Being Modern: Jukebox musicals

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The Independent Culture

It's not easy to write comedy, but if you want a really good laugh, have a quick read of the plot synopsis of the West End smash We Will Rock You on Wikipedia. Here's a snippet to get you in the mood: "Galileo insists that he only hears those words in his head. Brit tests Galileo, singing the first few lines of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Galileo responds correctly with the subsequent lines, and Brit realises that he is the Dreamer of the prophecy." Is this, you would be entitled to ask, real life or just fantasy?

Sadly, this is no escape from reality but rather the way things are in the world of the "jukebox musical". Take a popular artist, preferably dead or at least no longer active, embroider their songs with the flimsiest of threads, and watch the resulting production turn to box-office gold. (Or not: see Lennon, 2005.)

At a basic level you can see why the idea appeals: Abba haven't played a live show since 1982. Thank you for the music, Mamma Mia! Logistically, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash are unlikely to be touring together any time soon. Thangyouvermuch, Million Dollar Quartet. (The King has previous with the genre, too. He had been dead only three months when Elvis opened in London's West End in 1977.)

As so many jukebox musicals – from Buddy to Jersey Boys have proved – if the life of the artist is interesting enough, you can dispense with the idea of a plot entirely; the songs themselves are all the cement you need to bind things together.

It's easy to mock such productions as Our House (the music of Madness) or Never Forget (the music of Take That) and the endless stream of cash-ins for which there is a ready audience. And certainly the past 10 years have seen jukebox musicals flourish as never before (about 50 since 1999). But occasionally, out of the rubble, a diamond emerges.

Fela!, the musical based on the life of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, is that diamond. It's about to get another run at London's Sadler's Wells. Go see it if you can. It won't rock you. But it will get you out of your seat.