21 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.

Rent

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

Grease

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.

Hairspray

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.

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