As an animal lover might dote on an ugly, ill-tempered runt, so do I feel impelled to stick up for the jukebox musical. Around Broadway the genre is regarded as some kind of abomination. Where is the creativity, the purists want to know, in stringing together a musical from somebody else’s songs, usually of the pop variety? That sounds terrible. Lately it has been terrible—ask anyone who survived the monumentally tacky Burt Bacharach revue The Look of Love or the feckless Good Vibrations, which sunk the Beach Boys. The critical abuse heaped upon Lennon last week had the air of a final dismissal for the genre. The show certainly fails, but not because of its jukebox-y shape; in fact, it fails because its creators prove inept at capitalizing on what’s so promising about the form.
The first quality to admire about the jukebox musical is shamelessness—honest and unflinching gall. Theater has always been a field full of magpies, where writers seize and rework the best stories and materials their culture has to offer; no one stole more nimbly than Shakespeare. John Lennon, the composer of an improbable number of the twentieth century’s finest songs, has a natural jukebox to musicalize: There’s all sorts of dramatic potential in filching raw material this rich.
It comes as a stupefying surprise, then, to find that the show tells Lennon’s story with almost none of his Beatles songs. Sticking to his solo work is about as effective a use of the man’s genius as a sightseeing trip to New York that never leaves the Bronx. Whatever their merits on his albums, Lennon’s late songs tend to be moribund onstage. All Shook Up, a jukebox musical I seem to be just about alone in having enjoyed, did a more elegant, more clever job of boosting Elvis Presley’s songs for the theater.
Of course, the show isn’t meant to focus on Lennon as pop genius, but Lennon as father, husband of Yoko, social activist, and husband of Yoko. Here, too, the show betrays its subject. A crucial part of Lennon’s mystique was the way he redefined cool. But this show is very far from cool. Different actors take turns playing Lennon, singly or in groups, by slipping on his trademark granny glasses. It makes the stage look like a hopeless Harry Potter convention. (Only Will Chase has the wry charm needed to sell the conceit.)
Amid the actors clumsily pretending to strum guitars—the towering epitome of uncool—the show squanders another promise of the jukebox musical. The genre’s emphasis on pop songs—particularly here, in a show about a musician—lends itself to a loose staging that can capture the energy of a concert. But you don’t get a rush of rock-star energy from actors banging away at fake power chords. It’s no coincidence that the most successful jukebox musical I’ve seen, Hank Williams: Lost Highway, came the closest to being a rock show, as actors doubled as musicians to depict Williams’s band. Rarely have I had so much fun in a theater.
There’s a dispiriting final irony here: Lennon, that famous radical, has become part of a consistently conservative trend. Abba, the King, the Beach Boys, now a Beatle: A theme unites jukebox musicals on Broadway, and that theme is baby-boomer nostalgia. If anyone’s going to reap the full creative and financial benefits of the jukebox genre, it’ll probably be some enterprising downtown producer, one able to craft an entertainment from the catalogue of a skilled, literate songwriter on the rise—Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, or sensational newcomer Luke Temple, for starters. Their fans might embrace the crazy hybrid of the jukebox—or, more aptly, the iPod musical. What a vast new theater audience they might be.
The calculus may not be as crass as it sounds. In 1964, a film musical was hastily produced to capitalize on a rock band’s newfound popularity. The madcap mix of original songs and an existing hit yielded an improbable classic; critic Andrew Sarris would call it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” It just goes to show: Assemble songs badly, you get Lennon; do it with inspiration, you get A Hard Day’s Night.