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

By Robert Simonson
19 Oct 2012


Ted Neeley in the film "Jesus Christ Superstar."
photo courtesy Universal Pictures

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1970): If Hair brought rock to the Broadway stage, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar brought the rock opera. Both shows drew from the Hippie culture that prevailed in the late '60s and early '70s, but Hair was scruffy, aimless and rag-tag, while JCS was histrionic, deliberate and melodramatic. Whimsy was replaced with bombast, but the anti-establishment message remained. And, by taking the Passion Play as its subject and making it contemporary, the show upped the rebellion ante introduced by Hair. A revisionist, counter-culture Jesus was considered even more controversial than the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll world of Hair's Berger and this pals. (And there were protests about the show.) Future rock musicals would follow JCS's example and take up unlikely, controversial and, in some cases, seemingly unsavory topics as their story material.

Lloyd Webber and Rice were also canny marketers. The show was an album before it was a production, making the show a legend before it was a reality. Rebellion had been packaged and sold. "JCS was already a titanically successful album," recalled Merle Debuskey, who ran the press for the Broadway premiere. "The decision was to fashion a stage musical out of the album. When they did and produced it, it was preceded by a huge audience awareness and interest."

The strategy worked. "JCS was the album (yes, album) that completely blew my 11-year-old mind," said Shaiman, "and made me want to write my own Biblical rock musical, which started and ended with my attempt to put words in God's mouth about the Garden of Eden. I gave up after four lines. If he had only written just this score, Andrew Lloyd Webber would always be, to me, a genius."

"I love that show," said Paulus. "It's the music. I don't have a production experience of that show. It's the energy of the music. It gets in your blood, and it gets your blood rolling. It takes a sacred subject and tears it up. It's the greatest story of all time and nothing's sacred." The idea of "Nothing Sacred" became one of the main tenets of the best rock musicals to come.