Top 16 Rock and Roll Show Tunes

By Matt Meade

When I was young (all the way back in the 1980s), before I knew how things worked (as if I know how things work now) I would wonder why great songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables and “The Jets” from West Side Story were absent from the local radio station playlist.  Sure the songs on the pop station Fly 92 were all current dance tunes, but I felt like “What’s the Buzz” from Jesus Christ Superstar was just as catchy as “Come Baby Come” or “Dreamlover,” and even though “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera would never be as powerful as one of the local classic rock station’s Get The Led Out marathons, it was arguably more relevant having been released in 1986 rather than 1966.

I was obviously a little confused, but can you blame me?  By 1989 the distinction between the Broadway musical and rock and roll music was increasingly difficult to determine.  I mean, just look at what Prince was wearing at the time.

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You should see what I wear when I perform.
For decades Rappers, balladeers, and rockarollers have been borrowing from the theatricality, sexuality, and musicality of Broadway musicals.  Popular music has been show tuned.  The work of The Magnetic Fields, Queen, Sufjan Stevens, The Scissor Sisters, and Elton John as we know it would be impossible without the popularity and mass acceptance of Bye, Bye, Birdie, My Fair Lady, and Oliver.  And this trend did not become unfashionable in the 21st century.  Take a look at Jack White’s entire persona or any Super Bowl half time show for evidence of Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Bob Fossee.  Or just turn on your radio.  Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” could very well be ripped straight from some non-existent musical where rag-tag, apocalyptic soldiers jeté and goose step across a technicolor stage.

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This is either an array of rock and roll eccentricity or the new cast of Wicked

… Also: This is a picture of Cher.

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It is for the betterment of rock and roll music that this happened, of course.  It was also inevitable.  Rock, being progressive by nature, is designed to absorb influences better than more traditional and conservative forms of entertainment are capable of absorbing rock.  It’s why a musical like Spiderman: Turn of the Dark could not work.  The U2 scored musical collapsed under its own weight (and the weight of hastily constructed scaffolding) because the music of those Irish Christian rockers is so theatrical to begin with  that placing it into a dramatic setting reveals it for how silly it really is.

So, obviously rock and roll has borrowed from the Broadway musical, and vice versa, but it seems there will forever be a dividing line between the two forms, at least as far as radio is concerned.  I now know that FM stations will never play show tunes, but if they did, I think it would include songs a lot like the following.

Honorable Mention: Ziggy Stardust

This list only includes songs that were written for the stage, not songs from jukebox musicals like Mama Mia, or Rock of Ages or else this list would just be all Billy Joel songs from Movin’ Out with “Great Balls of Fire” from Million Dollar Quartet mixed in there somewhere.  Having said that, I want the first entry on this list to be a song that embodies what I love about musicals as interpreted by rock and roll.  Just to prove to you that this is a show tune and not a David Bowie song, I’ve embedded clip of the song being played by the most theatrical band of all time: Def Leppard.

16. “Aquarius” from Hair

The first song on the list from an honest to god musical is also a bit of a cheat.  It is the closest song on this list to fulfilling my childhood fantasy where songs from musicals enter the popular culture via the same avenue as Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”  “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” was lifted from the musical Hair by a band called The 5th Dimension and became a pretty big hit for them back in 1967.  It didn’t start a fad where songs from musicals became popular source material for rock and roll bands, but it did become the song every terrible movie and television show placed in the opening credits as a warning to any potential viewer that what they are about to watch is total garbage.  So we can all be thankful for that I guess.

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15. “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof

“If I Were a Rich Man” has the insistent beat and aggressive bass line typical of most hip hop artists.  If that fiddler got a little less melodic and a little more staccato, coming in with his bow on the twos and fours, the song would pretty much be every song Dr. Dre produced from 1994 – 2002.  It even mirrors the genre’s obsession with acquiring wealth and it participates in the practice of imagining how the affluent live their lives and how dope it would be if the singer of the song had access to the same riches.

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14. “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line    

The story of escape has been a fecund garden for songwriting since homo sapien started banging stones together. Both rock and roll and musical theater boast songs about how to escape. This paean to getting away from it all, for example, has the same conceit as most Mountain Goats records.  Not only that, but its limber bass line, halting cadence, and tidy melodies are so slick and compelling, that if Stevie Nicks covered this song tomorrow it would revive her career.

