21 Best Pop Rock Musicals Ever

Best Pop Rock Musicals Ever

Musicals are the meeting place of talent and production. Musicals regularly become films; as you’re about to see, films sometimes become musicals too.

While many elements must come together for a musical to be great, the thing that people remember most after the fact is the music. So, the music must be great for the musical to be great.

In this guide, we explore the best pop-rock musicals ever.


Loosely based on the 1896 opera La bohème by Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica, and Giuseppe Giacosa, which was based on the 1851 Henri Murger novel Scenes of Bohemian Life, Jonathan Larson’s award-winning rock musical, Rent, is a cult classic.

The story follows a group of impoverished young adults trying to survive in Lower Manhattan’s East Village over the course of a year. With overt references to drug use and the then terrifying HIV/AIDS, Rent was a real shocker to a late 90s audience.

If you have yet to see Rent, you should promptly add it to your bucket list.

Classic musical performances


Anyone growing up in the 70s and 80s will remember the 1978 musical romantic comedy film Grease starring John Travolta and Olivia-Newton John. The musical remains a mainstay in high school theater, and its enduring popularity most certainly has something to do with the killer retro-rock soundtrack.

Grease was originally created by Jim Jacobs, Warren Casey, and John Farrar. The musical was first performed in 1971, and at the time it was considered very raunchy, aggressive, and even vulgar, though it was soon toned down for future performances.

Over the years, its core content has been further diluted, and its uniqueness quashed. But this has done little to hinder its popularity.

Mamma Mia!

Written by British playwright Catherine Johnson and composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, Mamma Mia! Is a jukebox musical based on the songs of Swedish pop rock supergroup ABBA. The title, of course, comes from their 1975 hit, “Mamma Mia.”

The musical includes well-known hits like “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Money, Money, Money,” “SOS,” and “Mamma Mia,” among other recognizable tunes.

The musical also spawned the 2008 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Waters, Dominic Cooper, Amanda Seyfried, and Christine Baranski.

We Will Rock You

We Will Rock You is a jukebox musical based on the songs of the British rock band Queen. Its story revolves around a group of Bohemians and their struggle to restore free thought, fashion, and live music in a future where self-expression has all but gone extinct among the masses.

Initially, the musical was panned by critics, but it nevertheless went on to become an audience favorite (due in no small part to Queen’s incredible music). We Will Rock You even went on to become the longest-running musical at the Dominion Theater.

Queen guitarist Brian May said they were in talks with their manager, Jim Beach, as early as the mid-1990s about a possible jukebox musical. The idea didn’t quite come together at the time, but once it landed in the hands of British Australian comedian, author, actor, lyricist, and director Ben Elton, it came to life.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages is yet another jukebox musical largely featuring the works of 80s glam metal bands like Twisted Sister, Journey, Styx, Bon Jovi, Poison, Europe, and Pat Benatar, among others. Disappointingly, the show does not feature the Def Leppard song of the same name. The show originally debuted in 2009.

The original Broadway production ran for over 2,300 performances and became one of the top 40 longest-running Broadway shows in history.

Rock of Ages follows the story of a city boy, a small-town girl, and their budding romance on the Sunset Strip. Yep, the “storyline” of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Movies turned musicals

The Rocky Horror Show

With music, lyrics, and book by Richard O’Brien, The Rocky Horror Show is a musical and a comedic tribute to Sci-Fi and horror B movies from the 30s through to the 60s.

The musical follows the story of a newly engaged couple who get caught in a storm and come face to face with mad transvestite scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter. His new creation, Rocky, is the equivalent of a Frankenstein monster except that he’s muscular, blond, and bronzed.

The musical premiered in June 1973 at the Royal Court Theatre. The musical was also adapted to the now infamous 1975 film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick.

School of Rock

Based on the 2003 film School of Rock starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White, and Sarah Silverman, the School of Rock musical follows the misadventures of protagonist Dewey Finn, a lazy rock singer, and guitarist who can’t seem to find any work.

