Musicals and Plays

21 Unforgettable Rock Musicals

Rock musician on stage

Rock and roll is a lot like opera — it’s loud, dramatic, and loaded with emotion. That’s part of why rock musicals are so satisfying; once the beat starts, it takes over your senses and drives out all other thoughts. Add in a layered, Broadway-style ensemble, and you have the recipe for a seriously entertaining evening of theater.

Whether you prefer the gentle, Elvis-inspired vibe of a retro rock musical or a more modern, hard-rock option, we have you covered.

Top image courtesy of Giuseppe Milo under CC BY 2.0

1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch blew onto the Broadway scene in 2014, delighting audiences with its stars (Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall) and running away with the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. True fans know that Hedwig had a long life before then; it premiered off Broadway in 1998 and got a movie adaptation in 2001. This beloved musical tackles ideas of gender, relationships, and self-acceptance in an impressively deft and poignant way.

Music: Stephen Trask
Lyrics: Stephen Trask
Book: John Cameron Mitchell

2. Lizzie: The Musical

The axe-wielding Lizzie Borden is fine fodder for a rock musical — murder, mayhem, and women in period costumes? We are in. Part rock concert, part musical, this unusual show features just four cast members. WIth its all-female cast and fantastic score, Lizzie: The Musical perfectly captures the pent-up feminine rage of a more-repressed time. The melodies are strong, the beats are intense, and you

Music: Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt
Lyrics: Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner
Book: Tim Maner

3. Cry-Baby

Just like the Johnny Depp movie it’s based on, Cry-Baby the musical is an underrated masterpiece. Sure, critics didn’t love the Broadway production — Ben Brantley called it a show in search of an identity — but this is a cult classic for a reason! If you’ve seen Grease, you know the plot: square schoolgirl meets delinquent greaser, and chaos ensues. The music is gloriously gentle 1950s rock, the humor is raunchy, and the oddball characters are bizarrely charming. Also, if you love a little belting, watch this clip of Screw Loose.

Music: Adam Schlesinger
Lyrics: David Javerbaum
Book: Mark O’Donnell, Thomas Meehan

4. Memphis

Memphis takes you back to the roots of rock music — it takes place in (you guessed it) Memphis in the 1950s, when Black rock and roll was starting to get airplay on radio stations around the country. The score is exuberant, and the story is heartbreaking, if a little ham-fisted. Definitely worth a listen!

Music: David Bryan
Lyrics: David Bryan, Jo DiPietro
Book: Jo DiPietro

5. Zombie Prom

What happens when the boy you love dies and comes back as a zombie? This is the premise of Zombie Prom, a hilarious musical with a lovely 1950s rock score. The show centers around the good girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks — with a little bit of zombie civil rights thrown in for good measure.

Music: Dana P. Rowe
Lyrics: John Dempsey
Book: John Dempsey

6. American Idiot

What’s more rock ‘n roll than disaffected youth? American Idiot tells the story of three boys who are seeking meaning and a life beyond their safe, suburban roots. You’ll recognize the music from Green Day’s album of the same name. It makes a solid, and surprisingly engaging score — again, proving that rock translates well to the theater. The familiar choruses, when sung by a big ensemble, have an impressive, thrilling weight.

Music: Green Day
Lyrics: Billie Joe Armstrong
Book: Billie Joe Armstrong, Michael Mayer

7. Sing Street

Sing Street is a stage musical based on the Irish movie; released in 2016, this little indie film developed a huge, passionate following. The musical version premiered to sold-out houses Off Broadway, but its debut on the Great White Way was delayed by the worldwide shutdowns in 2020. It’s a classic coming-of-age story about a boy, a girl, and a band. The light, enjoyable rock score has that charming house-party sound that’s fun but not overpowering.

Music and Lyrics: Gary Clark, John Carney
Book: Enda Walsh

8. The Rocky Horror Show

The Rocky Horror Show might be one of the most frequently produced rock musicals of all time. It premiered on the West End in 1973, and it hasn’t stopped since! If you can’t find a production, watch the 1975 movie version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Music, Lyrics, Book: Richard O’Brien

9. Grease

If you’re interested in musical theater, it’s probably safe to assume that you’ve seen Grease. This iconic American musical is a mainstay for high schools everywhere, and it’s no wonder; the retro-rock songs are near-perfect, and there isn’t a stinker among them. (Even “Mooning” is catchy!) 

Music, Lyrics, Book: Jim Jacobs, Warren Casey

10. Bare: a Pop Opera

Yes, it has “pop” in the name, but Bare: A Pop Opera is pretty heavy on the rock. (By comparison, Rent seems all-pop.) Plus, it’s excellent — certainly one of the more underappreciated musicals out there. This musical has a dedicated, cult-classic-style following, and it’s had a long string of performances around the world. A coming-of-age-story (seeing a trend?), Bare tells the tale of a group of teens at a Catholic school as they struggle with sexuality, teen pregnancy, drugs, and death. 

