Inside the New Wave of Rock Musicals

From the Go-Go's to the Grateful Dead – how a slew of classic songbooks are making their way to to the stage

Read how a new wave of rock musicals is bringing the work of artists like Jimmy Buffett, the Go-Go's and the Grateful Dead to the stage. Credit: Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times, Beyond Music, Michael Putland/Getty

Christine Russell, one of the producers of the hit Carole King Broadway musical Beautiful, remembers her first reaction when she was pitched on a new pop-oriented production. The show is based on The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, a 16th-century tale of mistaken identity and jealous lovers that was later turned into a play, The Arcadia. The twist of the show, starting with its name, Head Over Heels, is its score: It's entirely set to songs by the Go-Go's. "I thought, 'Huh, really?'" Russell says. "I asked [Go-Go's guitarist] Charlotte Caffey about it and that it seemed so left field, and she said, 'That's why we like it – it's weird and off the wall, just like our band.'"

Bruce Springsteen may be heading to Broadway in October for his one-man show, but in the next year or two, so will a slew of new pop musicals that incorporate the music of the Go-Go's, the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett, Alanis Morissette, Cher, and the Temptations – a veritable jukebox-musical gold rush. That's not including Girl From the North Country, an authorized Bob Dylan–connected show currently playing in London that should eventually be U.S.-bound, and Bat Out of Hell, based on Jim Steinman's songs from that and other Meat Loaf albums. "You're going to see more and more of these," says producer and promoter Michael Cohl, who is behind Bat Out of Hell and was also involved with the hair-metal musical Rock of Ages. "There's a saying that if you can get people to sing the songs on their way into a show, you have a hit."

In one form or another, rock-themed musicals have been around for decades – remember the Broadway Tommy in the Nineties? – but the recent wave of profitable productions, like Jersey Boys, the ABBA musical Mamma Mia!, Motown: The Musical and Beautiful (which recently gave its 1,500th performance), signified a turning point. These shows don't simply appeal to tourists, who account for 60 percent of the Broadway audience, but to artists and music industry types. With CD sales decimated and streaming not bringing in comparable revenue, the idea of a long-lasting musical is a potential new form of revenue. "The music industry is troubled, so any qualified representative is trying to find additional revenue streams for their artists," says Vivek Tiwary, one of the producers of the in-the-works Jagged Little Pill musical.

Debuting next month Off-Broadway is Red Roses, Green Gold, a "comedic tale" of a family looking to con its way to fortune in Maryland in the Twenties, featuring songs by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. The characters have names like "The Candy Man" and "Bertha," and for added jam-band authenticity, Furthur and Dead & Co. keyboardist Jeff Chimenti was hired as musical director. Coming to Broadway in March is Escape to Margaritaville, a musical about a part-time singer/bartender who falls for a female tourist, all set to Buffett hits like "Cheeseburger in Paradise," "Margaritaville" and "Come Monday" (along with new songs written exclusively for the show). Early next year, Bat Out of Hell – which started out in the Seventies as Neverland, when Steinman wrote the songs for a pre–Bat Out of Hell musical – departs London and head for Toronto, with the possibility of an eventual Broadway production. Cohl describes it as "Romeo and Juliet meets West Side Story and Blade Runner." Ain't Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations just opened to good reviews at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the Bay Area.

In development in the world of "catalog musicals" (the term "jukebox musical" is generally frowned upon in the theater world) are The Cher Show, which tells the story of the pop icon from her marriage to Sonny Bono and up through her own career; the songs stretch from "I Got You Babe" to "If I Could Turn Back Time." (Rick Elice, who wrote the book for Jersey Boys, is handling similar duties here.) The show could open on the Great White Way next year. Jagged Little Pill will feature songs from Morissette's iconic album ("You Oughta Know," "Ironic," "Hand in My Pocket") along with select tracks from later albums and brand-new tunes. Right now, plans call for the show to open at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge this spring, with Broadway most likely to follow. Featuring a book written by Diablo Cody, the show, says Tiwary, is set in an affluent suburb and deals with a family confronting current social issues like "sexual assault, sexual identity and racism."

Head Over Heels, the Go-Go's-connected show, will be directed by Michael Mayer, who also helmed the American Idiot musical based around that Green Day album, another influential milestone. "American Idiot knocked down a lot of doors," says Tiwary. "That wasn't a 'jukebox musical' but based around an album. Jagged Little Pill isn't a concept album, but there are thematic similarities in the songs. And the songs don't sound dated. They sound so epic in scope and feel. They're the definition of great musical-theater songs. They play to the back of the theater but make you feel you're right inside someone's head."

As anyone involved with such shows realizes, the success of these productions is hardly guaranteed. Producers usually have to raise anywhere between $10 and 15 million for out-of-town tune-ups and the show itself. "It's always hard to find investors," says Russell, "but it's easier when you have a brand, something to hang your hat on." The cost of the songs can also complicate matters. When reviving a standard like My Fair Lady or South Pacific, producers generally deal with what are called package rights that include music, lyrics and book. Since pop musicals often involve songs written not just by the artists but also collaborators, producers must wrangle with each one of those co-songwriters (and their publishers) for the rights to use his or her song.

And even when those issues are settled, these shows aren't surefire successes. About 10 years ago, Ring of Fire (which used Johnny Cash songs) and Good Vibrations (built around Beach Boys hits) were bombs, as was Twyla Tharp's shot at a Dylan show, The Times They Are A-Changin'. "It has to do with the story," Tiwary says. "You can't just take a great record and assume it's going to be great." Yet the potential payoff is too good for the music business to ignore, especially in these revenue-depleted days. "A revival is simpler to do, but they have a built-in expiration date," says one theatrical insider. "Most of them only run a year. But Beautiful could run forever."