Cut back to 2006, I am at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford watching Buddy The Musical. I’ve heard the music of Buddy Holly before, but I’ve never really been ‘into’ it. I can’t call myself a fan. A month later I’m buying his back catalogue and consuming all I can about this extraordinary musician.
A couple of months ago, I’m in London’s Shaftesbury theatre, listening to music I have known literally all my life, and it is as though I am hearing it anew, the emotion of Motown sweeping over me thanks to Motown the Musical.
Last weekend, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, I watched two and a half hours of a show set in Leith and in that time I recognised only two of more than a dozen songs. I left Sunshine on Leith practically skipping after witnessing a show that couldn’t be more joyful and poignant. The power of the musical is well documented. The power of a musical which uses music the audience already knows and loves can be something quite spectacular.
There is a phrase to describe such shows, those that use songs that are already popular with audiences and may have even been chart hits: Jukebox Musicals.
I’m told the people behind Jersey Boys do not like this phrase.
Michael Watson plays Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, which is currently touring and at the Bradford Alhambra until June 2.
“The connotation is that jukebox musical means something that is light and fluffy, featuring pop songs and some jokes and I’m not being disparaging about them – I’ve made a career appearing in them – but the notion is that they are not exactly high quality. This is definitely not that,” says Watson. The ‘this’ to which he refers is Jersey Boys and, as he’s currently in it, you would expect him to say that. It is generally accepted, however, that Jersey Boys is a jukebox musical in a different league to the shows you would normally associate with the term.
“What Jersey Boys did was flip the whole notion on its head. It started with what is actually a really interesting story, the story of how the Jersey Boys got together and their career. The creators wrote a really interesting play about the story of this band and the music happens to chart the journey of their lives and their career,” says Watson.
It helps that the ‘Jersey Boys’, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, who came together to form The Four Seasons, had some of pop music’s most enduring hits.
In 1962 the band released Sherry, beginning a domination of the US and international charts that was only matched by the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys, incidentally, were themselves the subject of a jukebox musical production that opened and closed within months on Broadway in 2005. The Four Seasons went on to have mega hits Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Let’s Hang On, Can’t Take My Eyes off You. Their music has defined several generations.
“When the jukebox musicals first appeared, critics appeared to have their backs up about them, but like any artform, it evolves and producers realised that although you can rely on the music to entertain an audience, it’s much better to create a piece of theatre that tells a good story and then use the music to drive the narrative,” says Watson.
I tell him about the experience I had with Buddy The Musical, as someone who went into the theatre not necessarily a fan, and left not just loving the music, but being fascinated by the man at the heart of that story. “Buddy was pioneering for this kind of show in that it reminds you about the people that made this music and what extraordinary musicians they were,” says Watson. “With Jersey Boys you get a real insight into what these people were really like and how they made their music. In the show the music is a star in itself, but it’s only one element that makes this a great show.”
What about the music? The fact that half a century later it is still being played on radio stations says something.
“In my opinion it’s music in its purest form. A great tune, great lyrics and these incredible harmonies. The minute you hear ‘der de der de der’,” says Watson and he needs to go no further – Oh What A Night is playing in my head. He’s right, that’s some catchy music.
It’s little wonder, then, that Jersey Boys has broken out of the straitjacket of the ‘jukebox musical’. When it premiered on Broadway in 2005, few would have imagined it would run for 12 years and along the way toured the world, picking up four Tony Awards and an Olivier for Best New Musical following its London premiere in 2009.
And, as audiences in Bradford this fortnight will testify, if you see it you’ll leave the theatre thinking ‘oh, what a night’.
What’s coming to Yorkshire
Jersey Boys is at Bradford Alhambra to June 2 (tickets 01274 432000), Sheffield Lyceum, June 19-30 (0114 249600) and Leeds Grand Theatre November 20-December 1.
Other Jukebox Musicals coming to the region include:
Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, Leeds Grand Theatre, May 29-June 2. Tickets 0844 848 2700 or leedsgrandtheatre.com
Son of a Preacher Man, featuring the music of Dusty Springfield, Bradford Alhambra, June 12-16.
Summer Holiday The Musical, York Grand Opera House, May 29 to June 2.
Thriller Live, Sheffield Lyceum, July 16-21.