If you know the plot of the movie, then you know what happens next – Finn pretends to be a sub at a prep school, and noticing the musical talent of his students, he forms a fifth-grader rock band to join and win the Battle of the Bands.

The School of Rock musical is reportedly family-friendly, especially thanks to the addition of children in the band. The original score was composed by none other than English composer and impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, which is another major selling point.

Billy Elliot: The Musical

Based on the 2000 film, Billy Elliot, Billy Elliot: The Musical features the music of the legendary Elton John, and book and lyrics by English playwright, TV writer, screenwriter, and lyricist, Lee Hall (who was also responsible for the film’s screenplay).

This musical is about Billy, a British boy without a mother. He begins taking ballet lessons, and his story evolves into one of struggle and fulfillment. The story takes place amidst the 1984 – 1985 UK miners’ strike in County Durham, North East England, which brought about strife among families and communities.

The musical premiered in 2005 at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London.


Based on the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, Hairspray the musical is set in 1962 Baltimore, Maryland. With 1960s-style rhythm and blues and dance music, the story follows Tracy Turnblad, whose dream is to dance on a local TV show called The Corny Collins Show.

Having won the opportunity to dance on the show, Turnblad becomes an overnight celebrity and an agent of social change. The musical premiered in 2002 in Seattle and had an astonishing run of 2,642 performances before closing in January 2009.

Hairspray features the music of Marc Shaiman, the lyrics of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan.

Music hits in plays

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch premiered in 1988 and opened Off-Broadway. The rock musical features music and lyrics by musician and composer Stephen Trask, and a book by actor, playwright, screenwriter, singer, songwriter, producer, and director Cameron Mitchell.

The story revolves around the fictional genderqueer East German singer Hedwig Robinson, who was the child of a U.S. Army major general. The music leans heavily on androgynous 1970s glam rock by the likes of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and John Lennon.

The show eventually debuted on Broadway in 2014, and it featured Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall (now there’s something to see!). Those looking to challenge the norms in terms of self-acceptance, gender, and relationships will love Hedwig.

LIZZIE: The Musical

LIZZIE: The Musical is based on the life of accused killer Lizzie Borden. It was written by Tim Maner and features the lyrics of Tim Maner and Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, as well as the compositions of Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt.

The musical explores the mysterious mind of Lizzie Borden and her motivations, who in the musical is joined by her older sister Emma, her maid Bridget, and her neighbor Alice.

The rock score, which has been described as “blistering,” owes much to Heart, Bikini Kill, and The Runaways.


Based on the 1990 John Waters film, Cry-Baby, the Cry-Baby musical features the music of musician, songwriter, composer, and record producer Adam Schlesinger, the lyrics of comedy writer and lyricist David Javerbaum, and book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan (of Hairspray fame).

The musical follows Baltimore teenager Allison Vernon-Williams, who gets into a relationship with the leader of rebel outcasts, Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker. The musical premiered in November 2007 at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California.

The musical wasn’t immediately met with critical acclaim, but as with the movie, many consider it a masterpiece and a cult classic. The music mostly consists of gentle 1950s rock.


Memphis is a musical loosely based on the short life of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first DJs ever to play black music on the radio in the 1950s.

It features the music of musician and songwriter David Bryan (best known as the keyboardist of Bon Jovi), the lyrics of David Bryan and playwright, lyricist, and author Joe DiPietro, and a book by Joe DiPietro.

Must-see musicals

Zombie Prom

The Off-Broadway musical Zombie Prom was produced in 1993 and premiered in New York City in 1996. It features the music of composer Dana P. Rowe and a book and lyrics by lyricist and playwright John Dempsey. The musical went on to be adapted as a short film (launched in 2006) as well.

The musical is based on Dempsey’s fictional story about a teenage boy who is brought back to life (as a zombie) by his high school sweetheart and her love for him.

While the story is relatively typical for a musical in that it revolves around a good girl and a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, the twist is that the bad boy becomes a zombie.

