Even the most fervent fans — and they are legion — might not recall that “Rock of Ages,” the stage musical that takes place inside a Hollywood nightclub, first premiered inside a Hollywood nightclub. A 30-minute version played six nights at King King in 2005 — with Chris Hardwick, Dan Finnerty and Laura Bell Bundy head-banging with an onstage band — and proved that “Don’t Stop Believin’” works as well as the finale of a theatrical show as it does in the set list of a Journey concert.
A full production then premiered at the Vanguard down Hollywood Boulevard. “This show is for all of us who still find ourselves lip-syncing down the supermarket aisles to Pat Benatar or sneaking Foreigner onto our iPods,” wrote Times theater critic Charles McNulty in 2006. “The production may not improve the malingering state of the American musical, but it certainly creates a spectacle that shamelessly conveys the essence of what made the ’80s, for better or worse, unforgettable.”
The irreverent burst of nostalgia — touting classic rock hits from Whitesnake, Styx and REO Speedwagon — eventually made its way to Broadway, where it nabbed five Tony Award nominations and played for more than five years. Its complimentary toy lighters took over theaters in Toronto, Las Vegas and London’s West End. The juggernaut rolled to Australia, Asia and South America. Fans were able to sing along to the hair-metal musical while vacationing on a cruise or watching the 2012 big-screen adaptation starring Tom Cruise.
Fifteen years after it started, “Rock of Ages” is attempting to defy the odds once again — by returning to a Hollywood nightclub. Rather than programming into an existing theater’s season or renting a venue for a limited run, producers have taken the rare step of signing a 10-year lease for a second-story Hollywood Boulevard space. If successful, the blueprint will become a template for semi-immersive “Rock of Ages” stagings across the country.
The Bourbon Room, the fictional hotspot facing demolition in “Rock of Ages,” is now a real, functioning bar that houses the musical’s 20th production — a homecoming that officially opens Wednesday. This time, Broadway “Rock” director Kristin Hanggi has staged the action all around the audience of 250 people. As the band plays on the wide stage, the actors saunter through aisles of tables and chairs, and sing from a platform in the middle of the space.
“When we were on Broadway, I always felt like the audience wanted so badly to be onstage with us — there’s so much singing along and call-and-response already — but there was always a proscenium separating the actors from the audience,” Frankie Grande, who reprises his role as Franz in Los Angeles, told The Times.
“And I think it’ll attract a new flock of theatergoers who maybe don’t want to sit in a dark theater and just face forward for two-and-a-half hours,” he said. “In our society nowadays, we’re so used to being overstimulated and oversaturated, so the attention span of the audience member has truly decreased in the past several years. At our show, there’s an entrance behind us? Someone is dancing on our table? This is a way to keep things fresh and engaging, and can serve other productions well.”
Producers are betting on revenue not just from ticket sales ($89 to $129 a pop) but also from the bar that lies beyond the performance area, serving a full dinner menu and craft cocktails including a special “Rock of Ages” bourbon from Maker’s Mark. This is a key move for a musical whose signature in-seat drink service, back in a time when Broadway theaters rarely sold alcohol, contributed to its popularity.
“We had seen jukebox shows before, but that music just drew in a huge beer-drinking, vodka-cranberry, stadium kind of crowd,” recalled Tom Davies, then the manager of operations at the Nederlander theater organization. Before “Rock of Ages,” the Brooks Atkinson Theatre — one of Broadway’s smaller houses, with slightly more than 1,000 seats — would pull in about $3,000 per week in concessions. “You’re only selling for 40 minutes: 20 minutes before the show and 20 minutes at intermission,” Davies said.
But because the ’80s fans who attended “Rock of Ages” came ready to drink, and runners served cocktails during scenes, the theater averaged $4,000 in concessions per performance, double that on its best nights.
“It showed theater owners that these drinks can be a huge profit on Broadway,” said Davies, who helped Nederlander implement similar strategies at other houses.
Concessions profits, however, line the pockets of the theater owner, while show producers come up empty-handed.
“From a business standpoint, owning and controlling the liquor is a huge, huge part of this,” said producer Matthew Weaver, explaining why the show “Rock of Ages” will open with its own bar in L.A.
The Bourbon Room opens two hours before curtain, remains open throughout the show and keeps pouring long after it’s over. Designed by Built Inc.'s John Sofio (also behind the Peppermint Club, Bootsy Bellows and Employees Only), the venue is decorated in brick, leather and light wood. A retro record store sells show souvenirs, and a faux-tattoo chair offers patrons shots of bourbon with any temporary markings. Actors from the immersive theater company After Hours casually play characters that might have inhabited the same world as those in “Rock of Ages,” improvising with patrons before they even see a stage. (Weaver declined to reveal the investment needed to make this vision a reality.)
“The state of entertainment right now is like this: People don’t go to the movies unless it’s a tent-pole movie, and their houses are now like mini movie theaters with great sound systems and big screens and the ability to stream such great shows with wonderful writing,” director Hanggi said. “So we’re trying to play with what’s possible with live performance: what if, from the moment you walk in the door, you’re already part of this world? And what if you can still hang out there after the curtain call?
“We’re offering a cornucopia of experiences for people to enjoy, whichever way they want. If you want to come and drink with your friends, great. If you want to play some immersive games before the show, cool. If you want to sit with your family and have dinner during the show, awesome. If you want to stand up and sing along like you’re at a concert, you can have that too. It’s giving people a lot of different, individual ways to participate in this communal thing.”
Access to the Bourbon Room and its activities doesn’t require a ticket. When the show is dark, the space may host intimate concerts, film screenings and other events. Standalone, speakeasy-esque bars, like a small room resembling the office of fictional Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree, and a vintage limousine parked in the alleyway outside, are among the future additions that will be available for private parties.
“We’re really trying to tread this line between fun, loose, experiential, but that you don’t feel like you’re at the wax museum down the street,” joked Weaver. “You’re going to come to ‘Rock of Ages’ and have a great time, yes. But I want you to have that same experience when you come back to the Bourbon Room, and I want you to come back to the Bourbon Room five or six times over the course of a year.”
The producers are ambitiously attempting to open a performance venue and a nightlife venue at the same time, and it hasn’t gone without its hiccups. Trying to turn an old Hollywood building into a theater has required installing a high-quality sound system, building adequate dressing rooms, soundproofing the stage space, and figuring out safety measures, especially since scantily-clad actresses occasionally play strippers for a potentially inebriated audience. (Producers note that two security officers will be watching for inappropriate audience behavior.)
Adding in a culinary component — and the city permit that requires — has complicated the entire operation, which was scheduled to open in October (and then November, and then December). But Weaver has plans to replicate this blueprint in Nashville, Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, either with “Rock of Ages” or other existing musicals with transportive settings.
“I hope the community gets behind it in the way it should,” said Nick Cordero, the Tony nominee who plays Dennis. “This is a brand new and exciting way to see this show, even if you’ve seen it before. And with everything else going on in here, I can imagine that this is really gonna be a shot of adrenaline in the arm of the theater scene here.”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $89 and up
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes (one intermission)
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