The Guide To The Performing Arts handbook dates the term “jukebox musical” to the early 60s – long before Mamma Mia! changed the landscape of musical theatre in 1999 by making the pop music stage show a box office sensation. In the late 20th century, there were lots of interesting theatre musicals – including those featuring the music of Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Louis Jordan, and Elvis Presley. There was even a Broadway show called Beatlemania, in 1977, which recreated the feeling of a live show by The Beatles.
However, the theatre landscape changed forever with Mamma Mia!, which opened in London in 1999 and moved to Broadway in 2001. The blend of ABBA’s timeless music, a feel-good story, and pure escapism for the spectators prompted a wave of follow-up musicals, as Broadway raced to present the rock-era American songbook.
Jukebox musicals now come in two basic forms: a straight-up celebration of a body of music, without much plot; and the biographical musical. There have been numerous interesting examples of the latter. Love, Janis was a cabaret-style show about Janis Joplin, based on her letters; Lost Highway was based on the tragic life of Hank Williams and ended with a rousing version of his gospel song “I Saw the Light.”
Dozens of musicians have been the subject of jukebox musicals, including Buddy Holly, Carole King, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, Fela Kuti, Bob Dylan, and Tupac Shakur. Not all of them have succeeded. Lennon, the 2005 Broadway show about the solo career of the Beatles star – who was sometimes played by a female actress – lasted for only 49 appearances.
The challenge of having a successful Broadway show still appeals to musicians, though. In 2018, Springsteen On Broadway featured 69-year-old Bruce Springsteen playing guitar and piano, performing his music as he recounted anecdotes from his autobiography, Born To Run. One of the most popular productions of 2019 was The Cher Show.
Some of the world’s most successful bands have also inspired jukebox musicals. Fans of these groups have flocked to see stage productions about their musical heroes. Among the most high-profile have been shows about the music of Queen (We Will Rock You), Earth, Wind And Fire (Hot Feet), The Beach Boys (Good Vibrations), The Kinks (Sunny Afternoon), and The Temptations (Ain’t Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations).
There have also been jukebox musicals about different eras of popular music. Dreamboats And Petticoats celebrated the music of the 50s, while Rock Of Ages did the same for the 80s.
Here is our guide to the ten best jukebox musicals of the past few decades.
10: The Cher Show
“My life as a musical on Broadway. It seems crazy, exciting, and bizarre – but that’s probably how my life seems to most people,” said Cher, whose life seemed ripe for the jukebox musical treatment. The Cher Show, which ended an award-winning run on Broadway in August 2019, has already been booked for a tour of America in 2020. It won Tony Awards for Stephanie J Block (Best Performance By A Leading Actress In A Musical) and for Bob Mackie (Best Costume Design Of A Musical), and includes Cher’s own hits, such as “I Got You Babe,” along with “I Like It Like That,” a song by made famous by drummer Dave Clark and his band.
9: After Midnight
After Midnight, partly based on the music of Duke Ellington – with hits such as “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Daybreak Express” – featured an orchestra of 17 musicians, plus 25 vocalists, along with dancers and performers. The music direction was by Jazz At Lincoln Center’s artistic director Wynton Marsalis. The show won a Tony for best choreography and was nominated for six further awards, including best musical of 2014.
8: Movin’ Out
Movin’ Out, which featured the songs of Billy Joel, was conceived by Twyla Tharp and told the story of growing up in Long Island during the 60s against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The main characters were drawn from people in Joel’s tunes, such as high-school sweethearts Brenda and Eddie (“Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”), Judy (“Why Judy Why”), and Tony (“Movin’ Out”). In the show, the songs were performed by a piano player on a platform above the stage. The production was brilliantly choreographed and Holly Cruikshank won the 2005 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actress for her portrayal of Brenda.
7: Rock Of Ages
Rock Of Ages ran for 2,328 performances on Broadway. The jukebox musical, which was based around a book by Chris D’Arienzo, showcased rock hits from the 80s, especially from the famous glam metal bands of the decade. The musical features songs by Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Steve Perry, Poison, and Europe. The habit of performers breaking the “fourth wall” and directly addressing the audience only added to the popularity of the show.
6: Million Dollar Quartet
This musical, which opened on Broadway in 2010, was inspired by the famous recording session that brought together rock’n’roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins on December 4, 1956. When these four stars gathered at Sun Records in Memphis, the studios of record producer Sam Phillips, they produced one of the most significant jam sessions in the history of music. The classic songs in the show included “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls Of Fire,” “Walk The Line,” and “Hound Dog.” The Broadway musical was nominated for three Tony Awards in 2010.
5: Jersey Boys
Jersey Boys, which opened on Broadway in 2005 and which is still on tour in Australia, was a smash hit that told the story of doo-wop sensations Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons. It was hailed as one of the best biographical musicals of the 21st Century and did not sanitize the life of the original Four Seasons (Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi). The memorable score included songs such as “My Eyes Adored You,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and “Working My Way Back To You Girl.” Jersey Boys won the Tony on Broadway and the Olivier in the West End for Best New Musical. John Lloyd Young, the first actor to play Valli, reprised the role for the 2014 film version directed by Clint Eastwood.
4: Ain’t Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations
Motown has been a rich source of inspiration for jukebox musicals. Following the success of Motown: The Musical, the 2013 show based on Berry Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories Of Motown, the electrifying Ain’t Too Proud musical told the tale of The Temptations. Their extraordinary journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame was told through treasured hits such as “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” and the show was praised by the critics. “The performance of those songs, orchestrated by Harold Wheeler with musical direction and arrangements by Kenny Seymour, is pretty close to perfection,” said The New York Times.
3: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Carole King was still performing live sell-out concerts when the Broadway musical version of her life began as a trial show in San Francisco in September 2013. King’s superb back catalogue includes such masterpieces as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Got A Friend,” and “I Feel the Earth Move,” and audiences responded to the story of a sympathetic, funny heroine.
2: We Will Rock You
We Will Rock You uses Queen’s music to tell a futuristic, “quirky, eccentric and heartfelt story of outsiders.” The hit musical, written by Ben Elton, closed in London in 2014 after a 12-year run in the West End. Brian May and Roger Taylor would occasionally turn up and play on stage in London in a show that includes some of the band’s greatest hits, including “Radio Ga Ga,” “Killer Queen,” and “A Kind Of Magic.” We Will Rock You has been seen by more than 18 million people across 28 countries, during a sell-out tour of the world – a run that included the United States in 2013. Following the success of the 2018 Bohemian Rhapsody biopic, We Will Rock You returned to North American arenas in September 2019.
1: Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia!, a celebration of the music of Swedish superstars ABBA, arrived on Broadway in 2001, two years after its London debut. In the following 14 years, the show grossed more than $600 million and its irresistible cross-generational appeal inspired numerous imitators. The stage show also led to a successful movie version and a spin-off sequel.
Looking for more? Discover the history of musicals on the silver screen.