Hair-metal L.A. meets Broadway
The hair-metal jukebox musical “Rock of Ages” was born about a mile from its mythicalized Sunset Strip setting, at what writer Chris D’Arienzo calls “the actor’s Coffee Bean” at the intersection of Sunset and Fairfax.
That’s where he first met with director Kristin Hanggi in 2004, armed with a stack of vintage 1980s CDs and an outline for a smirky script that promised to turn the likes of Poison and Whitesnake into ersatz show tunes.
Even then, according to Hanggi, their sights were set -- half-seriously, at least -- on an entertainment district several more miles away. And, unlikely as it may seem, Broadway is exactly where “Rock of Ages” has finally landed. The show will open April 17 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, pole-dances, power chords and all.
“Chris and I have joked about taking this to Broadway from Day One, and no one would believe us,” said Hanggi recently between rehearsals in New York, where the show recently completed a three-month off-Broadway run. “I think there was always a thought that maybe we would take this to Las Vegas or it would be a touring show.”
Indeed, the show did bow in Sin City for a week in 2006, after drawing its first fog-machine breath at the Hollywood club King King the previous year. But the musical’s tone of ironic celebration cued them and the show’s producers that it might be a good fit for savvy young urbanites -- in other words, for New York.
“Every time we would do a version of it, it became more and more clear that New York was the right place for it,” said Hanggi, best known in L.A. theater circles for helming the angsty pop opera “bare” in 2000 and the local premiere of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi,” both at the Hudson Theatre.
What has rolled “Rock” inexorably toward Broadway is that, while the show’s Jack Black-ish irony gives the hipnoscenti a cover for enjoying it, the vein of ‘80s nostalgia it mines is wide and, more to the commercial point, very tourist-friendly.
“It’s heartland music, without a doubt,” Hanggi said. “I like to joke that it’s the first straight-man musical.”
D’Arienzo, 36, who was raised in rural Michigan, can attest to the ubiquity of Journey, REO Speedwagon, Def Leppard et al. in his formative years.
“Growing up in a small town and being kind of artsy, I fought this music -- I tried to listen to Elvis Costello, the Smiths, the Cure,” recalls D’Arienzo, a writer/musician who toured with Trainwreck, a Tenacious D offshoot, and who recently directed his first feature film, “Barry Munday.” “But I’ve realized that the stuff I was trying not to listen to was the real soundtrack of the town I grew up in.”
Hanggi, 31, whose own musical tastes run toward mellower acts such as James Taylor and Belle & Sebastian, has a similar recollection.
“Everyone had this music in the background somewhere -- at their high school dance or as a soundtrack to their first kiss, and you kind of forget that until you hear it, and then you go, ‘Oh my goodness, I remember that moment of my life,’ ” Hanggi says. “You don’t even realize how much you know these songs.”
Of course, what producers are banking on is an audience that does know this material as devotedly as Python fans knew “Spamalot.”
Judging from a recent preview -- where a roving wait staff kept a genial crowd of late boomers and Gen-Xers supplied with drinks, and concert-style lighters were held high for about half the songs -- their odds look good.
Critics may be less likely to give the show two horns up, though reviews of the off-Broadway run ranged from merely mildly appalled to pleasantly surprised, with Variety’s Mark Blankenship memorably quipping: “Really, ‘Rock of Ages’ should suck. . . . And yet, somewhere between the Styx dance break and the Twisted Sister reprise, this jukebox tuner transcends its hoary parts to become a legitimate artistic achievement.”
That’s not something you expect to hear about a show with a flimsy save-the-clubhouse plot, headlined by an “American Idol” star (Constantine Maroulis, as an aspiring rocker/bar-back at Hollywood’s “Bourbon Room”).
It may simply be a case of having the right team in place: All the show’s main creative players, including choreographer Kelly Bishop, hail not from New York’s legit stage but from the creative/commercial crucible of Los Angeles, the town that launched a thousand spandex-clad, fist-pumping rock battleships
“The difference between growing up as a professional dancer in L.A., as opposed to growing up in New York, is that musicals just weren’t being developed as much,” recalled Bishop, who assisted choreographer Sergio Trujillo on the gold-plated jukebox musical “Jersey Boys.” “Most of the work in L.A. is film, music videos, commercials and live performances. That kind of background has given me a more well-rounded edge for a show like this.”
Hanggi brings a similarly nontraditional resume to the task: A Huntington Beach native who attended UCLA’s theater school, she has worked not only in small L.A. theater but in developing projects for the big screen: an adaptation of “Dear Dumb Dairy” for Jerry Zucker, an original film musical called “Operation Prom Dress.”
Perhaps more relevant to “Rock of Ages,” she was hired in 2002 to give a theatrical flair to the Pussycat Dolls’ celebrity-studded dance happening/show at the Roxy.
“During that show when I was at the Roxy basically every day for, like, three months,” recalls Hanggi, looking a bit like a throwback herself in stone-washed jeans, boots and unruly, Dee Snider-ish blond curls. “And I was thinking, ‘There is a show that wants to be told about the Sunset Strip,’ because everyone who worked there had a story -- the sound guy, the bar-back -- and there was such a mythology of rock ‘n’ roll ‘firsts’ there on the Strip.”
Matching the music
It was a few years later, after an abortive attempt to move the New York production of “bare” to a commercial off-Broadway run, that producers Matt Weaver and Carl Levin alerted Hanggi to a catalog of ‘80s rock hits they thought could work as a “Mamma Mia!” for the “Headbangers Ball” set.
That’s when Hanggi remembered her time at the Roxy. “When I had my first meeting with Matt and Carl, I asked them, ‘What if we did something about the Sunset Strip?’ ”
The search for a writer led them to D’Arienzo, who said he had told his agent at their first meeting, “kind of flippantly,” that he wanted to write a Broadway musical.
Thus began the show’s delicate marriage of snark and sincerity, with D’Arienzo concocting unexpected ways to use familiar songs -- “Can’t Fight This Feeling” as a chest-pounding bromantic duet, “Sister Christian” as parental warning -- and Hanggi giving such conceits something resembling theatrical weight, or at least a straight face.
“I’m a huge movie-musical geek, so I wanted to do some kind of dream ballet,” D’Arienzo recalled.
But the one that ended up in the show, an interpretive dance to Extreme’s “More Than Words,” has turned out more winsome than winking, and that’s all Hanggi, D’Arienzo said.
“Whereas I would want to maybe do it as a joke, she’s not afraid to do it for real, to say, ‘I’m going to do a real dream ballet.’ ”
Indeed, D’Arienzo credited Hanggi’s earnest enthusiasm for keeping the show on track.
“Kristin has always been the voice of confidence in this project, whereas I’ve always approached it a little bit with my tail between my legs, like, ‘I wrote this silly musical with Whitesnake songs,’ ” D’Arienzo confessed. “I was always waiting to walk in a room where someone would tell me, ‘This is stupid,’ but she always goes in expecting people to love it. It wouldn’t have kept going without her.”
“Chris says I’m the rainbows-and-unicorns girl, and it’s kind of true,” said Hanggi, who seems to have sprinkled the entire show -- even its sleazier elements -- with party-glitter innocence. “These characters are all dreamers, and I think that’s what Chris and I have in common: We’re both such idyllic dreamers. We really believe if, like, you follow your dreams, they’ll happen for you.”
To paraphrase a few of the show’s dubious classics: Audiences may hate themselves for loving this show, but it’s only gotten this far because Hanggi didn’t stop believing.