Music: Damon Intrabartolo
Lyrics: Jon Hartmere
Book: Jon Hartmere, Damon Intrabartolo

11. We Will Rock You

Jukebox musicals are infamous for their thin storylines — in We Will Rock You, the music is so strong that you won’t even notice. It’s based on the music of Queen, which is melodic and theatrical by nature; the perfect fit for a stage production. Plus, how satisfying is it to see the legendary Queen lyrics sung by a big, Broadway-caliber ensemble with a full orchestra? In the video above, skip to 2:10 for the full effect. 

Music and Lyrics: Queen
Book: Ben Elton

12. Passing Strange

When it opened on Broadway in 2008, Passing Strange surprised audiences with its unusual setup — the musician Stew narrated the autobiographical story while playing in the rock combo that accompanied the show. The plot follows a young Stew (known just as “Youth”), as he seeks an artistic home in Europe. The lyrics are brimming with Stew’s legendary wit, and the score is impressively versatile, gliding from gospel to driving rock without missing a beat.

Music: Stew (Mark Stewart), Heidi Rodewald
Lyrics: Stew
Book: Stew

13. The Who’s Tommy

The Who’s Tommy bridges the gap between retro 1950s rock musicals and the harder, more contemporary shows that came later. Whether or not you love The Who, it’s hard not to be charmed by the musical (well, rock opera); it adds layers and depth to the band’s already iconic songs, which shine in a musical theater setting. 

Music: Pete Townshend
Lyrics: Pete Townshend
Book: Pete Townshend, Des McAnuff

14. Spring Awakening

At first glance, rock music seems like an odd way to tell the story of sheltered teens in the late 1800s — Spring Awakening captures the intense frustration and emotion perfectly. It’s a heartbreaking musical that tackles tough (and universal) topics without fear. 

Music: Duncan Sheik
Book and Lyrics: Steven Sater

15. Rent

The cult-classic Rent needs no introduction — ever since Jonathan Larson’s 1993 workshop, it’s been tearing its way through theaters around the world. The musical is based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème; if you’re an opera lover, you might notice that Roger’s little guitar riffs take the melody directly from Musetta’s Waltz. Just as La Bohème was shocking to opera audiences in the late 1890s, Rent ruffled feathers for audiences in the late 90s.

Music, Lyrics, Book: Jonathan Larson

16. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda started writing Hamilton, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson offered a rock ‘n roll take on American history. The original score does a good job of balancing the driving rock songs with lighter fare; “The Corrupt Bargain” is a weird little breath of fresh air, and “The Great Compromise” is a nice acoustic break.
Music: Michael Friedman
Lyrics: Michael Friedman
Book: Alex Timbers

17. School of Rock the Musical

Rock music is rebellious by nature; rock ‘n roll musicals follow in the same tradition, effortlessly blending unexpected elements. School of Rock the Musical, which is based on the 2003 Jack Black movie, does just that — this time, by adding kids to the band. The result is charming and family friendly, without sacrificing a satisfying beat or a strong melody. It’s a nice, gentle entry into the world of rock musicals. You might recognize the names behind this musical: Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the music, and the book was adapted by the British entertainment powerhouse Julian Fellowes.

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Book: Julian Fellowes (based on Mike White’s movie)

18. Bat Boy

Bat Boy is a musical about a boy who’s half human, half bat — and it’s just as weird and wonderful as it sounds. Inspired by an article that appeared in the tabloid the Weekly World News, the story follows Edgar (Bat Boy) as he makes the bumpy transition into life in the human world. Naturally, he encounters prejudice and mob mentality; the script balances these heavy themes with levity and campy humor. (Just listen to the lyrics in the video above.)

Music and Lyrics: Laurence O’Keefe
Book: Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming

19. Jesus Christ Superstar

If you’re looking for a good starter rock musical (technically, a rock opera), Jesus Christ Superstar is it. Biblical parables plus rock music? It’s just bizarre enough to work. Plus, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, so you know the songs will be catchy. This musical isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — both Christian and Jewish groups protested the musical — so you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice

20. High Fidelity

If you’re someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, High Fidelity is a must-see. Each of the songs is inspired by a specific artist, ranging from Guns N’ Roses to Aretha Franklin. It’s fun to see how Tom Kitt and Amanda Green drew from the different styles and vocabularies of the different artists. This little musical isn’t destined for greatness, but it’s a fun listen.

Music: Tom Kitt
Lyrics: Amanda Green
Book: David Lindsay-Abaire

21. Bright Lights, Big City

If you were to picture a rock musical without knowing anything about the genre, Bright Lights, Big City might be exactly what you imagined. Set in the 1980s in New York City, it’s all about the world of sex and drugs. A character named “coke girl” even sings “I love drugs” in a far-too-literal moment. Book aside, the music has plenty to recommend it. And yes, that IS the magnificent Keala Settle you see; listen to her here.

Music, Lyrics, Book: Paul Scott Goodman