This weekend, the music of ABBA will fill Starlight Theatre in the touring production of Broadway’s “Mamma Mia!” Next week, it’s hits by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in “Jersey Boys.” And the week after? Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and their famous 1950s contemporaries in “Million Dollar Quartet” at New Theatre Restaurant.
The Kansas City summer theater scene has gone retro with a spate of megahit jukebox musicals. It’s all part of a larger trend of crafting stories around existing music, using a beloved catalog of tunes as the framework for made-up stories or glossy biographies. And although reviews over the years have not always been kind, audiences love these shows enough to keep bringing them back to Kansas City stages.
“Critics are wrong to say that previously created music is, on the face of it, unworthy theatrical material,” said Rick Elice, the Tony-nominated book writer of “Jersey Boys.” “When you do it well and tell a story that is heartwarming and as fun as ‘Mamma Mia!’ or you tell a story that feels as human and recognizable and identifiable as ‘Jersey Boys,’ what you do is you really touch a nerve in the audience. The familiar music enhances the experience.”
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“Mamma Mia!” which played the Music Hall in 2014 and Starlight in 2011, follows a young woman intent on finding out who her father is ahead of her upcoming nuptials.
“Jersey Boys,” which played the Music Hall in 2012, is a musical biography of Valli and his pop group.
“Million Dollar Quartet,” which played the Kauffman Center in 2012 and Starlight in 2015, revisits a Sun Studios recording session with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
They follow the biographical “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which played at the Music Hall in March. And coming to Starlight in August: “Motown: The Musical,” which played at the Music Hall in 2014.
Elice argues that the stories, as well as the music, carry the megahit shows. “There have been jukebox musicals that have been successful, and there have been jukebox musicals that have closed,” Elice said. “To say, ‘Oh, all jukebox musicals are all suspect because they’re not original’ is a little like walking into a museum and saying, ‘Oh, God, not another rectangular painting.’
“The reasons that ‘Mamma Mia!’ is popular are likely very different from the reasons why ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ are popular.”
“Mamma Mia!” with its ABBA soundtrack, was one of the first such musicals to usher in the trend in 1999 on London’s West End. It hit Broadway in 2001, with “Jersey Boys” following in 2006 and “Million Dollar Quartet” in 2010. Along the way, shows like “Rock of Ages” (2006, ’80s rock), “American Idiot” (2010, Green Day) and “On Your Feet!” (2015, Emilio and Gloria Estefan) also found their ways to the stage.
Composers have been including popular songs in their shows for more than a century. Irving Berlin, for example, created revues to give his pop songs of the early 1900s another life. 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” was conceived as a vehicle for songs from other MGM movies released between 1929-39. But the trend has seemingly exploded this century.
Using popular songs in new shows has always made sense from a producing standpoint, said producer Stephen Gabriel, whose “Mamma Mia!” original production tour is wrapping up this summer after 15 years on the road.
“I don’t want to say it’s easier to produce a show based on a catalog, but it kind of goes under the same header as all the musicals that are coming out now based on movie titles,” he said. “There is a slightly safer place to go when you’re dealing with a brand that has already been established, whether that’s a catalog musical or a movie title. While it may be slightly easier because you have the branding, creating a good show is never easy.”
Branding or not, Gabriel said that if the show’s story isn’t there, audiences won’t return.
Joe Fox, a New Theatre producer and director of the upcoming “Million Dollar Quartet,” said biographical musicals must stay true to the characters’ real lives. That means, while the New Theatre can put its own spin on the show, actors will employ the same mannerisms and vocal stylings as the original artists.
“We have a pretty good book on this one, but for us, it’s how do we tell a story where the songs feel natural,” Fox said. “It’s interesting, because you want to see these characters larger-than-life, but because of the fact that this is set in 1956, we get to see them as ordinary guys.”
Elice compared the writing process for such shows to “being a good detective” — finding which songs work where without forcing them.
For him and his writing partner Marshall Brickman, this involved writing a play on the Four Seasons’ backstory first. Then they added songs more as performances than as plot devices.
“So, we start using the songs in a chronological way, but, because it’s theater and not a documentary, the songs start to exert an influence on the characters and what’s happening to them,” he said. “Little by little, the songs stop functioning chronologically and start commenting dramatically to the story of the four guys that we’re watching unfold.”
Three jukebox musicals
▪ “Mamma Mia!” farewell tour runs June 23-25 at Starlight Theatre. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.
▪ “Jersey Boys” is also at Starlight, June 27 through July 2.
▪ “Million Dollar Quartet” runs July 6 through Sept. 24 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster in Overland Park. See newtheatre.com or call 913-649-7469.
Musical Theater Heritage’s Musical Monday and Tuesday, June 26-27, will feature songs from this year’s batch of Tony-nominated musicals, including “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Groundhog Day,” “Hello, Dolly!” and more. See mthkc.org or call 816-221-6987.