A Brief History of Rock Musicals

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


A rock musical is a musical theatre work with rock music as its soundtrack. This genre of musical generally includes a book or a story by a rock librettist and is often performed by rock bands, although some have been performed by traditional musical ensembles.

The early days of rock musicals

Rock musicals are a genre of musical theatre that combines elements of rock music and traditional musical theatre. The first rock musicals began to emerge in the early 1950s, with composers such as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III experimenting with incorporating rock and roll into their work. One of the earliest and most successful examples of this genre was the 1955 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie, which tells the story of a rock star who is drafted into the Army.

In the 1960s and 1970s, more and more rock musicians began to write musicals, often inspired by the British Invasion bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Notable examples from this period include Hair (1967), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), and Grease (1972). By the 1980s, rock musicals had become widely popular, with shows such as Rent (1996) and Mamma Mia! (1999) becoming international hits.

Today, rock musicals remain popular both on Broadway and in regional theatre productions around the world. Recent examples include Spring Awakening (2006), American Idiot (2010), and School of Rock (2015).

The rise of rock musicals in the 1960s

Musicals have been around since the days of Ancient Greece, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that they began to take on their modern form. Opera was the first type of musical to really catch on, and it remained popular for centuries. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that any challengers began to arise.

One of the first was the operetta, a type of light opera that was popular in the 1800s and early 1900s. Operettas generally had simpler stories and less-serious subject matter than operas, and they were often satirical. The most famous operetta composer was Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote 14 operettas together between 1871 and 1896.

Another early challenger to opera was the musical comedy, a genre that became popular in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Musical comedies generally had lighthearted plots with happy endings, and they featured songs that told part of the story or advanced the plot. The first successful musical comedy was The Black Crook, which premiered in New York City in 1866.

The next major development in musical theater came in the 1920s with the rise of jazz music. Jazz-influenced musicals, or “jazz musicals,” replaced operettas as the dominant form of musical theater in America. The first successful jazz musical was Show Boat, which premiered on Broadway in 1927. Jazz musicals were often based on stories set in African American communities, and they featured an integrated cast of black and white performers.

The final major development leading up to rock musicals Was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, which premiered on Broadway in 1943. Oklahoma! Was notable for its use of popular music styles such as folk and blues, as well as for its focus on everyday people and their problems. It laid the groundwork for future rock musicals by demonstrating that popular music could be used successfully in a dramatic context.

The first rock musical to make a major impact Was Hair, which premiered off-Broadway in 1967 before moving to Broadway the following year. Hair was notable for its use of contemporary pop songs as well as its frank depictions of drug use, sex, and other aspects of 1960s counterculture. It spawned a number of imitators over the next few years but remainedthe most successful and influential rock musical of its era

The heyday of rock musicals in the 1970s

In the 1970s, rock musicals reached the height of their popularity. A new breed of musical theatre emerged, one that was louder, brasher and more youthful than anything that had come before. At the forefront of this movement were shows like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease.

These shows were characterized by their use of rock music to tell their stories. They were also willing to tackle controversial subjects matter, something that was unheard of in previous decades. But perhaps most importantly, they appealed to a young audience who were ready to embrace a new type of musical theatre.

The 1970s was a golden age for rock musicals. But as the decade came to a close, so too did the popularity of this genre. Shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar closed on Broadway, and audiences began to turn their back on rock musicals. It would be many years before the genre would stage a comeback.

The decline of rock musicals in the 1980s

Rock musicals were once a staple of popular culture, with classics like Hair, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Grease delighting audiences for decades. However, by the 1980s, the genre was in decline. This was due in part to changing tastes in music, as well as a shift in Hollywood’s focus from musicals to more action-packed blockbusters. Nevertheless, there have been some notable rock musicals released in recent years, such as School of Rock and Bohemian Rhapsody. Here’s hoping that the genre makes a comeback soon!

The revival of rock musicals in the 1990s

Following the popularity of rock musicals in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a revival of sorts in the 1990s. This was thanks in part to the success of Rent, which opened on Broadway in 1996. The musical was set in New York City’s East Village and tells the story of a group of young artists struggling to make ends meet. It was praised for its fresh take on the genre and went on to win a Tony Award for Best Musical.

Other notable rock musicals from this era include Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998), Spring Awakening (2006), and American Idiot (2010). These shows brought new life to the genre and proved that rock musicals could still be relevant and popular.