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13. “Fame” from Fame 

What is cooler than the late 70s-esque workout music shuffle that is The Fame Song?  Who doesn’t want to live forever?  Chuck Berry sure does.  Cuz he’s rock and roll.  This could be played during drive time in between the news and weather report.  It’s like an uptempo Carly Simon song that is actually about something.

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 12. “Mr. Mistoffolees” from Cats

This song sounds as dope as any pop song from Ace of Bass.  I know that might not sound like a compliment, but it is.

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11. “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)” from Damn Yankees

A song that is sex charged, about the devil, and salsa inflected?  It’s the kind of slinky song Beyoncé has been trying to write and perform her entire career.

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10. Seasons of Love” from RENT

Take note.  I didn’t say I was listing the songs that rock the hardest.  I said that I was listing the songs that are the most rock and roll.  If this was a bunch of songs from musicals that RAWKED I would have picked “Out Tonight,”  the entirety of The Starlight Express, and other howling monstrosities that feature songs that open with wammy bar dive bombs.  I didn’t pick those songs because they are almost always terrible.  The phony appropriation of other art forms is why musicals get such a bad rap to begin with.  Musicals should stick to what they are good at.  Lush instrumentation, evocative lyrical conceits, and hats.  This song has all of that, and it also has the benefit of being the most rock and roll of all the songs from RENT.

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Do you like my cap?
“Season of Love” is a really gorgeous song about being lost and lonely, about being honest and heartsick, about life and friendship, loss and love.  If that’s not what rock and roll is about than I don’t know what is.

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9. “Take That Look Off Your Face” from Tell Me on a Sunday

The torch song.  Perhaps the most perfect combination of the two forms.  Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Adele.  And Marti Webb.  What better use of the bombast, the melodrama of musicals than the torch song?

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8. “Ease on Down the Road” – from The Wiz

This is an easy one.  Stick pre-Off the Wall Michael Jackson in a scene with post-Supremes Diana Ross and you get one of the most enduring songs of the 70s.

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Sure it is a punchline to a lot of jokes by late night television hosts and sitcoms but it doesn’t mean the song isn’t great.  As a matter of fact, I would argue that it’s sort of what makes the song great (along with the chicken picked guitars, the bass line that dances like Mike Jackson’s scarecrow, and some uptempo percussion that could make Red Foxx just straight up lose it).

7. “Do-Doo” from Little Shop of Horrors

The Doo Wop singers are clearly the best, most interesting part of this production.  They aren’t exactly characters, they exist only to fulfill the role a Greek chorus would, but in a story full of cowards, murderers, and liars, the blameless Doo Wop singers are perhaps the only people you can root for.

Sure they pop up during the iconic main theme, but this little number feels like it would fit in on an oldies station without even calling attention to the fact that its about a 15 foot tall man-eating plant.

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6. “Maybe” from Annie

It’s no secret that I find Annie to be one of the saddest, most beautiful, and compelling musicals there is.  This one could be its saddest, it’s most compelling, its most beautiful number.  Maybe.

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5. “You’re the One That I Want” / “We Go Together” / “Summer Nights” / “Greased Lightnin’” from Grease

How hard is it to pick a favorite song from Grease?  Harder than it would be for for Travolta to fit into those jeans ever again.

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4. “All That Jazz” from Chicago

If you don’t think Liza Minelli is rock and roll then you should see Scorsese’s New York, New York and watch her go toe-to-toe with DeNiro (and this is 1977, pre-Analyze This DeNiro (and if you think a movie about Jazz can’t be rock and roll than you’ve never seen Straight No Chaser)).  DeNiro spends the entirety of New York, New York scowling and looking menacing and Liza just looks down her nose at him like he is asking her to do him a favor she doesn’t plan to do.  His mad sax player is a cross between Jake Lamatta and Travis Bickle, but more erratic.  I know that no one has seen this movie, but if you think Daniel Day Lewis chews the scenery in Gangs of New York, you should see Liza Minelli tear the sets apart in this under-appreciated classic.  Liza is tough and beautiful and refuses to let all the mean garbage that DeNiro is throwing at her stick.

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Liza has a reputation for being one of the best ever and I am pretty sure that she is under-valued.  She transforms anything she touches and that includes, “All That Jazz” from the musical Chicago.  Apparantly Liza has never met a city that she couldn’t level in under three minutes and four seconds.

Sure others have sung the song and done it justice, Bebe Neuwerth and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but no one has sung it like Liza.  Any rock and roll diva could learn a lot from Lucile two.

