Rock Musicals Heat Up Broadway’s Winter

4 minute read

Broadway and rock music have long had an uneasy, arm’s-length relationship. Despite a couple of successful early hookups (Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar), the two seemed content to go their separate ways during most of the rock revolution. Major rock artists wanted nothing to do with the middle-of-the-road sounds (and audiences) of Broadway, and with an occasional exception (like the Tony-winning Rent) Broadway’s embrace of rock has been mostly an exercise in nostalgia–recycling oldies in shows like Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

But the times are a-changing. Two rock superstars, Bono and Sting, have each taken a stab at Broadway in recent years (Spider-Man and The Last Ship, respectively). David Byrne created a bracing world-beat score for Here Lies Love, his off-Broadway musical about Imelda Marcos. Duncan Sheik, who wrote the rock-driven score for Spring Awakening, will return to Broadway in the spring with a new musical based on Bret Easton Ellis’ slasher novel American Psycho. And Lin-Manuel Miranda has shown that hip-hop can turn the most unlikely of musical subjects–Founding Father Alexander Hamilton–into the hottest ticket in New York City.

In a fitting sign of the times, onetime hitmaker Andrew Lloyd Webber has returned to his rock-‘n’-roll roots, writing the score for Broadway’s new School of Rock. Based on the 2003 Jack Black movie, about a deadbeat rock guitarist who turns a class of nerdy private-school kids into a headbanging rock band, the show misses much of the film’s lazy charm as it hammers home its rock-is-liberating message with all the subtlety of an AC/DC power chord. But Webber’s lightly tongue-in-cheek rock songs–like the kids’ anthem of rebellion, “Stick It to the Man”–get you tapping your feet like nothing in The Phantom of the Opera.

The marriage of rock and theater can produce duds as well. Billie Joe Armstrong, the Green Day lead singer who brought his concept album American Idiot to Broadway in 2010, has followed it with These Paper Bullets!, a spoofy update of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, revolving around a Beatles-like pop group in the early ’60s. But except for a few clever, faux-Beatles numbers that the group performs onstage, the show is barely a musical at all–more like a scrappy, not-very-funny college revue in need of a good rewrite.

There’s no spoofing going on in Lazarus, the dead-serious new off-Broadway musical from David Bowie. The former glam rocker, working with Irish playwright Enda Walsh and avant-garde director Ivo van Hove, has decided to revisit the character of Thomas Newton, the stranded space alien he played in the 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. The result is at once the most puzzling and most dazzling new musical of the season.

In the movie, the humanoid alien comes to earth, learns our ways from watching television, and builds a billion-dollar conglomerate, all so he can return and save his dying planet from drought. In Lazarus, which apparently takes place years later, Newton is now a melancholy recluse, swilling gin in his barren New York apartment and pining for his lost love.

Lazarus is needlessly opaque and dramatically static, but it looks and sounds terrific. A giant video screen sits at center stage, dissolving in and out of static, the images sometimes mimicking the action onstage, at other times producing characters who emerge from the screen into real life. There’s an ethereal, blond waif who wants to take Newton home, his smitten assistant and her jealous husband, an assortment of blue-haired vixens and geisha girls, and a bad guy named Valentine who commits a murder–I think. It’s all set to Bowie’s hard-driving, angst-ridden songs, both old (“The Man Who Sold The World,” “Changes”) and new.

Michael C. Hall, as Newton, captures the dry, metallic timbre of Bowie’s voice, and the entire committed cast (accompanied by a band visible through a glass wall at the rear of the stage) does a lot to help distract us from the near incomprehensible story line. Call it a tone poem on the subject of alienation. Or the best live-action music video ever put onstage. Or maybe better to just give up, turn and face the strange.

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