'Passing Strange,' 'In The Heights' Bring Rock And Hip-Hop To Broadway

With so-called 'rock musicals' gaining attention, is theater finally catching up to the street?

A band sits onstage — guitarist, bassist, keyboard player, drummer — much like any other band, except the drummer's back is to the audience. A man sits on a stool in the center, and as he starts to sing, you realize he's not just a singer — he's the narrator.

This performance isn't another rock show, it's a play called "Passing Strange," and it was recently nominated for seven Tony Awards. While there have been other "rock musicals" — like "Hair" and "Rent" — this is one of the first that sounds like it's scored with actual rock music, not some watered-down Broadway version. Now that there are a handful of shows that feel like they belong to the MTV generation — from "Passing Strange" to the rapped narration of "In the Heights" to the buoyant girlie pop of "Legally Blonde" to the darker "Spring Awakening" — could it be that Broadway has finally caught up to your iPod?

"There was a time where rock musicians kind of disdained musical theater," "Spring Awakening" composer Duncan Sheik said. "Well, except for Pete Townsend and a few others. But it was a mutual dislike, because rock music is all about volume and being visceral and being intense and loud and pounding and emotional, and it's not necessarily about making sense. It's not necessarily about sophistication. And the musical-theater audience is all about being able to hear every little word."

So what changed? "I don't know," laughed Stew (born Mark Stewart), the narrator/composer of "Passing Strange" and former leader of L.A. band the Negro Problem. "I'm still trying to figure it out. ... After 'Hair,' everybody said, 'Now there'll be all these cool rock musicals that will happen.' And they said the same thing after 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' and it didn't happen. They probably said the same thing after 'Rent.' And I think people think that something would happen now because you have 'Spring Awakening.' "

And they do — "Legally Blonde" producer Amanda Lipitz called "Spring Awakening" 2008's "Hair," in terms of cultural influence. "I think that Broadway is seeing younger musicals and hipper titles and hipper casts because producers are making decisions to market to a younger generation," Lipitz said. "They're seeing there's a real thirst and hunger for it."

"I keep hearing about the Flaming Lips doing something in musical theater," Sheik said. "Rufus Wainwright's writing an opera. John Mellencamp is doing something too. And there's some talk of doing Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' on Broadway."

Rock seems to have had an easier transition to the Broadway stage than hip-hop, but that's changing with "In the Heights," which led the 2008 Tony Award nominations with 13 nods. "It surprises me that no one has put hip-hop and Latin music into a Broadway musical before me," "Heights" composer/narrator Lin-Manuel Miranda said. "We really tried to use the music of Washington Heights — salsa, reggaeton, hip-hop — and we use it to tell a story."

Both rap and rock face a similar difficulty in the theater: "I can go memorize a Jay-Z album, listen to it 50 times, but in theater, you only get one chance to hear it," Miranda said. So Miranda merges the genres, using the inflections of artists like Jay-Z and Eminem, but keeping the lyrics a little simpler. "It's just a matter of connecting the dots between these two genres that maybe don't see each other too much but really should be friends," he said.

"I think the theater needs rappers and rock bands and techno and everything," Stew said. "The theater needs every actual music that's actually happening in the world, you know? Because the audience for the new musical, they're out there. They listen to music all the time. We live in a music-obsessed society, you know? Stuff like us or 'Spring Awakening,' it shouldn't be an aberration. It shouldn't be strange. It should be normal."