The Rock Musical
If your idea of musical theatre is limited to yellow brick roads and creepy masked vocal coaches chillin’ in French opera houses, it’s time to broaden your Broadway horizons. Enter the Rock Musical. This genre has been kickin’ around since the 60s. From jukebox shows to full-fledged rock operas, the rock musical changed the face of Broadway, bringing an exciting new sound and aesthetic to the musical theatre stage.
Here are five iconic rock musicals – none of which involve magic jeweled footwear or falling chandeliers:
HAIR – book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, music by Galt MacDermot
HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical premiered off-Broadway in 1967. It tells the story of a tribe of young, politically active hippies living in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War. A number of the musical’s songs became anthems for Anti-Vietnam War peace movements. HAIR includes a nude scene at the end of Act I, inspired by two men who disrobed to antagonize police during an anti-war gathering. The scene has been the source of much controversy, prompting threats of censorship in the original production’s early years.
The Rocky Horror Show – book, music, and lyrics by Richard O’Brien
The Rocky Horror Show opened in London in 1973. The show parodies a number of movie genres: horror, science fiction, and B movies. The musical tells the story of Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, a newly engaged couple, who take refuge from a storm in the home of a mad transvestite scientist. The stage musical was adapted into the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show which has the longest running release in film history.
Jesus Christ Superstar – music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice
Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera about, you guessed it, Jesus Christ. The show started out as a rock opera concept recording before being staged on Broadway in 1971. It follows Jesus during his last week of life, adhering to the traditional form of the Passion play. Various elements of 20th century language and imagery appear in the show, particularly in the musical’s depiction of political events. A film adaptation, directed by Norman Jewison, was released in 1973 and was the eighth highest-grossing film of that year. It was shot in Israel and other Middle Eastern locations.
The Who’s TOMMY – book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, music and lyrics by Pete Townshend
TOMMY is based on The Who’s 1969 double album rock opera of the same name. The stage musical premiered in California in 1992. It centres around young Tommy Walker who, after witnessing a traumatic event, is rendered deaf, dumb, and blind as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite his disabilities, Tommy has an inexplicable talent for pinball, making him a local celebrity. The Toronto production of The Who’s TOMMY opened at the Elgin Theatre in 1995 and featured an all-Canadian cast.
RENT – book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
RENT played a huge role in the resurgence of the rock musical in the 90s. Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, the musical follows a group of New Yorkers as they deal with love and loss amidst the AIDS epidemic of the early 90s. RENT premiered off-Broadway in 1994 and won four Tony Awards, six Drama Desk Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2005, the musical was made into a film directed by Chris Columbus of Harry Potter fame.