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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

OK. We're about to find out what the songs of ABBA, Billy Joel, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley and John Lennon all have in common. They've all been the basis of a new category of Broadway entertainment known as jukebox musicals. They take popular song catalogs and put them on stage. The latest jukebox musical to open on Broadway is called "Jersey Boys," and it features the songs of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Hope you like this kind of entertainment, because more is on the way, as Jeff Lunden reports.

(Soundbite of "Mamma Mia" production)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Mamma Mia. Here I go again. My, my. How can I resist ya. Mamma Mia...

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

It all began innocently enough in the fall of 2001, when a carefree import from London, "Mamma Mia," featuring the songs of ABBA, opened on Broadway. With a loosey-goosey plot and its casual insertion of ABBA's greatest hits, New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley says "Mamma Mia" was irresistible.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Drama Critic, The New York Times): And the fact that it opened in New York just after 9/11--I think I compared it to a singing cupcake in my review, a Hostess cupcake. There was truly something `comfort food' about it.

(Soundbite of "Mamma Mia" production)

Unidentified People: (Singing) I was angry and sad when I knew we were through.

LUNDEN: It's sort of the ideal karaoke musical. You look at the people on stage singing these, you know, pretty banal songs that nonetheless have a hook that sinks into your mind.

(Soundbite of "Mamma Mia" production)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) The winner takes it all.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Takes it all.

Unidentified Woman: The loser has to fall.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Has to fall.

LUNDEN: "Mamma Mia" became a monster hit in New York and all around the globe, says Nina Lannan, the show's general manager in North America.

Ms. NINA LANNAN (General Manager, "Mamma Mia"): We found there was incredible repeat business with "Mamma Mia" and that people will see the show in one city and want to go see it with another group of people in another city.

(Soundbite of "Mamma Mia" production)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Spectators of the show always staying low.

LUNDEN: And Ben Brantley of The New York Times says when other Broadway producers looked at "Mamma Mia," they thought they saw a formula for success. So in the last four years, several jukebox musicals have come and gone on Broadway.

Mr. BRANTLEY: I think it's the most creatively bankrupt time probably in the history of theater that's going on right now. I think it costs so much to produce a Broadway musical at this point that producers are scared to try anything that they don't feel has been previously tested. I think there's the sense that, `Oh, come on. It worked once. It's got to work again.'

LUNDEN: Gordon Cox, theater reporter for Variety, says developing a show around well-known pop songs makes good business sense, especially if you're catering to a generation of aging baby boomers who can afford $100 a ticket.

Mr. GORDON COX (Theater Reporter, Variety): People know Billy Joel songs. People know ABBA songs. It's the hook that can get people into a theater.

(Soundbite of "Movin' Out")

LUNDEN: "Movin' Out," the musical centered around Billy Joel's songs, has been the most successful of the post-"Mamma Mia" jukebox musicals. In it, director-choreographer Twyla Tharpe has created dances that convey stories of Vietnam-era disillusionment, while an on-stage band recreates Billy Joel's hit tunes. Ben Brantley says it works.

Mr. BRANTLEY: Twyla Tharpe is such a particular talent, and she actually found depth in those songs that I never even knew existed.

(Soundbite of "Movin' Out")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) And it seems such a waste of time, if that's what it's all about. Mama, if that's movin' up, then I'm movin' out.

LUNDEN: But "Movin' Out's" success proved the exception. "Lennon," a biographical musical using mostly John Lennon's post-Beatles songs, was a quick flop. And "All Shook Up," which used Elvis Presley tunes, and "Good Vibrations," which used Beach Boys hits, each lasted only a few months. Ben Brantley says it turns out the formula is hard to replicate.

Mr. BRANTLEY: "Good Vibrations" was probably everyone's idea of a low point, and that took--seems like, `Hey, all we have to throw these songs on the stage, we'll come up with the dopiest script in the world to connect it, but don't pay too much attention to it.'

LUNDEN: Michael David was a lead producer on "Good Vibrations." He says he chooses properties based on what he wants to see.

Mr. MICHAEL DAVID (Producer, "Good Vibrations"): It's an assumption that producers of theater on Broadway sit around and rub their hands together thinking how they're going to make a lot of money. I mean, the appeal of Broadway is so much closer to heroine than it is to high finance. I mean, you're either hooked on it or you're not. This is a really stupid thing to do for a living. It is dangerous, speculative, unwelcoming, expensive. I mean, we want to make a compelling and an entertaining evening first for ourselves, and then God knows, because we've raised some money to sort of do it, we hope it pleases others.

(Soundbite of "Jersey Boys")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Sherry...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sherry. Sherry, baby.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) ...baby.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sherry, baby.

LUNDEN: Michael David and his fellow producers are banking on their newest project to please a lot of others. "Jersey Boys" is a $7 3/4 million show centered on the songs of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. One of the show's co-authors, Rick Elice, used to be a theater marketing executive, and he says the score has built-in audience appeal.

Mr. RICK ELICE (Former Theater Marketing Executive): The Four Seasons' records were sold in huge numbers, 125 million records in the tristate area, and 50 million records in Holland and Germany and a comparable amount in the UK. And these are also, of course, you know, major theater markets. So just from a marketing exploitation point of view, we thought that that was something that was worth noting.

(Soundbite of "Jersey Boys")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Sherry, can you come out tonight?

LUNDEN: The producers of "Jersey Boys" are reaching out to a non-traditional Broadway audience by running ads on oldies stations in New Jersey, and the show itself is kind of like a live-action "VH1: Behind the Music" episode. It tells the story of The Four Seasons' rise to fame from street-corner punks to superstars. Co-author Rick Elice says the group's tunes are used in a biographical context.

Mr. ELICE: The songs themselves, of course, are not created for our show, so they don't push the story forward in a way that they would in a Sondheim musical, but they do move the story forward because they appear as an element in the story-telling that at the point that this was happening to them, this is what they were performing. This is what they were doing in the studio.

(Soundbite of "Jersey Boys")

LUNDEN: Regardless of how the show fares, there are other jukebox musicals in the offing. A show based on the songs of Johnny Cash is opening on Broadway in February, and Twyla Tharpe is working on a Bob Dylan show. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of "Jersey Boys")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Big girls don't cry. Big girls don't cry.

INSKEEP: If you choose, you can hear more songs from "Jersey Boys" at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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