Any Broadway producer could tell you that musical theater is not everyone’s cup of tea. So could any West End theatre show director.

Too bad he likes musical theatre – Tallulah, from Dr Who, episode The Daleks in Manhattan

By that statement, ‘the showgirl’ presumes that one must be of a certain type to enjoy musicals; an idea that may have been quite prevalent in the 1930s, when that episode was set.

Today, we know all types of people enjoy show tunes and entire shows… probably because of the sheer variety of theatre fare to be enjoyed.

By the way, did you know that the Dr Who writers drew on Phantom of the Opera for inspiration while writing that episode? Did you also know that Phantom is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best-known and best-loved musicals?

Back to the subject at hand, now…

Let’s say you don’t like soaring vocals and sobbing violins and you are really not down with anything that smacks of West Side Story or Lion King.

We’ll take that postulate even further by saying that, as far as you’re concerned, there is no difference between an opera, an operetta, and a musical – in short, the entire spectrum of musical theatre is bunk to you.

I get off on ‘57 Chevys / I get off on a screamin’ guitar – Eric Clapton, Rock’n’roll Heart

If yours is a heart like Slowhand’s, it’s no wonder you don’t queue to buy tickets for Cats or Fiddler on the Roof, but you should experience musical theatre – yes, it is an experience.

The ambiance, the atmosphere, the intricate weaving of song, sight and deed, and how it speaks to its audience on a visceral level…

You know how, just a few sentences ago, mentioned the extraordinary diversity of musical theatre?

Your Superprof assures you there are playwrights, producers, directors and even the occasional choreographer putting shows together expressly for those with rock’n’roll hearts.

Let’s go find them, shall we?

The Genesis of the Rock/Pop Musicals

By the mid-20th century, composers were looking for a new flavour of show
By the mid-20th century, audiences wanted something more than standard Broadway shows Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

You might intuit that music has been a part of theatre production since such productions entertained society, thousands of years ago.

Likewise, you must certainly know that, over the last 200 years or so, such entertainment has changed dramatically.

Musical theatre splintered into many different types of musicals, with the rock/pop musical gaining a foothold in the late 60s, in the US.

Much like the incorrect assumption Tallulah (of Dr Who) made, writing teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein (one of Broadway’s premier composer duos, best known for The Sound of Music – among others) believed that theatre-goers were the type that wanted happy endings and uplifting melodies.

In the UK, Noël Coward and Ivor Novello filled that role.

No matter which side of the ocean, audiences appeared fed up with such fare; ticket sales on both sides of the ocean went on a gradual decline… until Hair.

Hair was outrageous! Hair was new! Hair was a musical the likes of which had never been seen before. It came complete with drug usage, promiscuity, profanity and a racially integrated cast.

It hit Broadway like an unstoppable force, running for a record 1,750 performances and then, it crossed the pond to shock and awe audiences in London during its nearly 2,000 shows.

Hair was My Fair Lady on steroids; far from pining for something that might be ‘loverly’, Hair characters told ‘Enry ‘Iggins exactly where the bus stops and how to get on it.

And then, they broke that hateful phonograph and used the pieces to light a fire.

In short, Hair broke the mold of traditional musical theatre, flinging open the floodgates of style with such abandon and glee that show writers were tripping over themselves to come up with the next bawdy, raucous hit.

Andrew Lloyd Webber soon followed up with Jesus Christ Superstar – although, because it incorporates no dialogue, it is more of a rock opera than a musical.

Still, Superstar’s success conclusively proved that rock music belongs on the London stage (and the Broadway stage, too!)

Throughout the 70s, rock musicals continued to thrill audiences:

  • The Wiz: Wizard of Oz revisited, this time with a lively dance score
  • Dreamgirls tells the story of the early days or Motown; this musical was later made into a film of the same name.
  • Grease: the rollicking saga of life in a 1950s American high school
  • Pippin takes a stab at weaving history with fiction
  • Little Shop of Horrors – who wouldn’t thrill at a carnivorous plant?

Little Shop sang us into the 80s, a time when rock and pop music was undergoing significant changes – the death of disco and the birth of synthesizers; at times it seemed that music itself didn’t know which way to turn.

In all of that turmoil, rock musicals’ popularity waned. The jukebox musical rose up to take its place on centre stage.

If you can't find tickets for a live The Wall show, you can watch a DVD
Pink Floyd's The Wall is music theatre, but it is a rock opera, not a rock musical Image by K-H. Leuders from Pixabay
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The Difference Between Rock Musicals and Rock Opera

Every opera is musical theatre but not every musical is opera – is that a case of splitting hairs?

