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Rockin' Broadway

Cortney Willis, Staff Writer

Broadway, a place where melodies have come to live and die for well over a century, was forever changed in 1968 when Hair, the musical, first appeared on its legendary stage. With a book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, Hair broke the Broadway mold by being one of the first shows to boast a racially integrated cast, invite the audience onstage during its finale and include nude scenes and sexuality as focal points. The less shocking but arguably more important concept Hair brought to Broadway was music set to a rock score.

Rock music had been hinted at in previous theatrical productions such asBye Bye Birdie, but Hair, with a plot focusing on free love, belonging, drugs and sexuality, was the first completely pure rock musical. It started a theatrical revolution that has continued on to this day and age through other musicals such as Grease, Pippin, Rent and Spring Awakening.

Rock musicals have never been and likely never will be welcomed by everyone. They had the demographic of Broadway patrons, those upper middle-class, middle-aged persons, mostly up in arms. With Hair debuting at a time of political unrest that surrounded the Vietnam War, rock music still faced many of the challenges it did when it first came to existence in the 1950s.

Before Hair, playwrights and composers would never dream of having lyrics like those in Rado and Ragni's musical. Hair's fourth number “Sodomy,” even featured the lyrics, “Sodomy / Fellatio / Cunnilingus / Pederasty / Father / Why do these words sound so nasty?” Many thought that Hair was just being vulgar for the sake of being vulgar, but the fact is that its lyrics fit with the “free love” movement of its time.

Audiences weren’t just upset about the lyrics of Hair. “Where are the show tunes?” many asked, horrified to see that their beloved belters had morphed into grizzly-throated rockers. “Where's the class we've come to know and love?” they wondered as they scoffed at the nontraditional costumes of Hairand its many successors.

The cynics had to concede because rock musicals found their audience.

The youth culture of America has always eaten up and obsessed over rock musicals. Rent, a rock musical with music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, premiered in the mid-‘90s and explored the art scene at the height of the AIDS crisis in Alphabet City, New York. Many young Broadway fans fell in love with the cast of Rent's colorful and diverse characters and formed a cult following, calling themselves “Rentheads.”

While some mature elements ran throughout the show, Rent’s lyrics are, for the most part, less explicit than those of its grandfather Hair. Its most well-known number, the Act Two opener “Seasons of Love,” is an upbeat song that has traces of a traditional show tune. Positive lyrics touched its audience as the cast sang, “In daylights / In sunsets / In midnights / In cups of coffee / In inches / In miles / In laughter and strife / In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes / How do you measure, measure a year in the life? / How about love?” Rent ran on Broadway from 1999-2009, proving to theatre buffs that rock musicals actually had staying power.

Spring Awakening debuted on Broadway in 2006 as a rock musical with music by Duncan Sheik who wrote and sang that hit “I Am Barely Breathing” in the ‘90s. Steven Sater wrote the book, taking inspiration from the original German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. It focused on sexual repression in a small, late-19th century German town, mostly in the relationship between Melchior and Wendla who were originally played by Jonathan Groff and “Glee” star Lea Michele, respectively.

While having a timely advantage over Hair since it debuted in the 21st century, Spring Awakening still pushed boundaries: it boldly featured nudity scenes between actors playing teenagers, simulated sex, featured an on-stage suicide committed by Moritz (played by actor John Gallagher Jr., who went on to win the Tony award for best supporting actor in a musical for his portrayal of the role) and talked explicitly of masturbation. The story, although full of many gleeful songs, is ultimately a tragedy set to a rocking and diverse musical score.

Some of the controversial lyrics from Spring Awakening come from its profanely titled songs “Totally Fucked” and “The Bitch of Living.” Lyrics from the latter include, “She said, ‘Give me that hand, please / And the itch you can’t control / Let me teach you how to handle / All the sadness in your soul / Oh, we’ll work that silver magic / And aim it at the wall’ / She said, ‘Love may make you blind kid / But I wouldn’t mind at all.’”

While responsible for a cult following much like that of Rent’s, Spring Awakening suffered in the box office following the departure of its original cast members. It closed its doors at the Eugene O’Neill theatre in 2009. Despite the setback, the musical had many successful National tours and was produced in many other countries. It is still performed in colleges and community theatres throughout the country.

Rock musicals also made way for the similar but separate jukebox musical. A jukebox musical is a musical/play set and sung to the music and lyrics by a well-known artist or band. Examples include Mama MIA! set to the music of Swedish disco quartet ABBA, the 2007 film directed by Broadway big-shot Julie Taymore Across the Universe set to the ever-famous discography ofThe Beatles and the Tony award nominated American Idiot set to the punk tunes of Green Day’s concept album with the same title.

Rock musicals changed Broadway for the better in the opinion of many. All art forms have to grow and change over time; otherwise they become stagnant and stale, boring those who choose to appreciate them. Bringing rock music to theatre made young people interested, a feat in itself in the '60s.

In conclusion: Broadway simply rocks and there's nothing wrong with that.

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