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The Development Of The Rock Musical In The Late 20th Century

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Rock Opera

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The Development of The Rock Musical In the Late 20th Century

Rock opera in its narrow definition seems to be a purely British phenomenon, possibly because at the time of its arrival England, as opposed to the United States, had not found its musical theater voice yet: while musical theater was booming in the United States from the early twentieth century onwards, England didn't develop a popular musical tradition until the late 1960s, when Andrew Lloyd Webber started to write and produce large-scale musicals for the London theaters.

To provide an overview of the scope of the genre of rock opera, I will briefly discuss some of the most renowned works. It is usually the British rock band The Who that is credited with releasing the first rock opera ever (in 1969), Tommy. It was partly inspired by the Beatles' 1967 concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had already experimented with alternatives to the simple, single-oriented approach to recording LPs. Interestingly, as far as productivity is concerned, this genre reached its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s in England - at a time when rock and pop musicians were keen on experimenting with new musical forms and contents, and when society in Europe was, after the highly active 1960s in the United States, still very much interested in musical treatments of contemporary problems and hardships.

The Who's rock opera follow-up to Tommy, Quadrophenia, was released in 1973; from 1969 to 1975, another British rock band, the Kinks, released four rock operas: Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1969), Preservation (1973), Soap Opera (1975), and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975). Jethro Tull's front man Ian Anderson also experimented with the rock opera format in the 1970s, contributing Thick as a Brick(1972), A Passion Play(1973), and Too Old to Rock'n'Roll: Too Young to Die(1976). Probably the last rock opera to come out of England was Pink Floyd's legendary double album The Wall in late 1979.

The rock operas mentioned deal primarily with the problems of young, mainly working-class people in England, or with the role and image of rock musicians in society. Quadrophenia, for example, depicts the emotional emptiness, frustration, anger, rebellion, of an ultimate Who fan who belongs to a cool motorcycle gang, the Mods. He revolts against his parents, his boss, and any kind of alliance with ordinary people's lives, their small pleasures and drama. The teenage hero, Jimmy has a problem with authority in general, but in the end he comes to realize that even his cool clique is dominated by the same relentless, inhumane rules and laws as the rest of society; the only difference seems to be the fashionable clothes the Mods are wearing and the trendy music they are listening to. Disillusioned he rides his motorcycle off the cliffs into the sea.

The Kinks' operas also deal with flashbacks. Schoolboys in Disgrace, for example, is a nostalgic trip through childhood, reviving 1950s rock'n'roll. It is a series of vignettes rather than an actual story, telling about a naughty schoolboy and his gang, who are always playing tricks on their teachers and bullying their schoolmates, until one day, after another incident, the school's principal decides to disgrace the boy and his gang in front of the whole school. This is the turning point in the boy's life: he realizes that people in authority will always be there to kick him down, that the 'Establishment' will always put him in his place.

Arthur, obviously a pun on the historically laden theme of King Arthur, was the Kinks' most successful and critically acclaimed rock opera. It depicts the story of an ordinary London man who has spent most of his life on his knees, laying carpets, who is now retired, owns a nice little house in suburbia and leads a small life, numbed by the horrors of World War II and English bureaucracy. Now having reached the final stages of his unimportant life, Arthur reminisces and starts to question the meaning of his life, in which he has more often than not been treated badly and looked down on, lost a son in the war and raised another one who has become a frustrated young man.

Pink Floyd's The Wall is one of the most successful albums in rock history, topping the United States album chart for fifteen weeks in 1980 and spanning off the hit single "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)", which remained at No. 1 on the United States

singles chart for four weeks. In the 1980s The Wall was made into a movie directed by Alan Parker and starring Bob Geldof in the lead role as Pink. Pink Floyd took The Wall on tour, with the most famous, if not complete performance taking place in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Wall is a double album about a fictional, emotionally crippled, depressed rock star, Pink, who is unable to cope with the pressures of life and therefore builds a wall around him. The wall is obviously a metaphor for his psychological isolation, for the barrier he creates to distance himself from his pain. As parts of his life spin out of control, the wall grows and Pink ultimately blames everyone, particularly women, for his incapability to deal with his neuroses. The origins of his deplorable state is illustrated by flashbacks in individual songs, such as Pink's childhood memories of his father's death in World War II ("Another Brick in the Wall [Part I]"), his overprotective mother ("Mother"), the repressive school system, and his fascination with and fear of sex ("Young Lust"). When his record company uses drugs to get him to perform, his onstage persona is transformed into a homophobic fascist. In the album's

last song, "The Trial", Pink finally faces himself, mentally prosecutes himself, and the

wall comes tumbling down. On the musical plane, the opera mirrors the fragmentary

presentation of the story, seamlessly blending melodic fragments, sound effects, and

larger musical numbers (cf. "The Wall: Pink Floyd"). In the end, Pink - very much

like Jimmy in Quadrophenia - is disillusioned by his success, feels trapped

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