Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Broadway Rocks -- Featuring a Playlist of Rocking Tunes from Musicals of Fairly Recent Vintage

The musical theater genre--colloquially known as Broadway, given its pinnacle locale--existed far before the advent of rock and roll.

And even after rock rose in the mid-1950s, for quite awhile the two idioms rarely overlapped.

1957's West Side Story focused on youth culture, and 1960's Bye Bye Birdie was acutely inspired by Elvis Presley, but neither musical could really be said to rock.

It seems that the counter-cultural phenomenon, Hair, which opened on Broadway in 1968, merits being considered the first rock musical, but it's not like a slew quickly followed.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, the early musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber--Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, all 3 with lyrics penned by Tim Rice--are quite rock-oriented, having begun as concept albums perhaps inspired by The Who's Tommy, the first rock opera on vinyl.

There was a sprinkling of other rock-infused musicals in the '70s and '80s--Godspell, Grease, The Wiz and Chess--among them, but it was a handful of prominent shows in the 1990s that really helped strengthen the connection.

Presented onstage for the first time, The Who's Tommy had a nice run on Broadway beginning in 1993, and three years later, the massively successful Rent likely became the most notable rock musical ever, especially among those with songs written specifically for the theater.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch--its lead character seeming inspired by David Bowie, who along with Alice Cooper, T-Rex, KISS, Meat Loaf and others, helped make rock concerts far more theatrical--opened Off-Broadway (a Broadway staging wouldn't take place until 2014).

And with its smash London bow in 1999, Mamma Mia--featuring the songs of ABBA--firmly established the jukebox musical, by which Broadway musicals are created and marketed around well-known songs and artists, typically from the rock canon. (The show hit Broadway in 2001 and has toured everywhere).

From the terrific Jersey Boys chronicling the Four Seasons to the kitschy fun Rock of Ages, featuring tunes by Journey, Def Leppard and more, to myriad others of varying degrees of creative merit--see a list of Jukebox Musicals on Wikipedia--these shows have made rock music fairly ubiquitous within the parlance of musical theater.

I don't mind a good jukebox musical--Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is terrific theater--and though I still predominantly love rock music, as I always have, I also unabashedly love more traditional Broadway scores, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb, Bock & Harnick, Boublil & Schönberg, Stephen Sondheim and many others.

Although I was indoctrinated to Broadway as a child, I didn't really get into it as an adult until around the year 2000. And part of the reason for that was because in terms of new music by new artists, rock and roll had left me somewhat cold.

In large part--again referencing anything new, not legends playing live--it still does.

So beyond the jukebox musicals, it has been interesting and fun to note how rock music has made its way into original musicals, particularly over the past dozen years.

To highlight this, I have put together the Spotify playlist below, featuring rock-infused songs from Dear Evan Hansen--I just saw it last week--and many other shows, essentially dating back to Spring Awakening from late 2006.

I did include one song from the the 2014 Broadway production of Hedwig starring Neil Patrick Harris, but otherwise have limited this to songs from shows of the past dozen years or so.

So no HairRent, Hairspray, etc., and I also avoided Jukebox Musicals. These are all tunes written for the shows they originated in. I think it makes for a nice listen and while some songs could fairly be described as "rock-ish," at least a few could really compete with most modern rock tunes.

Though he didn't fit into my explanation above, I think Elton John should be mentioned in terms of the merging of rock and musicals. He composed the music for several successful shows--The Lion King (initially the movie), Aida, Billy Elliot--and also Lestat.

I didn't including anything from Sir Elton in the playlist--some Billy Elliot tunes rock pretty well but are highly intertwined with show dialogue--but his success, critically and commercially, has likely helped blur the line between rock and Broadway.

Perhaps I should delve into the songs, musicals and songwriters represented in the playlist, but I think you can get the gist from listening, and noting the origins of anything you really like. It's not intended to be exhaustive, but feel free to let me know of anything it would seem I should've included. 

Enjoy the playlist. You can play it below, but if you need help finding it on Spotify, be in touch.

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