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The Theater Will Rock. A History of the Rock Musical from
Hair to Hewig
Elizabeth L. Wollman

Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006.
$ 29.95, 271 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-472-11576-1/ ISBN-10: 0-472-11576-6

Reviewed by Claude Chastagner


It’s a sad story Elizabeth Wollman is telling us, probably inadvertently, a story of misunderstanding, contempt, receding innovation, and crass commercialization. I am aware she would not wholly agree with my reading of her book, but such a conclusion is by no means irrelevant. Hers is the story of the rock musicals Broadway has staged for the last fifty years. It began with the scorn, sometimes the hate, traditional producers and musicians heaped in the 1950s at the genre called rock’n’roll, which they dismissed as noisy, a mere vulgar fad. It was not until they realized that “rock’n’roll was here to stay” and that they could benefit, both aesthetically and financially, from incorporating the sounds and rhythms of this new genre into their productions that they embraced a less biased perspective, so much so that

almost every season since Hair arrived at the Biltmore [1968], at least a few musicals that borrow heavily from contemporary popular genres have appeared on, Off, or Off-Off-Broadway to wildly varying degrees of commercial and critical success. [1]

Of course, it all depends on what you call “contemporary popular genres,” and this is where Wollman writes a rather clever, pedagogical, and extremely well researched little book, interspersing her chronological account of rock musicals’ development with what she calls interludes, each one devoted to more theoretical, transversal issues. This enables her to deal economically with tricky issues such as “what is a contemporary popular genre” or “what is rock’n’roll, rock, pop, or the rock musical.” Obviously, as she acknowledges readily, such definitions are elusive and she has to content herself with very general, broad acceptations. And the reader is left wondering to what extent the label “rock musical” is not merely the creation of the theater press or marketing agents. I, for one, find it very difficult to consider Hair’s music as rock music.
Since this musical is the standard according to which other musicals are included in the “rock” category, Wollman’s entire argument is seriously undermined, and her whole edifice becomes shaky. Her interludes, rather brief and sketchy, include a study of the concept of authenticity, the history of audience and the importance of the attempts at breaking the “fourth wall” in order to emulate what is happening on a rock stage (but what about, among many others, Pirandello’s previous attempts?), the rise of the (non-rock) megamusicals (Cats, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera), and their mostly negative impact on rock ones, or economic changes, the “corporatization” of Broadway, and the “Disneyfication” induced by Disney’s takeover of Times Square in New York.

Her chronological account begins with the early attempts at fusing rock’n’roll with the musical theater (Bye Bye Birdie). It then moves to what is considered as the first success, despite numerous controversies, Hair, and the copy-cat musicals that followed. The “fragmented” rock musicals (i.e., without substantial or convincing plots) such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Dude, Godspell, or Beatlemania are then described in detail, their storyline and music as much as the conditions of their production, with numerous first-hand observations and interviews of their protagonists, and revealing, exciting anecdotes. Wollman finally turns to more recent productions, such as blockbuster movies adapted to the stage (Footloose, The Full Monty, Saturday Night Fever), and the highly successful though more challenging Rent and especially Hedwig and the Angry Inch, whose storyline is based on the life of a transgender performer. The last chapter is devoted to the current revival fad (Jesus-Christ Superstar) and Abba’s Mamma Mia!

Her book concludes, once more too hastily to really be convincing, on the increasing demands, and subsequent threats, commercialization pose to the future of rock musicals. As one protagonists puts it, “That’s what commercialism has done for Broadway: a lot more actors have jobs,” [148] to which another replies: “The problem is, there’s so much crap being staged that it’s sort of hard to care much about the work you get, once you get it” [150].

A surprising absence in Wollman’s book is Hollywood. Admittedly, she focuses, and rightly so, on Broadway, but several of the musicals she describes have had a second life with their cinematographic versions (Hair, Hedwig, Jesus-Christ Superstar...) which in many cases have, to some extent, helped them to reach a larger, more rock-oriented and international audience. The impact of such successes would have been a welcome addition to Wollman’s social history. Instead, a mere two pages are devoted to the subject, dealing mostly, besides, with the cinematographic versions of live performances by rock bands, not quite her subject.

Musicals have rarely crossed over to the rock world, and rock music has only been gingerly accepted by the musical world, Wollman regrets. Reading her book helps to understand why. The quest for authenticity, one of the defining elements of rock music might be one reason, insofar as musicals insist unashamedly on artifice and glamour. But it is powerless to bridge the gap between the two worlds. After all, as she herself reminds the reader, even commercially and aesthetically successful musicals like The Who’s Tommy, based on previously released albums of unambiguously rock music, have had, in order to fit the stage, to change the style of the music to such an extent that most rock fans no longer consider it as rock.

Useful as it is for the Broadway musical scholar, Wollman’s essay remains a specialist’s book, with only limited appeal outside its sphere. And I am afraid that despite her wish, both the rock fan and the rock scholar will find little reason to change their opinion regarding the nature and appeal of the so-called rock musicals.



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