Which brings us to the unlikely developments of the recent Broadway season. The genre rebooted itself creatively thanks to a surprisingly strong lineup of new songbook shows in the 2009-2010 season. The season's high point came with the première of "Fela!" the life story of Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti, directed by Bill T. Jones, that was first originated off-Broadway in 2008. "Fela!" has strenuously avoided packaging itself as a jukebox musical, and indeed the unique portrait of this musical legend produces a kinetic blast of energy that feels less canned than most songbook shows.
So what are the common denominators in this creative renaissance? While none of this new crop of songbook musicals are unabashed artistic triumphs, they do share unique qualities. One theme is their ability to soak audiences in the musical spirit of the pop artists to which they're paying tribute, which creates the same visceral feel as a rock concert, but with added dramatic tension.
These shows also succeed in capturing the throbbing pulse of a specific time and place in history. "Million Dollar Quartet" imagines what transpired during one of rock music's most fabled jam sessions when Sun Records founder Sam Phillips corralled Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. While the country-fried script has its formulaic moments, the show is surprisingly moving and full of little frissons of excitement. Plus, there's no denying the rousing energy of the performances (including rock classics such as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "Great Balls of Fire").