Gonna Take Control and Rock Your Soul

It's been so amazing working on High Fidelity again, and seeing again up-clsoe the depth of artistry and seriousness of craft beneath what the original Broadway production team thought was just a standard musical comedy. And it's got me thinking again about the rock musical and the way our art form is changing.

I think about this stuff a lot. Page back through my blog and you'll see what I mean...

Nine years ago, when we were working on Bat Boy the first time, composer Larry O'Keefe (Bat Boy, Legally Blonde, Bring It On) told me that he sees all rock musicals fitting into two categories. With some of them, the rock and roll is the point. With others, the rock and roll just happens to be the language of the storytelling. I had never thought about it that way before, but I found that distinction really interesting and really meaningful. I realized that most early rock musicals were the former, and most recent rock musicals are the latter. Although it's not really that simple. Some are both. And as the rock musical becomes the dominant form in the musical theatre (at last!), the rock musical will expand and evolve and will no doubt inspire surprising and wonderful offspring that will take our art form even further.

We're already on a dual path – the Rodgers & Hammerstein model has evolved into the serious rock musical (often rock opera), like Next to Normal and Rent. The George M. Cohan/George Abbott/Jerry Herman model of classic musical comedy has evolved into the neo-musical comedy (which is not always a rock musical but it usually is), shows like Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, and Lysistrata Jones. And then there are hybrids, that borrow from both models, like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and High Fidelity.

So really, rock musicals can be divided up into two categories, in two different directions. For instance, Bat Boy is a neo-musical comedy that uses rock as its musical language, but it's not the point of the story; while Cry-Baby is a neo-musical comedy in which rock is the central point of the story, both a plot device and the central metaphor for the clash of cultures and moralities at the center of the story.

Likewise, Next to Normal and Rent are both serious rock musicals, using many of the Rodgers & Hammerstein narrative devices, and both shows use rock as the language of storytelling because that's the music of these characters' lives. The rock doesn't mean anything; it's just an authentic voice for these people. On the other hand, Jesus Christ Superstar also follows the basic rules of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, but Superstar uses rock as its essential point, to bring the events of 2,000 years ago into the political and social consciousness of modern America. The show tells a political story, not a religious one, so it uses the music of rebellion to give voice to the subversive political rebel Jesus of Nazareth.

With Superstar, the fact that the story is being told in contemporary musical language, in conscious rejection of the archaic language of the Bible, is the whole reason the show exists. Although, let's be clear – we're talking about both the music and lyrics as rock and roll. Just retelling this story in a conventional, straight-forward manner would have never garnered the superstardom – or the outrage, and therefore, the press coverage – that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice found themselves in the center of. Rock and roll is the sound of rebellion, and it absolutely defined the energy and attitude of the show, implicitly making Jesus and his crew political rebels merely because they sounded like the political rebels of late 60s and early 70s. The very idea of setting this most revered Bible story to rock and roll was itself an act of rebellion, perhaps in a way we don't really understand today...

Evita was a similar case, in which the score had to be rock because Tim Rice reimagined Eva Peron as a rock star. The rock music and his subversive, smartass lyrics constructed his metaphor for him.

There's actually one more category of rock musicals, but it hardly exists anymore. It's the rock concept musical – shows like Hair and The Rocky Horror Show and Grease, in which narrative is less important than the ideas at the center of the show. (You might argue that American Idiot belongs in this group.) With Rocky Horror, the rock and roll gives the subliminally sexual 1950s horror movie style an overt sexuality and an irony that defines the show's oddball sensibility, and it underlines the story's implicit satire of America's Sexual Revolution. Like Hedwig, the genre of rock in Rocky Horror – early punk and glam – defines the story, conjuring the only time in popular music when gender was fluid...

Where Jesus Christ Superstar was primarily a political story, Grease was only subtextually political. But here, rather than rebellion being the point, in Grease rock and roll itself is the central character. It both defines period and tapped into the still new conversation in 1972 about the effects of rock and roll on America, on American sexuality, on American teenagers and their culture, etc. Grease is a show about how rock and roll changed sex in America. More songs in the show were about rock and roll (both literally and as a metaphor for sex) than were about Danny and Sandy, who only seem to be the central characters. In the clumsy movie version of Grease, the love story might have been the point, but on stage that romance is just a device for making a larger, more interesting point. And significantly, only five of the twenty songs in the show are about Danny and Sandy. No other musical would ignore the "central couple" that much. But how many of Grease's songs are explicitly about rock and roll? The "Alma Mater Parody", "Those Magic Changes," "Shakin' at the High School Hop," "Born to Hand Jive," "Rock and Roll Party Queen," and arguably "All Choked Up" (see my analysis essay for more on this). And the rest are about sex.

