Sarah Browne, Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for Musical Theatre
“Stop Right Now, Thank You Very Much”: The jukebox musical and the fate of Viva Forever
On June 29th 2013, the curtain fell on the final performance of the musical Viva Forever.
The cast were joined on stage by two former Spice Girls who were “devastated” and “gutted” that the show announced its closure after a brief six month run in the West End. Producer Judy Craymer (famous for hit musical Mamma Mia) and writer Jennifer Saunders admitted that despite standing ovations from wonderful audiences, they just “couldn’t make it work”. They stand resolute in their assertion that the “legacy of the Spice Girls will never fade.”
The meteoric rise to fame of possibly the most successful girl band in the world would undoubtedly be an ideal storyline for a jukebox musical. Selling over eighty million records worldwide, their catalogue of hits gave Craymer the opportunity to produce the next Mamma Mia. Advance ticket sales were strong and media hype surrounded both the previews and the premiere. Viva Forever appeared set to join the upper echelons of the jukebox musical genre, sitting comfortably alongside its West End rivals We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys.
Jukebox musicals are frequently box office hits, despite often receiving caustic and scathing reviews. The Ben Elton/Queen musical We Will Rock You was panned by critics, but now in its eleventh year it has sold over 13 million tickets worldwide. Reviews for Viva Forever were damning.
The Independent labelled the show as “charmless, messy and lacklustre”, whilst the more generous critic of The Guardianundoubtedly revealed the show’s Achilles Heel; the songs simply failed to work in the context of the story.
The use of popular songs in musical theatre is not a recent innovation; early twentieth century revues and musical comedies introduced the songs of Tin Pan Alley composers Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, spawning popular hits. The reverse now appears to be the current trend; revisiting a catalogue of hits is the primary function of the musical, which often results in an under-developed narrative.
The more integrated musical is one which focuses on developing the narrative through the songs, the plot and the movement -think West Side Story.
I’m not a fan of jukebox musicals. Story telling lies at the heart of Musical Theatre and I much prefer to hear that story told through the music. Those of us who aren’t fans of Musical Theatre often cite the uncomfortable moment when the performers move from dialogue and break out into song as the main reason for their disdain of the genre. This is often compounded when the lyrics don’t particularly appear to fit the context.
I remember my abject horror watching the film of Mamma Mia, sensing the inevitable when Julie Walters utters the words “Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong” to a distraught Meryl Streep. Now replace those lyrics with “I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ha!” and you might be starting to understand the reasons why Viva Forever didn’t work.
Jukebox musicals provide the audience with a real sense of community. Fans of the music come together to relive the shared experience of hearing their iPod playlists performed live once more. In the case of Viva Forever it would appear that their thirty-something fan base no longer rely on the Spice Girls to find their “girl power”.