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

By Robert Simonson
19 Oct 2012


Skylar Astin (top) and John Gallagher Jr. in the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, Spring Awakening.
photo by Joan Marcus

SPRING AWAKENING (2006): There had been shows on Broadway based on the existing work of rock musicians, such as The Who's Tommy, but Spring Awakening marked one of the first times that a rock musical actually written by a rock star—Duncan Sheik—hit the big time. And with newly written music, not catalog material. Before that, the rock musical category was peopled mainly by theatre composers doing their best to ape rock music. Sheik and director Michael Mayer built on the presentation-oriented style of Hedwig—their characters reached for a cordless mike whenever they broke into song. But the production also showed once and for all that rock music could be used to tell any kind of tale. Spring Awakening told of the travails of not Hippies (B.C. or A.D.) or East Village bohos or rock stars, but of 19th-century, angst-ridden, German schoolchildren. (Drawing from Frank Wedekind's controversial expressionist drama about teen sexuality, the musical has book and lyrics Steven Sater, who drew from a real play rather than just a scenario.)

"When we were working on it," remembers director Michael Mayer, "one of the issues was the songs didn't function in the way conventional musicals were meant to. They weren't really forwarding the plot. They were articulated as coming from character. That was intentional. When I hit upon the idea of setting the play in its original period and letting the songs be contemporary, the disconnect was intentional, knowing that a musical theatre audience was going to put them together." While not naming shows, Mayer says he sees the influence of Spring Awakening in many other productions since the musical premiered.

Trask sees something in Spring Awakening that can be said of all the shows on this list: a lack of concern with scenic opulence or specificity. "They use very small gestures of a single prop and a lighting change," said Trask.

And, of course, Sheik provided another great score. It may seem like an incredibly obvious point, but rock musicals—emphasizing as they do a musical idiom born outside the theatre, a world of singles and albums and musicians and concerts and screaming fans—draw most of their inspiration and identity from the music itself.

"What makes a great rock musical?" asked Paulus. "Great music! Incredible music! Whatever you want to say about Hair, it's great music. And that's the truth about Jesus Christ Superstar, that's the truth about Duncan Sheik's music. This is music that millions of people respond to on a bigger level than a musical."


That makes five, and five are all we picked. You, gentle reader, would have possibly (nay, very likely) picked a different five. No need to stew in your own opinions. Let them be known! Share your thoughts with us at and we'll print some of your responses in our PlayBlog.