Teasing ‘80s hair bands
THEY’D never set eyes on each other before that first-date meeting at a coffeehouse on Sunset. Soon they were out in the parking lot, going at it in a car seat to the throbbing sound of familiar hard-rock tunes from the 1980s -- songs known for their high doses of hormonally drenched hedonism, low intelligence quotients and infinitesimal credibility among rock critics.
Now Kristin Hanggi and Chris D’Arienzo are coming back to Hollywood to bring to term the baby they conceived that day. And still, says their buddy, RJ Durell -- who is teaching the new arrival to bump, grind, strut and even do lap dances -- they’ve got sex, sex, sex on the brain.
Though that initial encounter between theater director Hanggi and scriptwriter D’Arienzo was exuberantly fecund, it should quickly be made clear it was strictly professional. After all, how carnal can you get in the front seat of a Mini Cooper at midafternoon?
Nevertheless, as they sit on a couch together during a break in rehearsals at a studio in North Hollywood, the two creative partners share a pleasant afterglow recounting the standout moments of “Rock of Ages,” the new musical premiering Thursday at the Vanguard. It was then, while grooving in D’Arienzo’s maroon subcompact to the songs of Ratt, Poison and Whitesnake, of Quiet Riot and Warrant, of Bon Jovi and Van Halen, and of Styx, Night Ranger, Journey and Pat Benatar -- among others -- that they first began excitedly to put narrative flesh on the skeleton of a new idea: that the rock-musical tradition begun nearly 40 years ago with “Hair” could embrace “hair bands.”
“Most of the show was conceived while we were in that car, listening to the music,” says Hanggi, who at 28 has established herself as an in-demand L.A. director of rock-flavored musicals both poignant (“bare,” about gay teens coming of age at a Catholic boarding school) and raunchy (“Pussycat Dolls Live,” a celebrity-studded all-female revue staged at the Roxy).
As each hit oldie played, D’Arienzo gave the director a play-by-play of what he envisioned happening on stage: which characters would sing which songs, how the lyrics would be split among voices to turn them into dialogue, and how the tale would play out.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this guy knows how to take song lyrics and totally turn them into storytelling,’ ” says Hanggi, who met with D’Arienzo, a 33-year-old screenwriter with a love of both rock ‘n’ roll and Broadway musicals, at the suggestion of their mutual representative, the Creative Artists Agency.
The musical is set during the mid-1980s, in the Sunset Strip club scene where real-world rock reprobates, such as Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses, got their start. Rock of Ages, a fictitious mecca for hard-rockers, is under siege by City Hall, which wants it demolished to make way for a yuppie-paradise redevelopment project. A boy from Detroit sweeps the rock club’s floor, dreaming of headlining on its stage. A beautiful ingenue arrives from Kansas, bent on movie stardom. Romance stirs, until our heroine swoons for Stacee Jaxx, a star singer who is hair-band royalty, and a cad from his white cowboy boots to the crown of his long, luxuriantly fluffed ‘do. Quickly used and spat out, the girl winds up dancing in a strip joint. True love wins in the end, and so does the love of rock ‘n’ roll, as a dizzily impassioned street protest -- shades of “Rent,” although the creators say they really have “Les Miz” more in mind -- saves the embattled Rock of Ages from the wrecker’s ball.
In this musical, depth, originality and surprise are beside the point, D’Arienzo says without apology. The idea is to embody the animal spirits of heavy metal hair bands and arena rockers while poking fun at their excesses. An onstage band is meant to crank out the hits with authentic guitar heroism and emphatic rhythmic crunch, while a cast of 33 singers, actors and dancers provides visual allure, humor and a sentimental ending. Not to mention plenty of sexiness -- which the show’s producers say won’t hurt when it comes to tapping into an audience of ‘80s rock nostalgists who ordinarily wouldn’t think of buying tickets to a stage musical, but who may have fond memories of Tawny Kitaen’s scantily clad crawls through Whitesnake videos.
Durell, the almost preternaturally upbeat and enthusiastic choreographer, says that “keep it sexy, RJ” is the advice he hears constantly from his collaborators and producers. In studying hard-rock videos of the era, he found plenty of room to maneuver without redundancy. “If you look at all the old Whitesnake videos and Journey, they’re not dancing.” Instead, the female actors are mainly sex objects, “standing there with pumps and something skimpy on, and fans blowing on them while they’re making out with all the hot rockers.”
