Tony Awards 2024: How ‘Illinoise’ and ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Put a New Spin on the Jukebox Musical | Commentary

Most theater artists are about as excited to have their show called a “jukebox musical” as literary novelists are when told they’ve written a “beach read.” Even if it’s a form that’s still embraced by audiences, it’s hard to get a jukebox musical to be taken seriously.

Some artists don’t care – Broadway still sees its share of by-the-numbers bio-musicals (most recently the Neil Diamond musical “A Beautiful Noise”) and greatest hits compilations (the current “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” fueled by the Huey Lewis & the News canon). Others take slightly more modern approaches – “Moulin Rouge” is more a mixtape musical, with the original Baz Luhrmann movie’s song selections expanded (or bloated) upon for the Broadway stage. Or you get the Spotify Playlist musicals, like “&Juliet,” which basically takes your favorite pop of the ’90s and 2000s and gives it a story about Shakespeare. (Somehow, it works.)

This season, two shows are aiming at more than that, trying to fit pre-existing songs into new forms in original (or semi-original) ways: Justin Peck’s “Illinoise,” nominated for four Tony Awards Sunday, including Best Musical and Best Choreography for Peck, and “Hell’s Kitchen,” the Best Musical-nominated production featuring Alicia Keys songs.

“Illinoise” is New York City Ballet star Peck’s own reinvention of Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album of the same name. So is it a jukebox musical? Certainly, only the saddest café in America would ever play these songs on its jukebox. And there’s a tension about the word “musical” itself – is a show a musical when the band sings it and dancers act it?

Peck and his cowriter on the story, Jackie Sibbllies Drury, have given them more constraints than most, sticking to songs from a single album that has no plot in and of itself. You can tell there’s a love for the source material – perhaps too much love. Instead of using the songs as a springboard, they often tether themselves to the lyrics, creating a story that in a generous view is nonsensical and in a less generous view is gibberish. To shoehorn in as many songs as possible, the structure is an awkward half-and-half, with the first half dedicated to a Canterbury Tales-like writing group in the woods (this is as hackneyed and improbable as it sounds) where dancers playing no discernible characters act out scenarios from the more out-there songs on “Illinoise.” It is unlikely that anyone listening to Stevens’ devastating “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” has ever thought to themselves, “I hope to one day see this on stage with a dancer in a clown costume fake-murdering other dancers dressed as children.” That kind of literalism isn’t really what Stevens’ songs are about. What makes his songs so remarkable is how he uses just the right words and details to elevate the emotion and connection to a higher plane of thought. Yes, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is about a serial killer who dressed as a clown, but it’s much more about the fear we have inside ourselves about ourselves. Peck pushes the song back down from the higher plane, into the details.

Stevens, meanwhile, is both present and not present. The thing that makes the production rise most above jukebox status is that there’s no effort made to imitate his distinctive vocal stylings. Instead, the stellar trio of vocalists (Elijah Lyons, Shara Nova and Tasha Viets-VanLear) make the songs their own, in their own haunting and moving way. But the story is less free from that, particularly when the protagonist of the second half, Henry (danced by Ricjy Ubeda) arrives into the woods dressed in a baseball cap, T-shirt and button-down, looking a whole lot like … Sufjan Stevens. This creates a strange and unnecessary tension between fiction and (auto?)biography.

Ultimately, Peck is too respectful to make the songs his own, but too insistent on cobbling together a Frankenstein narrative on it. The show’s success relies upon the audience dismantling their prior associations to the songs and also their sense of story and narrative in order to focus on the moment-by-moment emotions that the dancing evokes.

If Sufjan Stevens is at a remove in “Illinoise,” Grammy winner Alicia Keys is front and center in “Hell’s Kitchen.” This show does have songs you’d find on a jukebox – but it, too, resists the usual jukebox form. The musical, featuring music and lyrics by Keys and a book by Kristoffer Diaz, is based on Keys’ life, but instead of going grand-scale, it focuses on a very narrow stretch of her life, when she was 17 and living with her single mom in New York City’s Riverside Apartments, public housing for artists.

The plot is hardly groundbreaking – Ali (a forceful debut by Maleah Joi Moon) falls in love with the wrong boy, who might be the right boy. Her mom doesn’t want her falling too hard or too fast. Ali and Mom have a falling out. Ali and her love interest, Knuck, have sweet moments and miscommunications. There’s a tense altercation with the police. And Ali discovers herself at the piano, under the tutelage of a no-nonsense teacher who sings like Nina Simone.

What’s interesting here is Keys’ choice to not only use songs from her debut album, released when she was 20, but also songs from the next two decades. It creates an interesting lens through which to consider her later work: Even when writing in our 20s or 30s or 40s, aren’t we still in some way writing about the emotions we felt when we were teenagers? “Hell’s Kitchen,” nominated a whopping 13 times going into Sunday’s 77th Tony Awards, makes a strong argument for the affirmative.

So what sells “Hell’s Kitchen” is something that “Illinoise” lacks: a sense of personality. In no small part because of the performances of the actors, the show is powered by sheer personality – basically, the force of personality in Keys’ songs interpreted outward.

There are also surprises, as Keys and Diaz decide to not throw too much weight onto the big hits. “Fallin’” – the song most associated with Keys’ debut – is given not to Ali but to her feuding-and-flirting parents, in a jazzy reinterpretation that steps far, far away from jukebox replication. “Empire State of Mind” is more of a coda than a climax. And the song that packs the biggest punch – and gets the loudest ovation – is the fairly obscure “Perfect Way to Die,” given to Ali’s music teacher (sung by a remarkable Kecia Lewis) as a first-act closer.

As a result, it doesn’t feel like a theatricalized greatest-hits show, but instead a sincere coming-of-age musical written from a loving distance.

In fact, what probably best unifies “Illinoise” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” and what sets them apart from more machinelike jukebox peers, is their sincerity. Neither one coasts on the joy you get hearing your favorite songs. “Illinoise” asks you to do some work (there’s a lot to read in the program ahead of time if you want to understand the story in a human way) while “Hell’s Kitchen” relies on you being able to remember what it was like to be 17, whether you were listening to Alicia Keys songs or not.

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