The Marvelous Wonderettes is an example of a relatively recent phenomenon in musical shows: the Juke Box musical. A Juke Box musical is one in which the songs were not written for the show, but which were familiar hits in their own right before anyone thought to build a story around them. Famous examples are Mamma Mia (Abba’s greatest hits); Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons’ greatest hits); Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan musical), and Motown the Musical, but there are many more.
What explains the appeal of the Juke Box musical? For producers, the appeal is economic: it’s a lot less risky to present songs that are already hits than to create a whole new score. And musical scores aren’t written in the same way anymore. Our hit songs no longer come from Broadway; rather, Broadway draws on other sources for its inspiration. But the success of this mini-genre has more to do with what the songs do for us as audience member. The songs we have heard over and over on the radio have formed the backdrop of our lives. When we hear them, they evoke a host of memories, associations and emotions, all of which impact our enjoyment of the show. Audience response is built-in. Hearing the songs in a new context will just add a layer of association to music that has been the soundtrack of our lives. And, if the song was a hit once, it will probably also score with a new generation that is hearing it for the first time, because it has proven popular appeal. It’s a win-win.
The Marvelous Wonderettes focuses on an especially rich vein of American popular music: the hits of the late 1950s and early 1960s, with special attention to the girl group sound that has never been replicated in popular music history. This music not only had a unique sound of its own, but it gained a lot of its power because it expressed a new perception in American life: that there was a new demographic known as teenagers, and that this population had its own culture, climate, and concerns, separate from those of adults. Lyrics were suddenly about whether boys would carry your books home from school, or whether they rode motorcycles or pleased their teachers. A large number of us who are alive now can remember having our world view shaped by these lyrics, and, for as much as that world view may have altered, it’s fun and fascinating to revisit that time and re-examine what we learned then.