Thursday, August 1, 2013

Rock Musicals: Grease to Mormon

Attending two musicals in four days based on rock and roll but were created almost two generations apart got me thinking about how much the music once created for records and radio play has become such a huge creative influence in our culture. The experiences, seeing Grease done by a community theater in a high school auditorium and Book of Mormon by a national company seemed to bookend the spectrum of production values.

For starters, guess which musical this Wikipedia description refers to: “Raunchy, raw, aggressive, vulgar.” That was a reaction to the earliest version of Grease when it began in Chicago in 1971. Clearly it has been homogenized and sanitized over the years although it can still hit some “taboos” for the sake of humor. By the early seventies, recreating the music (and teenage traumas) of the 1950’s could find an audience.

It was on Broadway for a then record 3,388 performances, then twice on film (look for Stockard Channing in pajamas) and then revived again twice on Broadway. The stage version has winning numbers like, "Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee" and “Born to Hand Jive” and the film gave us top-40 hits like "Hopelessly Devoted To You" and “You’re the One That I Want” and today’s productions mix songs from both. In watching the Alliance Theater production at Chantilly High, it was great to see actual kids playing kids, enjoying the same music as their (grand?) parents and reminding us of those days of sock hops, drive-ins, and malt shops that now we only see on television or film.

Book of Mormon is a different breed of cat but when they dimmed the lights and a light show swam across the walls and ceilings, it was vintage psychedelia from the golden age of Hair and Woodstock. Clearly the South Park guys and their collaborators are products of a rock and roll generation (or two) and know how to tap into that music for energy, nostalgia and comedy.

So it seems like this music is everywhere. On Broadway it is Berry Gordy’s Motown The Musical and Cindi Lauper’s Tony winner, Kinky Boots. In Washington, there is a rock musical called Spin and the Arena Stage’s One Night With Janis Joplin is in its second run before heading to Broadway this fall. Million Dollar Quartet is returning this fall

Stephen King and John Mellencamp have conspired with T. Bone Burnett to create a musical called Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. It is on a limited tour this fall but it’s also a CD and ebook. When the threesome appeared on Stephen Colbert earlier this summer, Colbert summed up the project this way: “You’ve got a ghost story of murder and death, you’ve got love lost and someone with their head eaten off. Are these upbeat summer fun songs?”


  1. Grease is like a perpetual Top 40 hit!
    Want to see Book of Mormon.

    Thanks for bringing some stage into your vinyl milieu.

  2. Like many of us, before there was rock and roll (or folk music) there were Broadway Shows and much of their music is classic...from Oklahoma to Music Man, et. al.