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3. “Wig in a Box” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig is a celebrated success for many reasons.  It offers bleak comedy as a backdrop for the often heartwrenching vulnerability of its main character; it is self-aware but shows no restraint; the show can also be self-deprecating as often as it is self-aggrandizing.  That is to say it is complex.  It claims to be punk rock, and though it doesn’t quite get that right, it still manages to come across as fresh, modern and subversive.  It’s music is closer, in tone and style, to approximating the art-damaged New Wave and Post New-Wave artists that the 80s produced.  Duran Duran, The Smiths, Echo and The Bunnymen, T-Rex, Depeche Mode, The New York Dolls, Boy George…  Pretty much anyone with great hair and a high pitched voice.  There are also, to the song’s credit, ooh ooh oohs that sound like they come somewhere from somewhere between The Dandy Warhols and Oasis.

Despite / Because of its references to gender fluidity, the Berlin Wall, trailer parks, and pretending to be Miss Farah Fawcet from TV, the musical has made the transition from trying to copy glam rockers to influencing rock acts that came after it for a generation.  The Scissor Sisters, Youngest Son, Antony and the Johnsons, and Perfume Genius all owe a debt to this wild musical.

Both Neil Patrick Harris’ and John Cameron Mitchell’s versions of the epic “Wig in a Box” are moving and rousing and I have linked them below.  I am excited to hear what Taye Leo Diggs (as I assume he will now be known) will do with this, the most rock and roll song in a musical full of rock and roll songs, when he takes the stage as Hedwig this summer at the Belasco Theater.

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2. “Heaven on Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar

However great all these other musicals are, there is one that separates itself.   If you doubt that this is the most rock and roll of all rock operas (including and especially the derivative Tommy) consider the fact that the musical features more flagellation than a G.G. Allen show, more revealing outfits than a Power Girl comic, and stranger sexuality than that episode of My Strange Addiction where that lady eats dryer sheets.  That’s real rock and roll you fucking cowards.

The music from Jesus Christ Superstar, when first released, may have sounded thin compared to the bloodthirsty funk of Parliament and James Brown, but its authentic pentatonic grooves and pointed octave bass lines have sustained it over the years.  The rhythm section is doing a pretty great Booker T and the MGs impression and it turns out Andrew Webber is familiar enough with the work of the The Funk Brothers to write songs that exist somewhere between Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and the early work of Sly and the Family Stone.

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The musical numbers from the film version are delicious enough that even the Vatican gave this obvious sacrilege of a film a pass and it eventually lead to Ted Neely making a career out of playing the son of God.  The guy who steals the show, however, is Carl Anderson who plays Judas, the first guy ever to struggle with his Christian faith.  Judas is the coolest of all anti-heroes and he gets the last word in this great musical about betrayal, capital punishment, antisemitism, and whores.  Classics tunes include the triumphant finale “Superstar,” and the beautiful love song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” but “Heaven on Their Minds” is the most rock and roll of this rock and roll musical.  Anyone who can’t imagine Anderson wrapping a scarf around a microphone stand while fronting a shaggy, coked out R&B band funking up the Isle of White, doesn’t love rock and roll.

1. “Sweet Transvestite” from Rocky Horror Picture Show  

If ever there was a platonic ideal for a frontman of a rock and roll band Tim Curry in this scene from the film Rocky Horror Picture Show (which is, of course, not to be confused with the original stage production which is entitled The Rocky Horror Show) would be it.  Where most musicals try to be edgy, confrontational, or upending, this one actually manages to do it.  It is sexy and strange, vulgar and unapologetic; the entire musical is about people trying to lick each other, eat each other, or shoot each other with lasers.  Also, Meat Loaf has something to do with it.  While Jesus Christ Superstar may have the best music, Hedwig may have the most to say, and Lion King might be the biggest money maker, this song, with its epic reveal and Curry’s complete control of the stage and music and audience, is hands down the most rock and roll a show tune can get.

Disagree?  Let me know in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Top 16 Rock and Roll Show Tunes

  1. “There are Worse Things I Could Do” is a great tune too. But you see my dilemma don’t you? I could pretty much just put all the songs from Grease on there. Grease pretty much nails that era of music. It captures something about the music that West Side Story doesn’t (though West Side is great for other reasons). It recreates every bop-bop and every shamalama ding dong. It understands the fun and the innocence, but also the sex and the teenaged angst of all those late 50s, early 60s pre-Dylan songs did. Such good stuff.

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