x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Thank you for the musicals

The recent rise of rock musicals has ensured that many rock greats continue to survive on stage.

It's going to be a classic scene. Actors playing the parts of Run-DMC's Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell stroll onto the stage, and a member of the cast asks them why they're cruising down this particular street in Queens, New York, weighed down by hip-hop jewellery. "Well," Simmons will say, pointing at a bawdy street vendor, "she told me to... WALK THIS WAY!". And with that the thumping drum-loop that heralds their 1986 remake of the Aerosmith song will suddenly pound the Broadway theatre. Magic.

OK, so such a scene isn't written quite yet, but news of work beginning on a Run-DMC stage musical is absolutely true. The hip-hop trio, widely regarded for bringing rap to the masses in the 1980s, is to have its story immortalised on stage. You can only hope it does the group justice: the remaining members have had to endure Mizell's murder, after all. Paula Wagner might have told The New York Times that she is involved because the group's rise to rap fame was "innately theatrical", but musicals are not particularly renowned for their subtlety. Or, if truth be told, credibility. They are, in fact, a bit silly.

Take American Idiot - the stage musical version of Green Day's best-selling 2004 album, which is just receiving its first reviews off Broadway. Michael Mayer has broadened out a character from the record and given the narrative an Iraq-war/death of the American dream subtext. It's even got frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's seal of approval. Although it wasn't a particularly good sign when he added: "It doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's what I love about it."

Armstrong, unwittingly, hit the nail right on the head when it comes to rock musicals. They don't make sense. Trying to crowbar a story around Abba songs might have been great fun in Mamma Mia!, both on stage and on film, but really it's just an excuse to sing along to old favourites such as Dancing Queen without having to go and see a slightly sad tribute band. In fact, the increasingly ridiculous ways Mamma Mia! fits in Abba's songs is surely half the fun: there's something brilliantly pantomime about Christine telling the attractive man on the beach she can't take a chance on a kid like him during Does Your Mother Know.

Mamma Mia! is so good humoured, it works. But if there's ever a film version of the Queen musical We Will Rock You, the sniggering will come from the contrived plot rather than the tongue-in-cheek performances. Ben Elton is a well-respected writer, responsible for book, television and West End hits. But why he decided to create a dystopian future where a reincarnation of Freddie Mercury can take on a world of clones and bring back humanity via multimillion-selling Queen songs was beyond nearly all critics. Still, anyone who has the baddie (the Killer Queen, naturally) defeated to the strains of We Are the Champions deserves plaudits for sheer nerve alone. And what did the critics know - it's now the longest-running musical at the Dominion Theatre in London's West End.

Such endeavours, where entire shows are hewn from the music of one band, now have a genre all of their own: the jukebox musical. Indeed, since the success of Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You, there's been a deluge of them. A fan of Madness? Try Our House. Not sure that listening to a Beach Boys album will recreate the 1960s? Get tickets for Good Vibrations. Even Take That have Never Forget - although seeing as it references their cheesy boy band past, maybe they would quite like to.

But the reason why Run-DMC The Musical might just work is that it comes from the same stock as the daddy of all these jukebox musicals: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. That 1989 production was a success because not only did it have the tunes, it had the story. Buddy Holly's true-life story, in fact. And similarly, Paula Wagner has promised to tell the actual tale of Run-DMC's rise to fame, becoming the first hip-hop act to hit the mainstream in the 1980s along the way.

That should mean a fascinating tale of hip-hop (and therefore American culture itself) as Joseph Simmons is taken under his brother Russell's wing. He DJs and rhymes with the early rap star Kurtis Blow, takes his band's own sparse songs out of the Hollis park where they made them, and finally melds hip-hop with rock. Oh, and along the way completely transforms popular music. So perhaps Wagner is right: maybe there is a proper, theatrical story to be told here. And even if she does end up playing it for laughs, at least she'll be able to say, in the words of Run-DMC: "It's like that - and that's the way it is."

* Ben East