Return to the Forbidden Planet almost deserves its own category, as a Shakespearean, science fiction, rock and roll musical. Certainly rock is a fundamental part of the concept of the show, the wacky mashup of classic rock songs, with 1950s style science fiction and one of Shakespeare's greatest works; but at the same time you could argue that these people sing rock and roll because though they may live in the future, it's a future from the point of view of the 1950s. The period rock and roll makes clear the subtle joke of this being the scientifically naive, fantasy future that 1950s culture so fetishized. The show's rock score adds a very funny layer of irony on top of the stone cold seriousness of the actual 1950s movie Forbidden Planet (which is actually pretty great).

And really, High Fidelity gets its own category too. What makes this show special was the one thing its Broadway production team seemed to miss entirely. This is a genuinely alternative show, one that avoids “show tunes,” linear storytelling, and the fourth wall, one peppered liberally with the word fuck, and one that offers up only the most tentative of happy endings. (You have to wonder why they didn't open it off Broadway first – it might have fared better.)

High Fidelity follows Stephen Sondheim’s prime directive that Content Dictates Form, a lesson the show’s Broadway director and design team apparently have not learned. These characters are people who live outside the confines of mainstream American life, outside (mostly) the mainstream economic system, outside the mainstream culture. And so the creators of High Fidelity wrote a show that lives outside the conventions of mainstream musical theatre, a show that uses rock music as more than accompaniment, a show that plays around with structure in the way many recent American indie films have, a show that grapples head-on with real human pain. Everyone in this story is damaged. And though Rob is our hero, he’s also a real jackass. Many musicals today can claim that they reject the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, but only a few can claim that they use music and lyrics in genuinely new ways.

High Fidelity can.

Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green haven’t just imitated Aretha Franklin in the song “She Goes;” instead they’ve actually written a new Aretha Franklin song, a song Franklin might actually sing. It’s not a Broadway version of Franklin’s style or a parody; it is that style. Likewise, they don’t just imitate Al Green and Percy Sledge with the finale, “Turn the World Off;” they’ve actually written a new R&B anthem worthy of Green or Sledge. In a review of the first regional production of the show at New Line in 2008, Paul Friswold wrote in The Riverfront Times, “The music’s homage to real-world rock songs achieves perfect pitch when Bruce Springsteen arrives to provide Rob guidance in the greatest Springsteen song Springsteen never wrote.”

Instead of just writing a score that references lots of pop/rock songs and artists for comic effect – or worse yet, as a commercial gimmick upon which the whole show has to stand or fall – we just hear Rob's world through Rob’s ears. We get inside Rob’s brain and think about how this rock music snob hears the world around him. The musical choices Kitt makes are dramatic choices, not entertainment choices. Just as Rob does in his conscious life, in his subconscious life (i.e., the show we're watching) he uses rock music to try to figure out the people and events around him. Music is how he makes sense of his world, although he eventually learns that his music can fail him, that it doesn’t hold all the answers. For that, he has to dig down into his own heart.

Ultimately, High Fidelity is about a relationship, but not between Rob and Laura (as it would be if it were a musical comedy) -- it's about the relationship between Rob and his music, an intimate but immature relationship that has to change and mature before Rob can live his life as an adult. Maybe more than any other rock musical (with the possible exception of bio-musicals like Jersey Boys), this is a rock musical about rock music.

To make this point as clearly as we can in New Line's production, Mike Dowdy (who plays Dick in our show), had the idea to create a "Now Playing" rack on our store counter so that the audience could see the musical influences on Rob's story -- what we New Liners call "the source rock." So when Liz is singing "She Goes," an Aretha Franklin album is in the "Now Playing" rack. When Laura sings "Number 5 with a Bullet," there's a Pat Benatar album in the rack. You get the idea. When Judy Newmark reviewed our show for the Post-Dispatch this time, she ended her review with this – "If you go, be sure to notice the record jackets displayed on the shop’s check-out counter. Without any fanfare, they keep changing, a subtle graph of Rob’s state of mind. New Line specializes in those thoughtful little touches, perfect for a thoughtful little show like High Fidelity.” What I love about Mike's idea is that it so reinforces everything I've been talking about here.

It's all about the rock.

Long Live the (Rock) Musical!