The Broadway rock musical is both a new and old concept. One part being that shows like The Who’s Tommy and Hair were staged long before it became a common practice but thanks to creatives like Jonathan Larson, the rock musical is a much more commonplace thing in the modern era of Broadway. But the question now is this: Why?
Now that audiences have seen the film tick, tick…BOOM! which is a semi-autographical musical about Jonathan Larson’s workshop for his musical Superbia, they should know that we probably wouldn’t have musicals like Spring Awakening or Next to Normal without him paving the way with Rent!. So why is it that rock musicals have a staying power on Broadway? Personally, I think it is because of the subject matter that they can tackle.
Let’s look at tick, tick…BOOM! as a show first. While technically unfinished due to Larson’s untimely death, the musical tackles things such as the AIDs epidemic, poverty in New York City, and the horrors of aging all while tied to a man trying to write the one great song he needs for his musical. Sure, we have different musicals that tackle hard issues but the freedom of a rock musical lends itself more towards topics that are harder to swallow.
Like with Spring Awakening. The Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater musical is based on the play by Frank Wedekind, a German playwright who wrote it in the 1800s. Adapted into a rock musical, the show explores sexuality through its young characters and how a repressed society leads to a character committing suicide, the death of a woman from a horrid abortion, and the continuation of domestic violence towards a young girl because no one wanted to “talk about it.”
The show uses rock music to express the frustration of its characters and their anger is felt through powerful songs like “Mama Who Bore Me,” “The Dark I Know Well,” and, of course, “Totally Fucked.” And it ends up being successful in its storytelling because of its genre of musical theatre.
The same goes with Next to Normal. Diana Goodman is a woman who is lost to the medicine that makes her. When her son dies at a very young age, she’s forced to deal with his loss but instead continues to see her dream boy grow up, even despite having a daughter, Natalie, who is there and alive.
We feel Natalie’s anger with songs like “Everything Else” or Dan’s frustration with his wife with “I Am The One” and that power comes from the rock aspect of these songs. We could have a beautiful moment of pain or sorrow or even that same anger in a song that is a more “traditional” Broadway sound but there is just something so raw about the rock musical that works that keeps audiences coming back.
The staying power of rock musicals doesn’t come from specific shows themselves (even if Rent! did show us that they could sustain themselves on Broadway) but rather because of the freedom they have within their stories. A show like Oklahoma! often leaves audiences with mixed responses because some can go into the show and take away the beautiful songs and miss the commentary it has on things.
If you stopped and looked at the modern trend of musicals, you’d find a healthy mix of genres and tones but there is always at least one rock musical thrown into the season of Broadway for a reason. It’s something different. The problem with Broadway in the past was that it didn’t like different. It wanted the same things and it wanted them in a pretty bow.
As the years have gone on, that’s changed. Audiences want shows that make them think and cry and feel something rather than going into a musical and just forgetting their problems. Some of us want to see our art change the way we view something and personally, I think that most (if not all) rock musicals do. They find ways of pushing boundaries and making us question what we think we know.
Broadway hasn’t always been accepting of change, but it is getting better with musicals like Hamilton changing the typical musical score but I think that even that change, while completely the doing of Lin-Manuel Miranda, wouldn’t have been possible without people like Larson pushing Broadway to adapt and change with the times.
So the lasting power of the rock musical? It comes from an audience's openness to change, to learn, to grow. It comes from songs that stay with us because they hurt but they’re real. And it comes because we relate to stories that are based in things we’re all going through ourselves. Roger and Mark not being able to pay their rent is something many people experience daily and so audiences clinging to that and loving the rock aspect of musicals? That’s what theatre is about.