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What’s Broadway Got to Do With It? More Pop Musicals

Put the blame on Abba.

Does the wall-to-wall lineup of jukebox musicals dominating New York stages this season make you feel like cursing? Direct your angry thoughts toward the creators of “Mamma Mia!,” that goofy Broadway show from 2001 about a Greek island wedding, with a score consisting entirely of recycled Abba hits.

Sure, there had been jukebox musicals before — mostly tribute acts and revues with self-explanatory names (“Beatlemania,” “Elvis”). But it was the runaway success of “Mamma Mia!” — which became comfort food entertainment for New York theatergoers during the aftermath of Sept. 11 — that sent theater-makers scrambling to copy its template of wedging pre-existing pop favorites into an unlikely story line.

The floodgates opened to a deluge of imitators that seemed to expand every year. (The far from complete Wikipedia list of previous jukebox musicals since the turn of this century borders on 100, as opposed to a mere 18 from the last three decades of the 20th century.)

It seems especially fitting that the first big new Broadway musical of the 2019-20 season is “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which opened in late July and looks like a palpable hit. Here is a work that combines in one glitzy package the two most flagrant formulas of Xerox creativity on Broadway: theater inspired by films and musicals with back-catalog scores.

But wait. Against general expectations, “Moulin Rouge!” turned out to be more than the standard, cut-and-paste assemblage of pre-used parts. Directed by Alex Timbers, with a book by John Logan, this sumptuously appointed production is a sort of Platonic ideal of the mass-produced jukebox show. Like Baz Luhrmann’s film, it’s a witty commentary on the inescapability of pop music in our romantic memories.

Or that was my experience of the musical. (There are also critics who dismissed it as a deluxe version of business as usual.) The point is that there may actually be room for innovation and even illumination within a form widely regarded as the artistic equivalent of kudzu. And shocked and chagrined as I am by the relative paucity of new music on Broadway, I now realize that there’s more than one way to build a jukebox. And that just occasionally one of its breed might surprise me.

That was certainly the case when I saw two earlier versions (in London and Off Broadway) of “Girl From the North Country,” a brooding musical structured around the work of Bob Dylan, which begins previews in February at the Belasco Theater on Broadway. As written and directed by the great Irish playwright Conor McPherson (“The Weir,” “The Night Alive”), this show is the opposite of a feel-good singalong.

Set in a Minnesota boardinghouse during the Great Depression, “Girl From the North Country” places Dylan songs, familiar and otherwise, among an assortment of itinerant souls who feel like, well, rolling stones. The astonishment for me was how naturally these songs fit into the context of a desperate, rudderless America of some 80 years ago, underscoring the free-floating anxiety and restlessness that imbues Mr. Dylan’s work.

Working in a similar vein is “Jagged Little Pill,” which began life last year at the American Repertory Theater in Boston and arrives in November at the Broadhurst Theater. Featuring a book by the Academy Award-winning scriptwriter Diablo Cody and directed by Diane Paulus, “Pill” weaves songs from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album of the same title into a portrait of a suburban family riven by topical ills that include opiate addiction, racism and sexual assault.

My colleague Jesse Green, who saw it in Boston, found the show a bit “overwrought.” But, he added, it “takes on the good work we are always asking new musicals to do: the work of singing about real things.” This from a reviewer who has called the jukebox form “the cockroach of Broadway.”

Admittedly, Mr. Green was in that instance referring specifically to a jukebox subgenre, the bio-musical, which uses singers’ chart-toppers to trace the arcs of their careers, the most recent Broadway example being “The Cher Show.” This season brings us “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” a hit in London (directed by Phyllida Lloyd of “Mamma Mia!”), where I saw it last summer.

Featuring a script by the American playwright Katori Hall, “Tina” dutifully honors the now classic bio-musical outline and its clichés: adversity, success, more adversity, triumph (or collapse) before the final curtain. “Tina” is squarely in the tradition of such “Behind the Music”-style Broadway fare as “Jersey Boys” (the Four Seasons musical) and “Beautiful” (the Carole King musical).

But like those shows, its cookie-cutter outlines allow for the possibility of a transcendent star performance, one that pushes past note-by-note impersonation into idiosyncratic portraiture. That was what was delivered by John Lloyd Young, as Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys”; Jessie Mueller, channeling Ms. King in “Beautiful,” and, last season, Stephanie J. Block as Cher.

They all won fully deserved Tonys for their interpretations. On the basis of her performance in London, I’m happy to say that Adrienne Warren’s Tina would seem to belong in that company.

The enduringly and endearingly off-center composer and performer David Byrne will be playing his elusive self in “American Utopia,” a staged version of his 2018 solo album directed by Mr. Timbers (yes, from “Moulin Rouge”). But don’t expect this production, which begins previews at the Hudson Theater in October, to be merely an animated answer to Spotify any more than Bruce Springsteen’s triumphant one-man Broadway show of 2017 was.

Mr. Byrne said in a recent interview that though “American Utopia” is quite different from “Springsteen on Broadway,” he had been encouraged by seeing how Mr. Springsteen, in the show’s first five minutes, “disarmed any audience expectations that this was going to be a concert.”

In other words, keep your mind wide open. Sometimes even a jukebox can spread its mechanical wings and soar beyond expectations.

Top art, from left: Peter Bischoff/Getty Images (Abba); Brian Rasic/Getty Images (Alanis Morissette); Jim Dyson/Getty Images (David Byrne); Luca Bruno/Associated Press (Tina Turner); Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Bob Dylan); Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images (Lady Gaga); Kevin Winter/Getty Images (Beyoncé, Katy Perry); Harry Langdon/Getty Images (Cher)

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