American Idiot

Green Day’s 2004 studio album American Idiot spawned multiple unforgettable hits, whether it’s the eponymous “American Idiot,” the pop-rock of “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” or the power balladry of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

When you think about it, there are few releases as perfect as American Idiot to base a musical on, especially given its “concept” status. Following the story of Jesus of Suburbia, the album laments the generation that grew up with 9/11 and the Iraq War.

The musical follows three boys looking to leave behind their safe suburban upbringing. Reportedly, when the music of American Idiot is sung in a big ensemble, it makes for a thrilling and impressive experience.

American Idiot features the music of Green Day, with lyrics by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, and a book by Billie Joe Armstrong and theatre director, filmmaker, and playwright Michael Mayer.

Sing Street

Based on John Carney’s 2016 film Sing Street, the Sing Street musical features the music and lyrics of Scottish musician, songwriter, and record producer Gary Clark and John Carney, and a book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh.

The official premiere of Sing Street on the Great White Waywas ostensibly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, though it played to sold-out houses Off-Broadway prior.

However, the indie film developed a passionate following, and audiences love the coming-of-age story featuring a light rock score.

Bare: The Musical

The coming-of-age rock musical, Bare: The Musical, is a new version of Bare: A Pop Opera featuring the music of composer, orchestrator, and conductor Damon Intrabartolo, with lyrics and a book by Jon Hartmere.

The musical was evolved because of LGBTQ suicides following (but not due to) the 2004 production. The main change that was made is a deeper exploration of the characters.

Musically, Bare: The Musical leans much heavier on the rock side of things than you might expect. The underrated musical tells the story of a group of teens enrolled in Catholic school wrestling with sexuality, teen pregnancy, drugs, and death.

Theatrical shows featuring music

Passing Strange

Passing Strange follows the story of a young African American artist’s journey of self-discovery with self-referential humor, as well as existentialist and meta-fictional components.

The comedy-drama rock musical features the music of Heidi Rodewald and singer-songwriter / playwright Stew, with the lyrics and book by Stew.

The musical would have productions Off-Broadway and in Berkeley, CA before premiering on Broadway in 2008.

The Who’s Tommy

Based on the 1969 rock opera Tommy by the English rock band The Who, The Who’s Tommy is a rock musical featuring the music of The Who guitarist Pete Townshend with a book by Townshend and American-Canadian director Des McAnuff.

The musical has also been referred to as a “rock opera,” and of course, it features the music of The Who. However, some layers and depth were added to the music, and the musical benefits from the embellishment.

The musical premiered in San Diego, CA, at La Jolla Playhouse in July 1992, and it would go on to debut on Broadway in March 1993 at St. James Theatre in New York.

Spring Awakening

Based on the 1981 German play Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening is a coming-of-age rock musical set in 19th-century Germany. The musical follows a group of teenagers discovering adolescent sexuality and the turmoil that can ensue. The score combines elements of alternative rock and folk rock.

Spring Awakening features the music of singer-songwriter and composer Duncan Sheik with a book and lyrics by poet, playwright, lyricist, TV writer, and screenwriter Steven Sater.

The musical would premiere on Broadway in December 2006 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City. Its success can be attributed to the fact that the heartbreaking musical tackles tough topics head-on.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a comedic historical rock musical covering the founding of the Democratic Party. America’s seventh President, Andrew Jackson, is portrayed as an emo rock star in the musical, which primarily focuses on his relationship with Rachel, populism, and the Indian Removal Act.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson features the music and lyrics of composer and lyricist Michael Friedman and a book by writer and director Alex Timbers.

The original rock score features a mix of driving rock songs, acoustic numbers, and some quirky numbers (as you might expect) too.

Top Pop Rock Musicals, Final Thoughts

And with that, we hope you found everything you were looking for. While Broadway musicals are usually a sure bet, Off-Broadway is well worth paying attention to as well. You just never know what might end up becoming the next cult classic.

There is no shortage of pop-rock musicals to attend year-round, so if you’re a fan, make sure to keep an ear to the ground. Check local listings and get your tickets early, because the best shows tend to sell out early.

Have fun!

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