Picture it, Nerdship – Reno, Nevada, 1985. I’m a chipmunk cheeked kindergartener sitting in the backseat of my mother’s car, giving her my best, most hopeful face.
“Please, Mommy. I’ll be good – I won’t be mean to Lacey (that’s my younger sister) for a whole week, pleasepleaseplease!”
My mother, who was not terrible impressed by my promises, gave me a look in rearview mirror.
“Fine,” she said. “Just this one time. And don’t tell your father.”
That Friday night, I was allowed to stay up waaaaaaay past my bedtime to watch “Grease” on television. Of course, at that age, 85% of the references went completely over my head, but a love was born deep within my soul that would change my life forever. And without getting super voice over maudlin, I probably would not be writing here today without my love of musicals.
But here’s the thing, as much as I love a traditional Sondheim minor key tongue twister ballad, I really, really love rock musicals. For me, it’s like peanut butter and chocolate – the marriage of two of my favorite things in the whole world. Narrowing this down was much harder than I thought, but I ultimately distilled the long list down to my top five.
The Who’s Tommy (1992)
Music by Pete Townshend; Lyrics by Pete Townshend; Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff; Additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon; Music orchestrated by Steve Margoshes.
“Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.”
Despite the original concept album being released in 1969 and the movie of questionable quality in 1975, The Who’s seminal rock opera, Tommy wasn’t properly conceptualized into a stage musical until 1992. It’s the story of a little boy named Tommy who, upon seeing his father, who has just returned from fighting in World War, shoot his mother’s lover and is struck deaf, dumb, and blind. The only thing that seems to engage him is playing pinball and he wiped with floor with all the local boys. After years of struggle, Tommy’s parents are considering institutionalizing him and his mother smashes a mirror in her bedroom, the same one that Tommy saw the murder in, and that is the catalyst for releasing him from his own mind and he recovers his senses.
Pete Townshend came up with the original concept for Tommy after he reading the work of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. (Getting your guru inspiration on seems to be a pretty regular thing for rock stars in that era.) One of the best things about this version of Tommy is the orchestrations. Instead of scrubbing the raw harshness of The Who’s music, they round it out in a way that adds depth and meaning. There are certainly some dark themes here as well – murder, adultery, drug use, and (trigger warning) child molestation.
Pinball Wizard from the 1992 Original Cast Recording:
I am not at all a fan of the movie version of Tommy except as a vehicle for ogling a young Roger Daltry and to see Elton John like this:
Other songs to love: See Me, Feel Me, Sensation, Acid Queen, Amazing Journey
Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Book inspired by The New Testament
Regardless of what religion you do or don’t practice, if you live in the world today, you probably know the story of Jesus and the events leading up to his Crucifixion in Jerusalem. The stories of the Bible have been studied, dissected, twisted, and brought to life in every available artistic medium since those four Apostles got themselves published.
Much like Tommy before it, Jesus Christ Superstar began its life as a concept album and was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s third collaboration with Tim Rice. The first concert version was done in London with Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian playing Jesus and Murray Head (who Broadway nerds will know as “The American” from the original concept album of Chess) as Judas. When the album was released in the US, there were several unauthorized stagings before it came to Broadway in 1971.
This is (in my humble opinion) Webber’s best work. The music is a hybrid of traditional Broadway and 70’s rock and roll. In addition, the book makes these religious icons into people with flaws, including shifting the focus of the story to . One of my favorite quotes about this approach is from Tim Rice: “It happens that we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.”
And personally, this musical holds a very special place in my heart because my mom loves it so much – she gave me the soundtrack on vinyl when I was a kid and taught me to sing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” in the car on the way to one of my first auditions.
Superstar from the 20th Anniversary London Cast Recording:
Other songs to love: Everything’s Alright, I Don’t Know How To Love Him, Pilate’s Dream, Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say), King Herod’s Song (Try it and See)
Now, we’re going to skip ahead in time because, in a lot of ways, the 80’s were a rough time for musicals.
Music, Lyrics, and Book by Jonathan Larson
You know how there are things that come into your life and at the time, you think that they’re just a thing that you fall in love with like so many other things, but they end up not just changing the path of your life, but fundamentally changing you as a human being? That is what Rent is to me. I could probably write an entire post on just this one musical, but that’s for another time and place.
It’s likely you know this story. It’s not that uncommon: boy meets girl, girl flirts with boy, boy and girl fall in love, they are happy for a time, a misunderstanding happens and they break up, girl takes off, boy pines for girl while going on a road trip to Santa Fe, comes back to find girl, girl is found coughing to death in a park, girl and boy are reunited for the big 11 o’clock number where love is declared, and then girl dies.
If this were La Boheme, the Puccini on which Rent is based, the curtain would fall and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.
But it’s not. Pushed out of the light by a drag queen angel, Mimi (the aforementioned girl) comes back to life, the closing number is sung, and there still isn’t a dry eye in the damn house.
