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Contemporary Commercial Music: The Voice of Social Justice in Musical Theater

Over the last sixty years, musical theater composers have incorporated more contemporary commercial music (CCM) styles into their works. From Hair (1967) to Rent (1996) to Hamilton (2016), composers have used rock, funk, hip hop, and pop as musical influences. This is attributed to their popularity with diverse audiences and their ability to comment on relevant social justice issues concerning marginalized populations. Moreover, new technology and streaming services have broadened the audience of musical theater; instead of the traditionally upper class, white demographic, audiences now include people from all economic classes, races, and walks of life. Through analyzing books, articles, scores, and recordings, this study looks at the incorporation of CCM styles into musical theater, in particular during the last twenty years. Using Rent as a case study, this research addresses how CCM has provided a platform for discussing social justice issues of marginalization. This will be done in analyzing Rent’s similarities to Hair as a catalyst for a new wave of issue driven musicals. Additionally, I analyze how Rent addresses social justice issues (chiefly racism, classism, and heteronormativity), and briefly explain Rent’s effects on later musicals such as Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, In the Heights, and Hamilton.

Emily Hynes
St. Olaf College
Vocal Performance
Research Advisor: 
Dr. Yvonne Redman
Department of Research Advisor: 
Year of Publication: