On the State of the "Rock" Musical

For my day job, I teach theater at a university in Pennsylvania. So, my ear is pretty tied to the ground on what's going on the Great White Way. From Green Day's American Idiot to Julie Taymor/Bono/The Edge's Spiderman: Turn off the Dark (hands down one of the WORST titles of all time) to Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening to the soon-to-be-closed Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, the rock musical has become something of a staple onto the landscape and with news today that Colin Meloy of the Decemberists is working on a musical in Butte, Montana during the turn of the century, well...I've gotta throw in two cents on this "phenomenon."

Let's start here. There's nothing new about a rock musical. Hair, originally produced in 1967 at the Public in NYC, is often cited as the first rock musical. But it began hardly as the phenomenon that it is often seen as today. It failed in a run a rock club on Broadway and only after substantial restaging that played up the kitsch (and nudity) did the musical "make it" on Broadway in 1968. Prompting one B-way producer to remark to critic William Gibson that "Now there will be a ton of shitty rock musicals." And there were. And there are.

One of the things that's fascinating to me is how we often discount the musical, but it deserves placement at the forefront of cultural achievements of the United States along with things like the Blues, Abstract Expressionism, and Rock and Roll. The musical is an incredibly American hybridized artform relying on the collective efforts and cohesion of numerous entities from designers to actors, directors to dancers, lyricists to the chorus line. In many ways the musical was one of the first experimental theater genres of the United States -- look Agnes De Mille's "Dream Ballet" from Oklahoma! and tell me that isn't trippy.

This cohesion is based on one thing: story. As any Intro to Theater student knows, what separates a musical from other genres of drama is a strong book, or script that the other elements -- songs, design, etc. -- enhance, enrich, and enlighten. The recent trend (over the past 20 years or so) of the jukebox musical, shows like Lost Highway (based around the music of Hank Williams) or Love, Janis (based on Janis Joplin), have transformed the idea of the musical into a reliving of an artists work based (kinda) around their life but based more around the music. The effect is like a live greatest hits collection without the people who sang or wrote the songs originally. Other works (not jukebox musicals) like Fela (based on Fela Kuti) or Movin' Out (Billy Joel) are reimaginations of the music with the primary storytelling element of dance. These, strictly put, are not musicals, but an attempt at re-contextualizing and re-experiencing in a different way established music.

Musicals, then, are quite different from albums. Because the storytelling is different. And in repackaging an album to create a musical almost negates the precedent set by 100 years of musical theater in this country. See American Idiot whose emphasis is on the songs but cohesive because of the spectacle. Pastiche has become the foundational language substituting experience for story.

And this is where we come to the real hitch of Broadway. Unlike most other theater in this country, Broadway is focused on one thing -- profit. As a result, everything that gets put out there is there to sell not for some sort of cultural profit but for a monetary one. It's been a really tough season on Broadway. By January, every show that opened on Broadway this season will have closed. Again, a response to the economics rather than the cultural value. Julie Taymor's Spiderman with it's oversized budget will have to play for 5 years, SOLD OUT, to turn a profit. And, at the rate that it keeps harming cast members, that seems like a risky proposition. I don't begrudge anyone for trying to make money. However, the question remains to me -- at service to what? As much as my emotions are mixed about shows like Rent or Spring Awakening, the fact is that there is a story at the heart of all the hoopla. Rent, in particular, has questionable motives with its cultural tourism of the AIDS crisis in NYC, but you have to hand it to them for concocting a story that justifies its music and fanfare.

At service to what are we seeing musicians dive into the Broadway fray? At service to story or to spectacle? To art or capital? Colin Meloy will have to answer that to me before I buy a ticket.


  1. you should produce Anais' Hadestown

  2. American Idiot was a shameless attempt to capitalize on the success of Spring Awakening; I've heard it was a lesser clone of it in many ways.

    Anyway, I am an unabashed lover of Next to Normal and Spring Awakening; the genre of 'rock' musicals as a whole isn't worthless. I hope that Broadway learns something from Spiderman crashing and burning, though.

  3. Unfortunately, your frustration with Broadways focus on profit really echoes most American Pop Culture at this point. Films, TV, popular music... It only gets made if it is expected to make money. It's sad.