But Rent is about so much more than that. It’s about art and how to stay true to it in the age of commercialization. It’s about found family and how love and loyalty is thicker than blood. It’s about taking risks on people. It’s about accepting who you are and owning your weirdness. It’s about finding joy in every moment.
(See, that’s a whole other post.)
Jonathan Larson wrote a musical that reflected the world he lived in in the East Village in the early ’90’s. Rent didn’t have a traditional orchestra – it had a band that sat on stage and became part of a living, breathing set. It was the musical that helped bring a new generation of young people back to the theater.
And it was the reason I wanted to move to New York City and try to become an actress. So, yeah, it’s pretty important to me.
Out Tonight from the Original Broadway Cast Recording:
Other songs to love: Rent, One Song Glory, La Vie Boheme, I’ll Cover You, What You Own, Seasons Of Love
Music by Boy George, Kevan Frost, John Themis, and Richie Stevens; Lyrics by Boy George, Book by Mark Davies Markham and Charles Busch
Of all the musicals on this list, this is probably the one you haven’t heard of. I saw this musical on accident when a friend of mine got a pair of tickets for free at work. We didn’t have anything better to do that night and figured, what the hell.
Best decision I ever made.
Taboo takes place in London during the height of New Romantic music scene in the ’80’s. Among the “freaks” that frequent this club are a young man named George O’Dowd, androgynous pop singer, Marilyn, and the king of the scene, Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery. We follow dual storylines: George’s rise to fame with Culture Club and Leigh’s struggle to be an Artist and a person. The real Boy George played Leigh Bowery in both the London and New York productions.
Musically, this show leans more toward pop than rock and it went through some serious overhauls from the original version that played in London and the Rosie O’Donnell produced version that opened in New York. Either way, there are some gorgeous songs in this score, particularly the ballads. This show also introduced me to one of my favorite Broadway performers of all time: Raul Esparza, who most of you might recognize from playing Dr. Chilton in Hannibal and DA Rafael Barba on Law and Order: SVU. Esparza plays Philip Sallon, a narrator/Greek Chorus of sorts who gets his moment in the spotlight after he’s gay bashed outside the club.
As much as I adore this show, it has its problems. It’s way, way too ambitious for its own good. Throughout, it struggles to balance the dual storylines that seemingly don’t have anything to do with each other. Not to mention that Leigh Bowery is so fascinating that his life and career alone could have been their own show. Because of that dissonance, the show never quite gelled together like I wanted it too. It was certainly a Broadway flop – Rosie lost her entire $10 million dollar investment, but she’s been very vocal that she didn’t care and she’d do it over again if she could.
Petrified from the Original Broadway Cast Recording:
(This was the only soundtrack that wasn’t properly available on Spotify, but the song is too lovely not to hear it.)
Other songs to love: Stranger In The City, Guttersnipe, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, Church of the Poisoned Mind/Karma Chameleon, Talk Amongst Yourselves.
And last, but not least:
American Idiot (2009)
Music by Green Day; Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong; Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
This one, you know. Another concept album turned stage play, American Idiot is the story of three best friends – Johnny, Will, and Tunny. Johnny and Tunny leave their oppressive hometown for the big city, leaving Will at home to deal with his pregnant girlfriend. Johnny meet, falls in love with, and loses a girl, while dealing with the temptation of St. Jimmy (his Fight Club-like alter ego) and giving into the lure of heroine. Tunny hates the city life and enlists in the Army, where after being deployed to the Middle East, wakes up in a hospital an amputee. And Will, left at home to dull his apathy with pot, manages to alienate his girlfriend, who takes their baby and leaves after it becomes apparent that Will isn’t interested in being a father at all.
Much like Tommy, the strength of American Idiot lies in the music. The score uses the entirely of the original album as well as material from the follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown, b-sides, and other songs from Green Day’s catalogue. Tom Kitt, the orchestrator, should have won a Tony for his work. These songs are the true marriage of Broadway and rock and roll, proof that these genres don’t have to and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
The voice talent in the original Broadway cast is stunning, tapping everyone from classically trained Broadway actors to former British boybanders. The women, even though they are all mostly relegated to supporting status, stood out for not only their voices, but their diversity.
As evidenced from that weird plot summary, this show also suffers from a horrible book. The video that the band shot for “Wake Me When September Ends” is the story of a young Marine who enlists and presumably dies, leaving his girlfriend behind. An element of this is used in the show, but I have always thought that this concept would have made a far better story to hang the music on. (Serious nerd alert: After I saw the show the first time, I was so incensed that they botched the book so badly that I went home and sketched out an outline for a more coherent story. When I listen to the OBC, I just imagine that’s the actual plot. The second time I saw the show, I spent a lot of time ogling Stark Sands in his boxer shorts.)
Are We The Waiting from the Original Broadway Cast Recording:
Other songs to love: Holiday, Jesus of Suburbia, Extraordinary Girl, 21 Guns, Last of the American Girls/She’s a Rebel.
There are so many amazing shows that didn’t make the cut, so here’s the rest of my Top 10:
6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Off-Broadway Cast Recording
7. The Rocky Horror Show
8. Spring Awakening