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Last Updated: Friday, 23 September 2005, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
Lights out for the tribute musical
by Victoria Lindrea
BBC New entertainment reporter

Will Chase and Julie Danao-Salkin as John Lennon and Yoko Ono
The Lennon musical closed in New York after just six weeks
This weekend sees the closure of two high-profile Broadway musicals based on the work of best-selling artists John Lennon and Elvis Presley.

It's a far cry from the global success of tribute musicals like Mamma Mia!, whose sell-out performances in London, New York and as far afield as Japan, have made its creators millionaires.

Unsurprisingly, the remarkable success of the show, based around the music of Swedish supergroup Abba, prompted a flurry of imitators and the birth of a genre.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley refers to this "unimaginative but ever-expanding genre" as jukebox musicals: "the prefab musical that takes its score from Top 40 hits of the past".

But Mark Shenton, of trade paper The Stage, believes "the lights have gone out" on the tribute musical.

In the years following Mamma Mia!, the West End spawned We Will Rock You based on the music of Queen, Madness' Our House and Tonight's the Night, drawing on the back catalogue of ageing rocker Rod Stewart.

Mamma Mia! opened in London in 1999 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)
Mamma Mia! opened in London in 1999 to popular acclaim

Despite receiving a critical drubbing at its opening in May 2002, the Queen musical has gained a popular following and is now in its fourth year.

Conversely, Madness' Our House, which was met with upbeat reviews in October 2002 and even picked up an Olivier Award, could not match Queen's staying power.

Similarly 2003's Tonight's the Night, from the ubiquitous pen of Ben Elton, ran for a year in the West End but failed to wholly convince critics or fans.

After all, with both Madness and Stewart still touring, why would fans pay to hear pale imitations of the real thing?

But it seems even the dwindling fan base of Rod Stewart has surpassed enthusiasm for Broadway's Lennon.

The Beach Boys in 1979
Good Vibrations featured more than 30 Beach Boys songs

The musical, created with the aid of Lennon's widow Yoko Ono, will have run for just six weeks when it closes at New York's Broadhurst Theater on Saturday.

Poor reviews of the show's opening in San Francisco cannot have helped advance bookings.

One of the show's more unpopular conceits was to have the entire nine-person cast impersonate Lennon during various points of the show.

Alterations were made, but it was not enough to appease the savage Broadway critics who called the show "shaky" and "Ono-centric".

Good Vibrations sacrifices itself, night after night and with considerable anguish, to make all other musicals on Broadway look good
Ben Brantley, New York Times

Good Vibrations, featuring songs by the Beach Boys, befell a similar fate taking a beating from the US critics and closing after three months.

And with the departure of "the King" from Broadway's Palace Theater when All Shook Up closes on Sunday, it looks increasingly as if the era of the tribute musical may be coming to an end.

"Between them, the Beach Boys show, the Lennon show and All Shook Up have lost $30m," says Mr Shenton.

Cheyenne Jackson as Elvis and cast of All Shook Up
All Shook Up has struggled at the box office for much of its run

"With that sort of money going down the pan, these shows have proved - despite the success of Mamma Mia - this is not a magic formula for successful musicals."

Mr Shenton believes tribute musicals need to portray universal emotions to sustain strong audiences.

"There's no point in putting on a collection of songs that people could just stay at home and listen to on their CDs instead.

"The thing about Mamma Mia! is it is a well-crafted musical. It's a great feel-good show in its own right - whether or not it has Abba's music attached to it."

Still, with news of forthcoming shows based on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and even Birmingham band UB40, it appears there is life in the old jukebox yet.

Slated Lennon show to close early
16 Sep 05 |  Entertainment
Musical to be based on UB40 songs
05 Jul 05 |  Entertainment
Bad vibrations for Beach Boy show
20 Apr 05 |  Entertainment
Digging the dancing queens
06 Apr 04 |  Entertainment
Madness musical hits London
29 Oct 02 |  Entertainment
Raspberries for Queen's Rhapsody
15 May 02 |  Entertainment

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