PLAYBILL.COM PICKS REVISITED: The Five Top Rock Musicals of All Time

By Robert Simonson
19 Oct 2012


Will Swenson and Tribe in the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair.
photo by Joan Marcus

HAIR (1967): The first, ground-breaking rock musical would have had to have come from Off-Broadway. The Broadway of the late '60s was still playing it relatively safe, musically and structurally, with shows like Mame and Sweet Charity dominating the boards. The pop stylings of Bacharach and David's Promises, Promises were about as adventuresome as it got. Hair, meanwhile, was chaos itself. It eschewed traditional narrative, its story wandering about as freely as a group of hippies across the Great Lawn in Central Park. Songs were less about advancing the plot as expressing themes, moods, politics and flights of fancy. Rock meant anarchy in the late '60s, and Hair had its share of that. Arguably, the show could not have turned out any other way, given its origins. The librettists-lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado were a couple of actors fostered by New York Shakespeare Festival visionary Joseph Papp. They had no experience writing shows. And their songwriting partner, Galt MacDermot, was their exact opposite, a middle-class man from Staten Island.

"Hair was as unlikely a project as could be envisioned," recalls Merle Debuskey, Papp's press agent, who witnessed the growth of the show. "Its creative parts were disparate, all unknowns in the greater theatre community. The instigators, Ragni and Rado, were East Villagers and familiar with the evolving young culture—societal as well as the performing arts. LaMama-ers. And there was Joseph Papp who always had his nose in the air sniffing at the new scents in the theatre."

"To me, Hair broke all the rules about the bourgeoise experience," said Diane Paulus, who directed the recent hit, Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of the show. "It took the counter culture and put it on Broadway. It's often defined as the first rock musical. I think what's so extraordinary about Hair is it was truly a reflection of the time and culture and what was going on on the street. Often in the theatre, the popular culture is reflected back, but it's looking back five or ten years. Hair was immediate."


Caissie Levy, Sasha Allen and Kacie Sheik in 2009's Hair.
photo by Joan Marcus

The music, moreover, successfully bridged the gap between between rock and show tunes, bringing pop audiences into the theatre. "Hair achieved something that, for me, only two, maybe three, 'rock-musicals' managed: to make a cast album that was listenable to the average rock-music fan," said performer-songwriter-librettist Stew, who contributed to the rock musical genre with his own Passing Strange. "Hair didn't sound like 'show-tune' music, but just a great bunch of songs. You could play them at a party. Even the greatest musicals that totally work on stage sound awkward when you're playing them in your car. And they are no fun to get stoned to, either. But Hair was simply a great album. That it came from a great musical was cool, too."

Marc Shaiman, composer of Hairspray, also found the best of both worlds—theatre and music—in the show. "Hair was and is, simply, the original and still the best—theatrically innovative—even while going backwards to an almost vaudevillian style of performance—and featuring the most thrilling score imaginable. No wonder it was the last Broadway musical to get multiple songs on the radio." Added Stephen Trask, composer of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, "Hair is amazing. It's more than the enthusiasm of the cast carrying the show. There's witty language and great melodies. It's not just an accident and of its era."