* As musical tastes have evolved over the last 50 years, Broadway has tried on some new sounds, many of which have stuck — especially the enduring genre of rock musicals. It may be more of a challenge to hear lyrics amidst screaming guitar riffs and crashing drum beats, but the passion and angst of rock music keeps drawing musical theatre lovers to forge a fusion of the two art forms. Naturally, this hybrid breed of rock musical calls for a different kind of singing from the traditional Broadway fare, as well as a different kind of star. Traditional Broadway is first and foremost belter territory, and all who reign do so in the footsteps of Ethel Merman. The rock musical, however, is the tenor's domain. The parts with the biggest payoffs since Hair and on through Rock of Ages have been the tenor roles.
Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Broadway Rock Tenors.
10. Euan Morton
Since his stunning Tony-nominated debut as Boy George in 2003's cult hit, Taboo (after having been nominated for an Olivier Award creating the role in the West End), Euan Morton has been a clear crown prince of Broadway Rock Stardom. A gifted actor with a beautiful, dexterous voice and a uniquely moving depth, Morton has played various roles on Broadway and elsewhere, but has yet to reach the zenith of greatness warranted by his talent. While he waits for the right part to come along, I would like to see him as Hedwig in Hedwig And The Angry Inch on Broadway, perhaps for a short run in between more high-profile star replacements. You don't have to squint too hard to imagine it.
James Carpinello is another leading man who has been proving his merits for many years, yet still hasn't ascended to the level of success he's without question destined for. He turned heads with his James Dean-inspired turn in Stupid Kids Off-Broadway in 1998 and was soon after cast in the John Travolta role in Broadway's Saturday Night Fever, the short run of which seemed to usher in years of bad Broadway luck for Carpinello. Scheduling conflicts replaced him with Matthew Morrison as Link in mega-hit Hairspray before it came into town and roller skating injuries forced him to give up his role (to Cheyenne Jackson) before Xanadu's opening night. A well-received role in Rock of Ages seemed to set the cart back on course, and while the movie version of Rock of Ages used none of the Broadway principles, there is some poetic justice in Tom Cruise playing "the James Carpinello role."
Speaking of Rock of Ages, its original Broadway cast headed by "American Idol" finalist Constantine Maroulis, who had rock musical written all over him from the get go. With his voluptuous voice, edgy style and easy masculinity, Maroulis is the rare breed of rock singer who seamlessly integrates into a musical. It doesn't even have to be a musical; before his Broadway debut as a replacement in (the decidedly rock) The Wedding Singer, Maroulis proved his versatility Off-Broadway in Gordon Greenberg's memorable revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, starring the great Gay Marshall.
One of the seven wonders of the world of musical theatre is surely Tituss Burgess. His virtuoso vocal pyrotechnics would be stunning enough on their own, but in service of his commanding stage presence, comic timing and smarts, Burgess is an unstoppable force. He worked his way up in smaller parts before shining center stage in The Little Mermaid and Guys And Dolls, and it's just a matter of time until he's above the title in some scintillating new show. It may be a bit of wait, though. Since stealing scenes as D'Fwan on NBC's "30 Rock," he has been snatched up for TV stardom opposite Jane Krakowski in Tina Fey's forthcoming Netflix series "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."
6. Kevin Cahoon
The undeniably gifted and versatile Kevin Cahoon has been kicking around for years since taking over in the ensemble of The Who's Tommy in the early 90s. He has sparkled in a total of five Broadway shows so far and made lifelong fans when he brought electrifying originality and spunk to the title role in the initial Off-Broadway production of Hedwig And The Angry Inch later in its run, along with starring in the first Boston, Edinburgh Festival, and San Francisco productions of the now classic show. He has sold out the hippest music venues and won various awards for his always exciting performances and theatrical songwriting for his beloved band, Ghetto Cowboy. (Check out their debut album, "Doll.") It's just a matter of time before Cahoon is above the title in a Broadway rock musical. He's another no-brainer to make an excellent Broadway Hedwig.
Speaking of Hedwig And The Angry Inch, the first actor to take over the role from author-star John Cameron Mitchell in the original run was Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris. He is one our biggest Broadway musical stars today and he is a legitimate actor with numerous contemporary and classical credits and he also has an impressive career as a rock-and-roll singer. All these things came together in what was arguably a Hedwig to rival Mitchell's. That is why Michael Cerveris is, without a doubt, one of the best rock tenors.
4. Raul Esparza
Raúl Esparza is an S-T-A-R star. He was acclaimed as Che in Hal Prince's 1999 tour of Evita, which unfortunately never made it into town, but he kicked off a major career on stage in both musicals and straight plays and onscreen, including his current role as a regular on "Law and Order: S.V.U." With his impassioned performances, zealous fans and general gravitas, Esparza can be thought of as his generation's Mandy Patinkin. Any time Raúl Esparza hits the boards, is an event to look forward to, and his swagger and range are put to particularly good use in rock musicals.
3. Billy Porter
Billy Porter is another rock tenor whose charisma has oozed like molten lava from the first second he set foot on stage. After a handful of replacement gigs in shows including Miss Saigon and Five Guys Named Moe, Porter created the role of Teen Angel in the long-running 1994 revival of Grease. At the time Porter was something of an unknown, but his performance was so showstopping that his role later in the run was filled with stars including Chubby Checkers, Al Jarreau and even Jennifer Holliday. Porter's impact is so enormous that looking back, it's kind of astounding how few major shows headlined before his triumph in Kinky Boots. One tends to think of him as high profile.
With so much talk of Hedwig And The Angry Inch, it would be remiss not include the man who created the role, living legend John Cameron Mitchell. There is great poetic justice in how this would-be icon has gone on to be nothing short of an icon. Audiences are falling all over themselves in praise of Mitchell's return to role in the current Broadway production of "Hedwig" and fans are lining up in droves for a ticket. There is no one and no voice like John Cameron Mitchell. His honeyed, folky sound can melt you heart one second and then in a flash, wail with the best of them. He is an inspiration to all artists everywhere who fail to fit a mold. After years of playing small parts in the occasional show (Big River, The Secret Garden, Six Degrees of Separation), Mitchell created his own mold and inspired a generation.
1. Adam Pascal
On the other end of the spectrum is Adam Pascal. Unlike, Mitchell, there are thousands of rock tenors who sound like Adam Pascal. Mostly, that is because they copied him. When Rent opened in 1996, ushering in a new era of Broadway rock musicals, Pascal defined the modern male sound of musical theatre. With his grunge-idol beauty and his thrilling rock voice, Pascal has been the ideal leading man for his era of rock musicals. It will be very interesting to watch his career as matures from from young man we came to love in Rent and Aida into the middle aged rock and roller, a modern contradiction-in-terms to be explored in this century.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money, running in repertory through April 29 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)