'Rock of Ages' at Montecasino is a tall cocktail of nostalgia – it boosts your serotonin in a way that feels good.
In 2014, The New Yorker ran an article in defence of jukebox musicals. The article at first seemed to lament the fact that for every production like Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Book of Mormon or Hamilton that redefines musical theatre, a slew of jukebox musicals is also released.
Jukebox musicals feature no original score, they exist rather as a low-art form where established work is used to form some sort of story around music.
Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages all follow the structure. Critics often hate them – and the public love them.
Yet Sarah Larson’s article points to a few facts: they highlight special moments in music history – something everyone identifies with.
In a world where the price of petrol soars, where children get grabbed in white Fortuners and women have to march for safety, a jukebox musical is a short escape – sometimes one you didn’t even know you needed.
Rock of Ages. Picture: Christiaan Kotze
Last week, Rock of Ages opened at The Teatro at Montecasino – a rock musical that grabs its audience by the heart by including every schmaltzy rock-anthem from the ’80s. How do you define these shows? How do you explain them in a South African context? Are these flashy shows just Barnyard on a Budget?
It’s so easy to categorise something like Rock of Ages as “Budget Barnyard”, but that’s derogatory on so many fronts. First of all, Barnyard productions, in South Africa at least, have become a valuable school for theatre performers. One of the country’s biggest stars, Jonathan Roxmouth, says his career beginnings and eventual meteoric rise in theatre circles is largely thanks to Barnyard shows.
Weeding out Barnyard as something of poor taste is equally bizarre: many performers are making a living bringing joy to audiences that otherwise would have gotten the same fill from TV shows such as Glee.
Barnyard supports a network of live performers. In the same way, shows like Rock of Ages get you to a theatre seat. In a way, these shows also redefine musical theatre in its own right.
“Musicals become more colourful and fresh, while the jukebox musical make their appearance,” states Gabriella Asimenou in her thesis The Evolution of American Musical Theatre: A Sociological Perspective.
“Millennium musicals offered to the audience the flexibility to choose the shows through their preferences around the musicals sounds; because of the multi-sectional musical styles, by the plots depending their issues and feelings and also by the style of each show.
“It is an era of reviving old stories through a different perspective and thus of recharging the creative ideas that will someday re-enforce the notion of musical entertainment.”
Asimenou’s observations are astute. SA theatre has a revolving door for those productions; from Whitney to Queen snag returning productions.
Even recent Afrikaans productions like Liefling and longstanding musical theatre shows like Sarafina become jukebox production in their own right. Popular songs are enjoyed again and again.
Rock of Ages is a tall cocktail of nostalgia – and you can drink and drink and never be satisfied – not because it’s particularly brilliant, but because it boosts your serotonin in a way that feels good.
The show is never problematic, and, yes, there’s an air of commentary against big business and big development, but Rock of Ages is easy to listen to, easy to watch and even easier to enjoy.
While the cast, all good in their own way, sing their hearts out – it’s the songs from Journey, Whitesnake, Pat Benetar, Bon Jovi and Poison that reignite a feeling of belonging.
“This phenomenon in itself can be called unique,” says Olga-Lisa Monde in Jukebox-Musical: The State and Prospects.
“The value of these productions for the world of music history is essential. Such works do not only perpetuate the memory of famous composers, singers, musicians, librettists, and lyricists, but also carefully preserve musical and vocal styles in relation to a particular historical period.
“For the most part, if the stories are biographical ones, it recreates the atmosphere of the exact time with the help of corresponding performing styles, as well as costumes, scenery, stage props, sound, special effects and other characteristics.”
Hit them with your best shot, but the jukebox musical will stay. It’s the lipstick effect of it all. When times are tough you treat yourself with small luxuries – and that is exactly what a jukebox musical is.
Right now, that little tube of lipstick is Rock of Ages at Montecasino, and you have every reason to go feel the noise.
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