During a rehearsal of Quiet Riot’s hit metal-ized cover of Slade’s 1970s glam-rock tune “Cum on Feel the Noize,” some in the chorus of dancers drop into break-dance spins on the floor, then leap into partnered lifts and whirls borrowed from swing dancing. “No one was making a statement,” the lanky, bearded D’Arienzo says, assessing what ‘80s pop-metal and arena-rock were all about. “No one had an opinion or a point of view. It was all just a celebration of the lifestyle. It would be totally ridiculous to do a musical using this genre and try to make a statement. It just doesn’t work.”
To most pop historians, the bands heard in “Rock of Ages” were pea-brained dinosaurs that fed ravenously through the indulgent 1980s, when they sold tens of millions of albums, but eventually had their comeuppance and extinction from the pop charts in the irony-laced 1990s.
“Millions of dollars in record sales and concert tickets -- as well as countless radio/TV hours -- are ... wasted on the cartoonish bravado of heavy-metal bands like Motley Crue and Ratt,” Times critic Robert Hilburn wrote in 1985; in 1987, he lamented that with “meaningless pop banality” ruling the marketplace, “the result is that for the first time since Presley’s arrival, serious, heartfelt, radical rock is a minority force.”
In 2004, while pitching a film musical called “Time After Time,” featuring songs by Cyndi Lauper, the Police and other ‘80s pop-rockers, the three principals of the Hollywood production company Prospect Pictures saw that there was lots of nostalgic enthusiasm for the period soundtrack they had assembled. Why not dip into raunch-metal and over-the-top arena-rock power balladry from the same era, they asked, and see if it could be turned into a live-theater success a la “Mamma Mia!” the musical built on ABBA’s 1970s pop songs; “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” based on the androgynous 1970s glam-rock movement; or “Movin’ Out,” the dance musical of songs by Billy Joel?
Janet Billig Rich, a music industry veteran who managed Nirvana and Hole, was enlisted to help advise on the songs and secure the rights to use them; Hillary Weaver, wife of Prospect executive Matt Weaver and a producer on the L.A. small-theater scene, brought in Hanggi to direct.
The MTV video bands of the ‘80s had been forbidden fruit during Hanggi’s girlhood in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley: her schoolteacher parents were careful about what their daughter watched. Hair band bacchanalias were not their idea of edifying children’s television.
D’Arienzo has vivid recollections -- sour ones -- of living through the hair band era during his high school days in Paw Paw, Mich. “The guys I would always hear were going to kick my ass after school listened to that music. They were blaring Poison and Whitesnake from their Camaros or pickup trucks. So at the time, I hated it.”
But 15 years removed from threats of violence -- and from the high school clique system that say nerds glued to the Violent Femmes, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson can’t consort with metal dudes -- D’Arienzo, a member of the countrified rock band Trainwreck, says he can appreciate the craftsmanship and exuberant dumb fun in songs he used to hate.
“Personally, it wasn’t my ‘80s, but it’s my guilty pleasure ‘80s,” confesses Billig Rich, recalling that her client Kurt Cobain enjoyed doing karaoke renditions of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.”
Getting the show out there
D’ARIENZO and Hanggi came up with a list of songs needed to tell the story they’d conceived. Matt Weaver says that he and partner Carl Levin put up $100,000 for a series of invitation-only performances last summer aimed at wooing permissions to use the music, as well as winning over backers who could help ensconce “Rock of Ages” at a resort-casino in Las Vegas or send it on tour. The coming L.A. run, for which the producers expect to spend an additional $500,000, may determine whether the show gets a life in Vegas or on the road.
Topping the bill as ingenue Sherrie Christian is Laura Bell Bundy, who appeared on Broadway in “Hairspray” and “Wicked.” Michele Mais, a veteran regional theater actress who has clocked more than two years in the long-running production of “Menopause: The Musical,” plays the strip club’s tough but motherly owner. Humor-rockers Kyle Gass of Tenacious D and Dan Finnerty, who specializes in covering hits by women singers as front man of the Dan Band, play an uncommonly benevolent rock club owner and his loyal, salt-of-the-earth sound man, respectively. Chris Hardwick, who performs in a pop-comedy musical duo and used to be a disc jockey on rock station KROQ, plays the egotistical Stacee Jaxx. The rehearsal process “is almost like going to rock school,” Hardwick says. “ ‘We’re going to teach you how to jump off of amps.’ The idea I keep coming back to is, ‘What do I do with that knowledge?’ What do I do if I can jump from an amp and land on the downbeat in a three-story wig?
