Rock and Pop Are the Genres That Drive Modern Musicals Like 'Spring Awakening'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens used to be a few of the American musical's favorite things. These days, however, a more combustible type of song imagery -- translated through pulsing electric guitar riffs and synthesized power ballads -- has become the staple of the musical theater. ¶ Slowly and steadily, rock and pop have emerged as a combined dominant force of the modern musical. From the early days four decades ago, when "Hair" first raised its rebellious fist on Broadway, until today, when a new generation of composers has begun to craft more subtly drawn rock musicals, the genre has evolved from novelty on the stage into an all-but-official musical language. ¶ Audiences at the Kennedy Center will get exposure this week to a leading indicator of the full-throttle coming-of-age of the rock musical, when the Tony Award-winning "Spring Awakening" starts its inaugural Washington run in the Eisenhower Theater. With a hypnotic score by composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater, the work is one of the best examples of a metamorphosis taking place in the sophistication of the form -- in how rock music is being used to embroider a new variety of dramatic, thinking-person's show.

Along with other inventive pieces -- such as "Passing Strange" (a concert-style autobiography of the jazz-rock musician Stew) and "Next to Normal" (the rock-infused tale of a mentally ill suburban mom) -- "Spring Awakening" has helped audiences see and hear surprising new ways in which styles of popular music they grew up with, on transistor radios or Walkmans or iPods, are being integrated into sharply, psychologically distilled musicals.

In the case of "Spring Awakening" -- which after a smash off-Broadway run stayed for more than two years on Broadway -- the songwriters had the idea to design a rock score that would be a kind of subterranean narrative. It would explore exclusively the interior lives of its characters: German teenagers forced to suppress their drives and desires in a repressive, late 19th-century society. So the kids live in the 1890s but sing as if it's 2009, pulling microphones out from under demure costumes. The notion is that the issues they face belong to every era. Or as Sater puts it: "The songs are about what's unsaid. That seemed a great use for rock music."

The arc from 1968's "Hair" -- a show that's so completely of its flower-child time -- to the timeless dimension of "Spring Awakening" suggests that the rock musical truly is evolving. But it's not the only sign of rock's hold on the theater -- especially the commercial theater. It's interesting to note, for example, that all four Tony nominees for best original musical this year are rooted not so much in the tradition of the Broadway show tune as in permutations of rock and pop.

One of the shows, "Rock of Ages," is a tongue-in-cheek musical flavored with '80s hits by the likes of Styx and Journey; "Next to Normal's" heroine expresses her rage in volcanic rock ballads; a third, the acclaimed "Billy Elliot," features the music of that quintessential man of the theater: Elton John. (The fourth, "Shrek the Musical," is a pop pastiche adaptation of the animated movies.)

Remarkably, John -- one of the most celebrated rock-and-roll songwriters of all time -- is now one of Broadway's most prolific composers, too, responsible for bringing more new material to Broadway over the past dozen years ("The Lion King," "Aida," "Lestat," "Billy Elliot") than Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber combined.

The rock musical's development over the years has revealed how mutable and adaptable it is. You have only to survey the historical terrain to appreciate how the format has diversified: "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1971) and "The Who's Tommy" (1993) came to be as concept albums and only later became successful stage shows. "Dreamgirls" (1981) replicated the sound of Motown in a fictionalized account of the Supremes. "Smokey Joe's Cafe" (1995), which comprised the music of '70s hitmakers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, popularized another subgenre, the jukebox musical; and "Rent" (1996) established a new benchmark for integrating an original rock score and a story about contemporary city life. Soon thereafter came off-Broadway's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (1998), which unfolded via searing glam-rock melodies about the tale of a funny and troubled transsexual wannabe rocker.

A sense of how much the ground has shifted was made apparent last month in the Tony Awards press room in Rockefeller Center. After being recognized with a special Tony, the venerable Broadway songsmith Jerry Herman ("Hello, Dolly!" "Mame," "La Cage aux Folles") was trotted before reporters and was asked, Who among the current crop of Broadway composers was writing in the traditional show-tune style that he and others had championed?

Herman looked sort of blank and shrugged away the question. No one anymore, he said, was writing how he did.

Not that this is altogether a bad trend. Rock has been a revivifying tonic for the musical, even if the vehicles these past few years have diverged wildly in tone and quality, from a silly story stitched together from Abba's hummable songbook ("Mamma Mia!") to a parody of a Hollywood turkey of the disco era ("Xanadu") to a potent jukebox biography of the Four Seasons ("Jersey Boys").

What those shows share is keen antennae for what kind of music draws a crowd. One got a taste of the ongoing theatrical appeal of rock-and-roll in June at Wolf Trap, where the amphitheater was packed for a performance of "Rain," a band of Beatles impersonators who execute note-for-note renditions of the Fab Four's songbook, from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "Hey Jude."

The audience's predominant hair color was gray, but there were little kids in attendance with their parents and grandparents, too. As well as members of the "Raindrops," ardent, mostly middle-age fans who are devotees of the faux Paul, George, John and Ringo. Once upon a time consigned to such lower-level entertainment venues as casinos and cruises, "Rain" -- the group shares its name with an obscure Beatles song -- has, with some careful promotion, graduated in recent years to arenas like Wolf Trap.

"We just did 25,000 people in L.A. over an eight-show run," declares Jeff Parry, "Rain's" Canadian-based producer. A few years ago, the group -- several of whom have been playing the Beatles decades longer than the actual Beatles did -- signed on with the booking agent for tours of "Wicked" and "The Color Purple." Marketing "Rain" like theater has proved hugely successful, Parry says -- so much so that this year, a second "Rain" band was spun off that is currently on a European tour.

Even champions of other styles of musicals have been finding their way to rock-and-roll. For example, Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Signature Theatre -- showplace of late for such intriguing art-house efforts as Michael John LaChiusa's "Giant" and Kander and Ebb's "The Visit" -- traveled to Chicago several months ago to co-direct a new musical called "Million Dollar Quartet." Set on a night when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins meet in a Memphis recording studio and jam, the jukebox show was such a hit that productions in other cities are in the works.

Still, perhaps the most exciting expansion of possibility for rock has come in the widening embrace of the finely wrought "Next to Normal" -- which won this year's Tony for best score, among other awards -- and the "Spring Awakening" that is finally making its way to Washington.

Neither show has anything close to a big laugh, which does put off some theatergoers. It is sheer originality that leavens these evenings, and the astonishing ways that music serves both occasions. Rock has always been extraordinarily good in the realm of the subversive, at excavating and expressing anger, and in each of these musicals, the characters' wrath is the conduit for explosive musicality. Diana, the tortured mother of "Next to Normal," sings smoldering arias to an exhilarating beat, while the pent-up teens of "Spring Awakening" launch into frenzied numbers, to purge their sense of loneliness and frustration.

The decibel level is high, but it has to be, to be pitched correctly for the emotional intensity these evenings seek to convey. For like all good theater music, when things are really percolating, rock doesn't merely pound. It moves.

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