers could choose songs that reflected the changing moods of the story. The Four Seasons had so many songs on the charts during their peak years that there was no way to include all the hits, in any case.
The “Jersey Boys” creators take a lot of pride in having kept the original arrangements of the songs and credit a lot of the show’s success to that decision.
“This is the only Broadway show that has presented rock music in an authentically rock way,” Elice claims. “You hear onstage just what you hear on the records. And the actors all play their own guitars as they are singing.”
Gaudio admits occasional confusion when he happens to hear a song from the cast album.
“Sometimes the only way I can tell it’s not the original version is that the tempos are a little fast,” the composer says.
Elice also points out that the show never stretches the audience’s suspension of disbelief by having a character sing a number to another character to further the story. The songs are always seen as performed by the Four Seasons at a rehearsal or a public performance. Bob Fosse did something similar in restructuring “Cabaret” for his prize-winning movie version, putting all the numbers onstage at the Kit Kat Club and taking out those that strained credulity by having a character break into a song in “real life.”
Gaudio’s songs are back in the spotlight, thanks to “Jersey Boys.” The composer admits to feeling a certain amount of vindication at all the attention this Broadway hit has brought to his old group.
“We were never the darlings of any of the rags,” Gaudio says. “Rolling Stone still to this day may not know we exist.”
The reaction audiences have to the Four Seasons hits in “Jersey Boys” is quite different from those of ABBA fans to “Mamma Mia!”
Every time the performers launch an ABBA hit in that show, there’s a ripple of laughter. The fans recognize Johnson’s cleverness in building up to the song, sometimes in quite a stealthy way, as well as a moment of joyful recognition of an old favorite. There’s kind of a campy glee about it all.
At “Jersey Boys,” though, you never sense an ironically divided sensibility in the response to the music. The audience stays in the story. They love arriving at the biggest hits, like “Sherry” or “Walk Like a Man.” They get a thrill from them. But they’re caught up in the narrative about the people who gave birth to the songs.
That may just make the “Jersey Boys” book the undisputed and official champion among jukebox musicals, biomusicals or whatever you want to call theatrical shows that try to tell a story with rock ‘n’ roll classics.