While the rollicking shows listed above wowed audiences and won Tony Awards, The Who were crafting Tommy, the fatalistic story about a boy who was born supposedly deaf, dumb and blind.

Once every note was in place and every piece rehearsed, the band recorded it and took the show on tour. Neither critics nor bewildered audiences knew quite what to make of it, with some raving it was a masterpiece and others getting downright hostile about it.

Nevertheless, the story took on a life of its own. In spite of the band proclaiming it would never be played again, it caught the attention of several show developers, who went on to adapt it to the musical stage.

What makes Tommy an opera is the lack of dialogue.

In a similar vein comes The Wall, another exploration of isolation and emotional trauma.

Here again, the music tells the story; very little is said. By the end of the show, the audience has experienced everything from the trauma of war to the crushing guilt of failed relationships.

Both Tommy and The Wall started out as concept albums, meaning that every song relates to an overarching theme – or, if you like, is another brick in the...

Now find out how the concept musical differs from concept albums.

Renown Rock/Pop Musicals

Besides the shows mentioned so far, the list of rock and pop musicals is fairly long and certainly well-populated.

The Rocky Horror Show is a rock/pop sensation written by Richard O’Brien. Meant to be a tribute to the B-grade horror movies of the 30s with a bit of sci-fi thrown in, it has since developed a cult following.

Chess, written by Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice with ABBA’s Bjorn and Benny describes a chess face-off during the Cold War. It enjoyed a three-year run in London but fizzled on Broadway.

Admittedly, it had been largely altered to appeal to American musical audiences. Surely it didn’t lose much of its magic in the rewrite… maybe US audiences just didn’t like the concept?

Starlight Express more than made up for the lukewarm reception Chess received.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's credits include The Starlight Express
Andrew Lloyd Webber, creator of Starlight Express, is one of musical theatre's most prolific composers! Image by Erich Westendarp from Pixabay

This Lloyd Webber/Stilgoe collaboration currently holds eighth place on the list of longest running musicals both in West End and on Broadway. Even more impressive: it is the most successful musical in Germany, having run continuously since 1986 in its own, purpose-built theatre.

The story has been told a million times: a steam engine races against newer, sleeker models in the hopes of impressing Pearl, a first class carriage… no double entendre there!

This show’s novelty is that, not only do the performers sing and act, but they do everything on roller skates!

Imagine A Chorus Line or Mean Girls on roller skates… that might make for a pretty terrific musical comedy!

Rent: if you haven’t at least heard about this theatrical sensation, we would sadly have to conclude that your name must be Tommy, or maybe Pink (from Tommy and The Wall, respectively).

Inspiration came from La Bohème but show writer Jonathan Larson gave the story a modern day twist. The end result is a cast of struggling artists trying to make it in New York’s East Village, under the spectre of AIDS.

It started on a small stage in Broadway’s theatre district, eventually moving to a larger stage and playing for 12 years. It took the Tony Award for best musical in 1996, and the Drama Desk Award for best director.

It is unfortunate that Mr Larson died before he could collect his award; he was only 35 years old. Who knows what new musical he could have treated us to had he not been so tragically stricken?

If you missed your chance to see a live performance of Rent, you may consider renting/streaming it. Far from being a film musical, it is a recording of the last time it played on Broadway.

Are you still not convinced you too could become a fan of musicals? Do you need to have ‘rock’ in the title to believe the music and lyric will be rock-flavoured (or pop flavoured, as you wish)?

Try these on, then:

Rock of Ages: often considered more of a jukebox musical because none of its music was written expressly for the show, it features songs from the likes of Twisted Sister, Pat Benatar and Styx, among others.

There is a story connecting all of the songs; in fact, it may also be considered a book musical because the songs are so well integrated into the story.

We Will Rock You – need we even mention Queen?

Bat Out of Hell: as an updated turn to the classic Peter Pan set in a post-apocalyptic New York, Jim Steinman definitely hit his mark. Although this show enjoyed a relatively short run, it nevertheless won several awards.

School of Rock: following the famed film’s storyline, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the music for the stage show; JoAnn Hunter choreographed it. Guess what? It’s still playing in the West End, at the Gillian Lynne Theatre!

We don’t want to give too much of the story line away; maybe by now you’ve had a change of heart, decided musical theatre could indeed be your thing and you want to buy ticket for this show!

Now that you’re keen to know more about the type of music and lyrics that go into making a smash Broadway musical, you should check our list of revue musicals

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