From The Who to Alicia Keys and Katy Perry: The chart-topping artists taking over Broadway

Right now New York’s iconic theatre district – Broadway – may have the most amount of chart-topping artists represented in its catalogue than ever. And this was well recognised at this weekend’s Tony Awards, with the two most nominated productions being Hell’s Kitchen, featuring the catalogue of Alicia Keys, and Stereophonic, with original music from former Arcade Fire member Will Butler.

If you look at the popular music of the era before Elvis, and even the period following, music made for the stage or screen was a dominant force. The same year that The Beatles won Best New Artist at the Grammys – 1965 – “Hello, Dolly!” won Song of the Year, the title song of the stage show of the same name, performed by Louis Armstrong.

Nowadays, such music rarely finds its way into the popular lexicon, save for a song from a Disney movie (see “Let It Go” or “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”), and now it is in fact the music from Grammy winning, contemporary recording artists that is finding its way to Broadway.

Some shows are chronicling an artist’s catalogue and life, like the massive Tony nominee this year, Hell’s Kitchen, featuring original music and hits of Alicia Keys, who lends her own story to the show; a coming-of-age tale. In the end they won two Tony’s over the weekend, for Best Actress (Maleah Joi Moon) and Featured Actress (Kecia Lewis) in a musical.

Photo: Hell’s Kitchen, by Marc J Franklin.

And she’s not the only artist who has their own Broadway show- the late Michael Jackson‘s MJ has been enjoying performances since February 2022, which won four Tony Awards that year. The show focuses on the pop star as he prepared for his 1992 Dangerous World Tour. There’s also A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical, featuring the life and music of Neil Diamond. And look out for Swept Away, featuring the music of The Avett Brothers, opening in the Autumn.

You’ve got jukebox musicals like Moulin Rouge!, featuring everyone from Elton John and The Police (as in the film), to Katy Perry and P!nk (added to the stage production). And then there’s & Juliet, which features the music of Swedish pop songwriter Max Martin. This mean you’ll hear all the pop music you know and love, originally performed by the likes of Backstreet Boys, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears and once again… Katy Perry. Will she be the next to have a show of her own?

Huey Lewis and the News, meanwhile, are also featured in no less than two Broadway shows – Back to the Future, which features, among classics from other artists featured in the original film, “The Power of Love”, and The Heart of Rock and Roll which features their catalogue – though the latter show is ending its run this weekend.

Both of these musicals, as well as Hell’s Kitchen, Moulin Rouge!, MJ and & Juliet are among the shows you’ll find available on The Broadway Collection. Head to their official website for tickets and more details.

And then there there’s the shows that are based around an earlier released, commercially successful and much loved album.

The Who’s Tommy, which originally premiered on Broadway in March 1993 is such an example, which now finds itself back on Broadway for the first time since its original – premiering at the Nederlander Theater just one day shy of 31 years since its original debut.

The rock opera started its life as a studio album by British band The Who in 1969, before becoming a film in 1975. While I can’t speak to the original 1992 production, the 2024 Broadway show is breathtaking and state-of-the-art, with spectacular staging and lighting design, enhanced by projection technology and a stacked, superb cast who are no strangers to the Broadway stage.

Their performances, as well as fantastic band, elevate the show, which was nominated over the weekend for Best Musical Revival at The Tonys (though it lost Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along). You can watch the cast – who I watched on stage at the Nederlander earlier that day – perform “Pinball Wizard” on the Tonys here, accompanied by none other than The Who’s Pete Townshend, who is solely credited with the music and lyrics of the show. Sadly he didn’t appear at the show I attended – this was very much a special moment reserved for the award show:

Another LP getting the Broadway treatment is Sufjan Stevens‘ about the state of Illinois that included the much loved single “Chicago”, Illinoise. It has just been turned into a musical, and enjoyed 7 Tony nominations, going on to win Best Choreography, which went to the show’s director, choreographer, and co-author Justin Peck.

All this is great news for the artists – whose publishing royalties will be enjoying heavy boosts from these productions in an increasingly difficult time to generate revenue for a catalogue – and fans of the music, who will struggle not to sing along to every song they see on stage.

And while all these shows are featuring music you already know, there’s also shows being developed featuring new music by accomplished and much loved commercial artists.

It may not technically be a musical, but Stereophonic – the most Tony nominated play of all time (13!), and winner of five, including Best Play – features original songs from former Arcade Fire member Will Butler. The show chronicles a fictional band as they attempt to record an album in the 70s, sitting on the cusp of superstardom, and just had its limited season extended into January.

And Will’s not the only one – Jack Antonoff is working on music for the “Romeo and Juliet” production due in late September, and Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine has co-written the store for Gatsby (not to be confused with The Great Gatsby, currently on Broadway), which just opened in Massachusetts with a presumed move to Broadway in the future. Elton John – no stranger to Broadway – will have new music in Tammy Faye, opening later this year, with lyrics from Scissor Sisters co-lead vocalist Jake Shears. You’ll also hear Elton’s music in Moulin Rouge! and of course The Lion King, which is still on Broadway, currently sitting as the third longest-running show in its history.

Whether you know the music or not, there’s never been a better time for music lovers to see a show on Broadway.

The author saw The Who’s Tommy as a guest of The Broadway Collection. Head to their website to book your next show on Broadway!

Headline Photo: The Who’s Tommy, courtesy of the production. 

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.