Was that a Broadway show or a rock concert? With electric guitars and amplifiers onstage and actors shouting (or screaming) lyrics, there’s an increasingly fine line between musicals and high-caliber jam sessions.
Of course, high-octane musicals aren’t an entirely new phenomenon. Rock became part of the musical theater scene back in the ’60s, with the premiere of Hair. Ever since, rock musicals have been on and off the Broadway listings; notable examples of the form include Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, and Little Shop of Horrors.
When Rent became a hit in 1996, producers started putting on rock musicals more frequently. Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, American Idiot, and most recently Bare have all emerged within the past decade, which raises a few questions: Are rock musicals the future of mainstream theater? Is the target demographic of theatergoers shifting from middle-aged women to young people in their teens and 20s? And most importantly, what is the future of Broadway, and will it lose touch with its golden age past?
Steven Chaikelson, a member of the theater faculty in the School of the Arts and founder of Snug Harbor Productions, points out that there is no grand plan to tap into younger theatergoers. “In fact, there’s no grand plan for anything on Broadway,” Chaikelson explains. “There’s no organization on Broadway. Broadway is a sort of weird animal in that every season is made up of individual producers or individual theater companies. There may be an individual producer or certain producers who are really interested in family fare, or reaching out to young audiences because they believe that they’re the audiences of the future, but there’s no concerted effort.”
The rock musical trend, according to Chaikelson, is largely a result of producers following the money. “Producers produce shows because they want to produce something memorable and artistic, but also because they want to sell tickets. So having individual successful shows with rock music on Broadway leads to more shows with rock music on Broadway.”
Some industry members have concerns about the genre: Songs written for rock musicals are often behind current pop trends, characters tend to be hollow, and shows can’t match the impact and spontaneity of a rock concert.
Wendy Waterman, a professor at the Juilliard School and a member of the Barnard theater department, worries that rock musicals have a tendency to not tell a compelling story. “Often the music is just wandering rather than using craft to build the story. I like rock musicals as long as they really tell the character’s story and they’re not just about howling.” Waterman believes that theatergoers might mistake musicals like these for real storytelling: “The audience misses the experience of an actor really living through something that’s more than just affect.” According to Waterman, there’s often a kind of superstar showmanship in rock musicals. “There is nothing wrong with showmanship. It is a component of performance, but it is meaningless without character and story. Something has to back that showmanship.”
Some shows in the rock genre involve a lot of screaming and little substance, but others have something to add to the world of mainstream theater in New York City. Stafford Arima is the director of Bare, an off-Broadway rock musical about teens dealing with identity, sexuality, and religion at a coed Catholic boarding school. He notes that recent rock-angst musicals, such as Bare, Next to Normal, and Rent, often deal with the subject of healing.
“I think it’s important that writers, directors, and producers realize the element of healing is an important aspect of what theater is able to do,” Arima explains. “If we can shed some light on the situations younger people are experiencing, then works like Bare really have a wonderful place. They can start connecting with people, characters, and situations that are perhaps happening in their lives or peripheral lives.”
None of these three theater insiders believe that Broadway will be taken over by rock. “I think we’re going to continue to have all different kinds of music coexisting,” Chaikelson states. “And I think we’re going to see an expansion in all different types and styles of music that wind up being on Broadway.”
Arima agrees that there is room for all. He points out that it’s even possible to blend the old with the new, citing The Book of Mormon, a contemporary work with a traditional form. “All of these elements are coming together and bringing new life to theater in ways that are exciting for the ears, because diversity is important in any art form,” Arima says. “I’m thrilled that if people come to NYC and see a Broadway show it’s not just a musical comedy: Sometimes it’s a rock musical, sometimes it’s a dance musical. It’s all part of the exciting evolution of the musical genre.”
The world of theater is evolving, not dying; trends may come and go, but great theater will endure. “When there’s good theater, in any genre, people sit on the edge of their seats and are so much more focused and attentive,” Waterman says. “They might not know what’s different, but they do appreciate it. That gives me hope that good theater will always be done, and that there will always be people attracted to it.”