Musicals are not to everybody’s taste but a new sub-genre of the musical appears to be able to pull in customers that wouldn’t be seen dead at Cats, Les Mis or the Lion King. It’s a variant of the rock musical and the latest one to be seen at your local theatre is Sunny Afternoon (the story of the Kinks).
I saw it last night at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and the young, talented and energetic cast of musicians, singers and actors belted out the greatest hits of the Kinks, held together by a familiar (if skimpy) story of early success, young love, dodgy managers, band crisis and chart hits. It’s fast, fun, the musicianship is top and the songs are as strong as they were when written.
There have been pop or rock based musicals more or less since there has been pop and rock. They originally followed the form of any other type of musical, i.e. a set of songs were specially written to help tell a particular story. Some of the more successful ones were Hair, The Rocky Horror Show and The War of the Worlds.
A different variety was what has been described as ‘jukebox musicals’ in which a selection of already written songs are clustered together (sometimes shoehorned in to fit) around a story. This might be given a little more musical coherence by being set in a particular period or in a particular style of music.
Occasionally there were examples of the ‘rock opera’ or concept show based on an individual album such as Tommy by the Who or The Wall by Pink Floyd (and then Quadrophenia, again by the Who).
Different again are ‘compilation musicals’ in which the music of only one artist or group is used to tell a story. These are similar to the jukebox musical in that the songs are usually already written and they are fitted around a story (or sometimes the story is fitted around the songs). There have been several very popular with audiences (if not always with critics). These include Mama Mia using Abba’s music, We Will Rock You, featuring the music of Queen and Tonight’s the Night with Rod Stewart’s songs. The story in these compilation musicals has nothing to do with the artists whose music is featured, although their target market rests heavily on the fan base of the artists. Writing a musical that features multi-million-selling artists is a sound commercial basis for success, regardless of the quality of the story, as these have proven.
And the writers of the latest variant in the rock musical, which you could call the rockbiog, know the potential audience very well. All or Nothing (the story of the Small Faces) and Sunny Afternoon (about the Kinks) have a very similar approach. The story is a slice of band biography and is the least important part of the show. The appeal of the musical rests on the strength of the songs of the featured band and the loyalty of the fans to the band.
The combination of back catalogues of the quality of the Small Faces and the Kinks and the demographic of the audience is a box office winner. The people who were fans of these bands in the 1960s are now in their 60s or 70s, so why not spend an evening listening to the songs that you grew up with, that you danced and romanced to, that played in the background as you worked and played through your youth and early adulthood (you need a bit of money though: there are some cheaper tickets, but a seat can be as much as £59 each). So people come out in their hundreds for what is essentially a very expensive tribute act. No wonder the rockbiog musical is the musical of the hour. Kerching!