“If I were a Method actor,” he adds, “I would have to start treating people shabbily and spend this interview proclaiming my superiority.” Instead, he’s patterning himself after “a casserole of 10 different guys you’ve seen interviewed. I remember seeing Ratt interviewed in the ‘80s. It almost put the bravado of rap to shame. ‘Oh man, our competition is supergroups, the Stones and Zeppelin.’ I notice in 2006 there are not any Ratt box sets.”
The producers and creators wanted to assure owners of the song rights they coveted that, if the show wasn’t exactly coming to praise hair bands, it wasn’t coming to bury them, either. They hoped to show the music was being brought to life on stage with backhanded affection, irreverent humor and a serious commitment to un-neutered performances and enticing staging.
In the end, the only numbers they couldn’t get were “I Want to Know What Love Is,” the ballad by Foreigner, and Def Leppard’s anthem “Rock of Ages.”
“That was a huge disappointment,” says Billig Rich. “Def Leppard thought they were too big for this show.” Shorn of a title song, but retaining the title anyway, D’Arienzo retaliated by writing a joke into the traditional opening announcement that reminds folks to turn off cellphones and not attempt flash photography: “In case of fire, please refrain from singing Def Leppard’s ‘Pyromania,’ as we couldn’t get the rights to any of their music.”
Jack Blades, the singer-bassist for the hard-rock arena bands Night Ranger and Damn Yankees, didn’t travel to L.A. to hear what theater geeks would do with Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” during last summer’s trial showings for music executives and theatrical producers. But his contacts in L.A., including his son James, who works for a rock management company, checked it out and assured him that “Rock of Ages” was making rockin’ use of its source material.
“He said, ‘Dad, you’ll love it, they do it really well,’ ” says Blades, speaking from his home in Sonoma. “I think it’s a great idea. It’s about time somebody latched onto this notion. People will tell you all these hip bands they listened to in the 1980s, but you can guarantee they had Journey or Night Ranger on in their car.” He says he has no problem with the show’s hold-the-messages-but-keep-it-sexy approach: “Let ‘em bring that out. That’s what the times were like.”
Hanggi, whose long, luxuriant auburn ringlets are the closest thing to authentic hair-band coiffure in the rehearsal room, has theater degrees from UCLA and USC. She realizes that the mirror she holds up to the sexist and often homophobic 1980s world of heavy metal rock has to have lots of funhouse angles and curves to make it a worthy representation for 2006.
“I have to find a way to celebrate and embrace” the era’s lustful spirit, Hanggi says, “and yet have the women [characters] own it as women.” To do that, she says she won’t shy from showing women as they were typically seen on the Sunset Strip and on MTV, but she aims to puncture their rampant objectification with humorous exaggeration.
“We’re all smart enough now” to know that the sexist and homophobic aspects of ‘80s hard rock won’t fly any more, she adds. “But when we went to school everything was about political correctness, and there’s something really fun now about [revisiting] this era.”
“For the audience to not be uncomfortable, it has to be funny,” Bundy, the lead actress, says during a rehearsal break, when asked about playing a woman who is pathetically easy prey for a transparent rock ‘n’ roll Don Juan. “We’re playing that way -- exaggerated and humorous and kind of farcical. It’s letting the audience know that we are aware that it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Besides being her first rock musical, Bundy says, “this is my first experience with lap dancing. I’ll admit that after seeing Demi Moore in ‘Striptease,’ I’ve always had a secret fantasy of wanting to do an amateur night at a strip club.”
Now she gets to do it for money, and keep her clothes on, however scanty the costume might turn out to be.
“I think that’s sufficient” to satisfy her stripper fantasy, Bundy says with a smile. “It’ll work just fine.”
‘Rock of Ages’
Where: Vanguard, 6021 Hollywood Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays,
7 p.m. Fridays.
Ends: Feb. 18
Price: $34.50 to $45.
Contact: (800) 595-4849 or www.rockofagesmusical.com.