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

By Robert Simonson
19 Oct 2012


John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig's film version.
photo courtesy New Line Productions

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (1998): All but one show on this list began in the edgier world of Off-Broadway. Hedwig is the only one never to have graduated to Broadway. The brainchild of actor John Cameron Mitchell and rocker Stephen Trask, it inched closer to rock music than any rock musical before it. The music was actual rock 'n' roll, not a theatre score with a rock gloss.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch contains some of the best songs ever written — songs that transcend a 'rock musical' label," said Damon Intrabartolo, composer of bare. "Stephen's adherence to form and structure are awe-inspiring. Every melody is so perfectly constructed and catchy and his lyrics are so original and moving—they have raised the bar ridiculously high for the rest of us! The songs are incredible in the context of the show and have such strength on their own, outside of the theatrical context. That show has no peer; there's Hedwig, then there's everything else."

But Hedwig's music was also innovative because it was performed as rock 'n' roll. Every rock musical before Hedwig had used certain aesthetic aspects of the concert arena in its presentation. Hedwig drew no distinction: The story took place during the course of a rock concert, and the songs were sung by Mitchell into a microphone with a back-up band, in the former ballroom of an old hotel in Greenwich Village. If you had told the audience they were attending a concert, and not a show, many would have accepted the idea. This concert concept would come to dominate the rock musical genre in the coming years.

"There was a commitment on the part of the creators to hold on to our musical aesthetic no matter how hard it was," recalled Trask. "In musicals, everything must serve the story and compromises must be made, and very often those compromises seem to be made at the expense of good writing. It was hard for us to find the music that we wanted to present at the same time that we served the piece theatrically. There was a full story told, but it worked as both concert and monologue at the same time."

Trask thought he and Mitchell "showed a way of merging rock music with a show by changing the relationship between the book and the songs, so that the songs might relate thematatically to the material that's going on in the book, without this sort of seemless approach that was perfected by Sondheim, where the book and songs go in and out of each other. The songs didn't necessarily have to continue the monologue. You could do the songs in the most natural way as opposed to musicalizing them. We made a decision [about] the way the songs relate to the book. You can see in Spring Awakening and Passing Strange that relationship of the book."

"It's very much about performance," said Paulus of the musical. "That show shares a lot with Hair. It's like a happening."