Glee, Rock of Ages, and the Show-Tunification of Classic Rock and Pop

Songs by Journey, Whitesnake, and even Amy Winehouse are becoming show tunes.

After seeing this week's premiere of FOX's new high school musical comedy-drama, Glee, and recently catching Rock of Ages on Broadway, it struck me how classic rock, pop, and pop-metal songs from the '70s and '80s have turned into show tunes.

There used to be a clear distinction between "show tunes" and other songs. Show tunes, as their name implies, came from classic Broadway shows, and sometimes from films of Hollywood's golden era. Popular music that you heard on mainstream radio — whether pop, rock, or country — lived in a separate cultural world. Not that you couldn't like both. But you didn't hear them in the same context.

Now Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" is a show tune. Who would have thought?

I blame Mamma Mia, which helped spawn Jersey Boys and other semi-revues based on popular music. The end is not in sight; there's even a show in development based on Green Day's American Idiot.

Journey's hit, along with many other hard-rock anthems and ballads of its era, form the score of Rock of Ages, the new Broadway hit musical. "Don't Stop Believing" also famously accompanied the controverial final scene of the last episode of The Sopranos, and now it fuels the grand production number that climaxes the debut of Glee, a new show about high school glee club performers.

It's not a current song, by any means, and not the kind of music we'd expect today's high schoolers to be into. But the theater kids are into it, at least on Glee, and why? Because just like a classic show tune, "Don't Stop Believing" is a fundamentally good song that's also deliciously over the top. The kids also make a very funny production number out of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab," a much newer song that shares those traits.

Of course there's always been "showiness" in pop and rock. For every sinewy, straight-up act like Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, there's an equally successful act that's more self-consciously showy: the glam-rock of Bowie and T-Rex, the grandiloquent Freddie Mercury of Queen, the theatricality of Pete Townshend's Tommy and Quadraphenia scores, the stagy productions of early prog-rockers like Genesis, and of course the arena-pop music extravaganzas of the likes of Cher, Tina Turner, and Madonna.

But there was still a separation. And when rock did start to appear on Broadway, it came in the form of new shows with new music written for them (Hair, Godspell), or material that already existed in "show" form, like Tommy, which was conceived as a rock opera from the start.

Once Abba came to Broadway, there was, it seems, no turning back; it was just a matter of time till Rock of Ages appeared. And just as theater geeks of the '70s took inspiration from the music of an earlier era — what we knew then as "show tunes" — the kids of a new TV show circa 2009 (not to mention American Idol and its cohorts) go back to what is, for them, a correspondingly early era, the '70s.

So pop music feeding the theater is a well-established thing by now, but it's still a bit of a shock, if a happy one, to see Journey, Whitesnake, and Amy Winehouse becoming show tune fodder. Back in the '80s, "oldies" radio stations played doo-wop. Now they play music from the '70s and '80s. The definition has changed. And the same has happened to the meaning of "show tunes." Musical eras are like waves on the beach, arriving one after another, each one crashing, then falling back into the sea to feed the next wave. Cowabunga, dude! And don't stop believing.