Rock was meant for the stage. But, there’s a fine line between a stadium stage and Broadway theater stage, and in the past 50 years, the rock musical has evolved from commodity to cultural mainstay. Encompassing both jukebox musicals (that use previously released songs as the soundtrack) and original shows with music composed by popular artists, this trend has become an undeniably cash-corralling form of performance.
Of course, this doesn’t even begin to cover musicals that maintain traditional form and structure while using mainstream genres as inspiration in their scores like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent and In The Heights.
At their worst, jukebox and rock musicals have become kitschy reinterpretations of fans’ favorite songs and albums (sorry, Mamma Mia). When utilized well, however, pop-musican-penned musicals offer expansive creative canvases for the artists, as well as intensify the impact of both the story and the music for theatergoers. Check out these eight musical theater shows with rocking scores.
Artist: Tupac Shakur
Playbill just announced a casting call for an upcoming musical tentatively titled, Holler If Ya Hear Me that will use the music of Tupac Shakur. Three-time Tony winner Kenny Leon is slated to direct the performance. Even though Holler is still in the works, it has the potential for greatness… or utter disaster.
Music: Buddy Holly
As one of the first jukebox musicals, Buddy-The Buddy Holly Story paved the way for other shows that utilized pop music soundtracks. Buddy ran in the West End in London for 12 years and saw moderate success stateside.
Music: Karen O
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman deserves some recognition for her progressive production. Though her “psycho opera” only had a limited run in Brooklyn last October, it was well received and footage from the show is still leaking.
Music: David Bryan (Bon Jovi)
Even though Memphis tells a story loosely based on Tennessee DJ Dewey Phillips (one of the first people to play R&B and soul music on the radio), Bon Jovi’s classically trained, New Jersey-born keyboardist wrote the score to the Southern-style musical. Memphis also won Tonys for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Music and Best Orchestrations.
Music: Elton John
Broadway’s seventh longest-running show in history would not be where it is now without Elton John’s perfect musical accompaniment. Even those who didn’t grow up singing along with “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” still connect with the music. Elton’s songs and score sonically complete the visually stimulating, Tony award-winning stage show.
Music: Duncan Sheik
Based on the 1892 German play of the same name, Spring Awakening was often hailed as the next Rent. The difference was that alternative singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik, known for his 1998 hit “Barely Breathing,” composed the score to this moving coming of age story. Spring Awakening won three Tonys including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score.
Music: Green Day
Green Day bringing a political rock opera to Broadway was such a preposterous idea that it passed the threshold of pretentiousness to become punk rock again. The trio’s 2004 album surprised everyone with its socially aware themes, putting the band back on pop music’s radar. Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong even played the lead role for a few special performances.
Music: The Who
The Who’s Tommy is the pinnacle of rock opera. Through different incarnations—transitioning from the original1969 double LP, to the 1975 film, to Broadway—it has maintained its original story, attitude and music, while crossing through different forms of media over time.