The new millennium and beyond

As the new millennium dawned, the rock musical entered a new era. The Broadway smash hit Rent, which debuted in 1996, helped to legitimize the rock musical as a viable form of entertainment. The success of Rent spawned a number of successful rock musicals, including the Tony Award-winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Spring Awakening.

In the 2010s, rock musicals continued to enjoy success on Broadway and elsewhere. The Tony Award-winning show Once debuted in 2012 and told the story of an unlikely romance between a Czech immigrant and an Irish street musician. The Tony Award-winning show Fun Home debuted in 2015 and was based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name. In 2016, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop-influenced musical Hamilton took Broadway by storm, winning 11 Tony Awards and becoming one of the most popular shows in recent memory.

The influence of rock musicals

Though most popular in the 1960s and 1970s, rock musicals—musicals with a rock, pop, or soul score—have been around since the early 1900s. Their popularity has risen and fallen over the past century, waxing and waning with changes in American culture. Here is a brief overview of the major phases in the history of rock musicals.

The earliest rock musicals emerged in the 1910s and 1920s, Inspiration for these early shows came from vaudeville, minstrelsy, and Tin Pan Alley music hall traditions. These early shows were often based on popular novels or movies, and they featured lighthearted storytelling with simple melodies and catchy lyrics. The first real rock musical was probably Pajama Game (1954), which featured a score by jazz composer Richard Adler. From there, rock musicals began to proliferate on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in regional theaters across the United States.

The peak of rock musical theater came in the 1960s and 1970s with shows like Hair (1967), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), and A Chorus Line (1975). These shows were characterized by their electric scores, frank storytelling, and radical political messages. They also helped to usher in a more diverse range of voices in American theater, including women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In recent years, rock musicals have made something of a comeback with hits like Rent (1996) Hamilton (2015), and Dear Evan Hansen (2016). Though they are not as prevalent as they once were, rock musicals continue to be an important part of American theater.

The future of rock musicals

The future of rock musicals is unclear. Critics have been divided on the merits of recent productions, and it remains to be seen whether the genre will continue to enjoy the popular success it has in the past. Nevertheless, there are many passionate fans of rock musicals, and it seems likely that the genre will continue to be a significant force in theatre for years to come.

10 essential rock musicals

Rock musicals are a unique and powerful genre that has emerged over the last few decades. They often tell stories of young love, rebellion, and hope, set to a soundtrack of popular music. While some rock musicals have been adapted for the stage, many of them are original works written specifically for the theatrical setting. Here are 10 essential rock musicals that every fan should see.

1. “Rent” (1996)
2. “Tommy” (1969)
3. “Hair” (1967)
4. “The Who’s Tommy” (1993)
5. “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1971)
6. “Next to Normal” (2008)
7. “Spring Awakening” (2006)
8. “ROCK OF AGES” (2009)
9. “American Idiot” (2010)
10. “Passing Strange” (2008)

10 underrated rock musicals

The rock musical is a popular genre that has given us some great shows over the years. Here are 10 underrated rock musicals that you may not have heard of:

1. “Reefer Madness” (2005) – This musical was adapted from the 1936 film of the same name, which was itself based on a real-life anti-drug propaganda film. The musical tells the story of how marijuana can lead users down a path of addiction and despair. Although it received mixed reviews, “Reefer Madness” is an fascinating look at how society’s views on drugs have changed over time.

2. “Chess” (1986) – This musical tells the story of a Cold War-era chess tournament between two grandmasters, one American and one Russian. The music is a mix of rock, pop, and classical, and the lyrics are heavy with political imagery. “Chess” was not a commercial success, but it has since attained cult status.

3. “Passing Strange” (2008) – This semi-autobiographical musical follows the story of a black youth from Los Angeles who rebels against his middle-class upbringing by immersing himself in the punk rock subculture. “Passing Strange” was praised for its honest portrayal of race and class warfare in America, and its hard-hitting rock tunes are sure to get your toes tapping.

4. “Head Over Heels” (2018) – This recently released rock musical tells the story of a royal family who are turned upside down when they discover that their beloved queen is secretly in love with another woman. With a catchy soundtrack and an inclusive message, “Head Over Heels” is sure to be a hit with audiences of all ages.

5. “bare: A Pop Opera” (2004) – This coming-of-age musical follows two high school students who fall in love despite the fact that one is straight and the other is gay. With powerful songs about self-acceptance and love conquering all, “bare: A Pop Opera” is an uplifting show that will stay with you long after the curtain falls.

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