Seriously, what were y’all doing in the ’80s:
More importantly, why’d we’d ever stop?
Speaking of Whitney Houston, since Broadway might be on the brink of going to the jukebox dogs, Nippy’s one of the few artists who I actually want to see given the catalogue treatment, with one ginormous condition:
Break free of the proscenium.
One of my fondest jukebox memories in recent years — a low bar, I assure you — was the end of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’s first act (a great example of how SEO marketing run amok can spit out laughably bland titles). Surrounded by a feverous Saturday night crowd (see what I did there?), the run of “On the Radio” into “I Love You” into “BAD GIRLS” INTO “SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY”!!!; I’m not joking, it was too much goodness for us drunks to handle. People were cheering, whooping, hollering, singing along, dancing in OR ON their seats and/or in the aisles and/or with each other.
And need I remind you, IT WASN’T EVEN THE END OF THE SHOW. Mamma Mia popularized the shindig-capping concert where the story gives way to greatest-hits revelry for all involved — which of course Summer also included, because it was a jukebox stuffed with nothing but clichés to choose — but the latter’s Act 1 rave was live-theatre organic.
The fact that it was the highlight of the show should’ve keyed the creators into structuring the entire shebang around it. Instead of devolving back into a traditional biographical book musical, sapping any built-up momentum, what if they had harnessed the energy that only the Queen of Disco could evoke THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE MUSICAL. Which would entail getting the audience on their dancing feet.
Which is where the proscenium comes in.
Or, should I say, ideally goes out.
Summer’s uninspired book-scenes stifled the kineticism of its titular star’s tunes, while unconventionally-staged musicals like K-Pop and Here Lies Love channel that pop vitality quite literally into the audience’s legs. By forcing us off our asses to move through the space throughout, the songs can course through our loins, pulsating to the beat. Imagine the reaction when “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” booms through those speakers; if I thought Donna‘s seated partygoers went buck wild, oh baby, this would be on another level.
Though finding a warehouse-type environment off-Broadway would be the obvious place to produce it, investors might prefer the established profitability of Broadway, targeting mutable houses like Circle in the Square or the Vivian Beaumont (this sort of experience at Lincoln Center would be a much-needed mishmash to their customary demographic identity). Heck, if social distancing is here to stay, all Broadway theaters would be wise to look into reconfiguring their seating arrangements (and immersive shows allow for social distancing more than most).
AND, this approach would merge style and substance. Taking a page from art like Wolf of Wall Street and — more dancing Travolta alert! — Saturday Night Fever, when telling Whitney’s story, nailing the appeal of the lifestyle that came with her brand of fame could hammer home its glorious yet toxic push-pull. Immersing us in the glitz and glam of her career will remind us why we loved Whitney and why she gravitated towards such accolades, and yet our need for her to give us a good time leads too easily to an all-encompassing obsession. And too much of a good thing can really backfire, as Whitney’s demise illustrates.
What drew us to her also spelled her downfall, and the bliss/pain that comes with dancing all night would be central to both the audience’s experience and their understanding of Whitney’s rise and plummet. When partying and providing the party is your job, it can become your whole life, and a life of nothing but parties can spell exhaustion and, eventually, doom.
An immersive Whitney jukebox musical would compel us to gyrate like Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis, but in the back of our minds, we should be aware of the ultimate downsides to wanting, or even needing, to dance with somebody all life long.