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

By Robert Simonson
19 Oct 2012


Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal in Rent.
photo by Joan Marcus

RENT (1996): If Hair was the Nativity Scene of the rock musical, and Jesus Christ Superstar the Passion Play, Rent was the Second Coming. The rock musical was a dead duck when Jonathan Larson's operatic opus came along. British megamusicals that were more opera than rock had come to dominate the scene. Like the creators of Hair before him, Larson captured his own bohemain moment in time—in this case, the AIDS-striken, gentrification-fighting artists of the East Village—and was more interested in expressing notions of character, place and emotion than tracking a point-by-point story. The score verged closer to actually rock music, but remained story-telling show music in sensibility. But the tale, like all great rock musicals, was one of youth and rebellion against the status quo. And, again like Hair, the characters and events seemed to live in the here and now, not some fantastical past or faraway land.

"I think there was just something gritty and raw about it," said Jon Hartmere, librettist of bare: A Pop Opera, who was influenced by Rent. "It seemed like there might be a place for something like bare after seeing it. The reference points I had for musicals before Rent were shows like Phantom, Miss Saigon, Les Miz...all shows I enjoyed, but they weren't singing about current-event issues. So I think it just opened up avenues for what a Broadway musical could be, at least from the perspective of someone starting out at that time."


Idina Menzel and Fredi Walker in Rent.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Rent was also influential in the way it found its ideal cast. Both Hair and JCS would claim some unusual suspects among their performers (Melba Moore, Yvonne Elliman). But Rent took it further. Most of its lead players were drawn from outside the theatre world; some had never been on a stage before; a couple fronted rock bands. "We were always looking out of the box for performers who would capture a certain revolutionary spirit," said Paulus of her production of Hair. She thinks the creators of Rent and Spring Awakening worked in a similar way. "That's a big deal of what it means to be a rock musical. It's not about the traditional skill set that one might associate with a musical. You're talking about a performer that sings from a different place, that puts out a certain kind of energy and charisma, a different kind of connection with the audience. It's a different kind of singing and communication and relationship with the audience. There are musicals that break the fourth wall, but they're not in a rock-star, charasmatic relationship with an audience."

The composers of Hair had failed to forge prolonged careers after that show and Andrew Lloyd Webber grew more and more operatic, and less rock-oriented, after Jesus Christ Superstar. Larson—even though he had tragically died before his show opened—became a new beacon for young composers. Following Rent, the theatre wouldn't forget about the rock musical for another quarter century—it couldn't, since the show ran for 12 years on Broadway. More entries in the genre followed at a regular clip.