'Rock of Ages' set for a victory dance at Hollywood's Pantages

Six years ago, a time portal opened on Hollywood Boulevard. In the flash of a Bic lighter, skinny guys with blown-out hairdos and sprayed-on spandex were rocking power ballads again. A group of theater-world unknowns had created a 1980s hair-metal jukebox musical that they called, variously, "a love letter to L.A." and "'Mamma Mia' for dudes."

"Rock of Ages" bounced from its tiny King King birthplace to other small L.A. venues and even to Las Vegas, drawing real rock stars and a wider following. But it never gained acceptance in the theater world.

Then the unconventional show did the most unlikely thing of all: It went to New York and became a hit. It was nominated for five Tony awards in 2009 and settled in for a long Broadway run.

On Tuesday, that time portal opens again, just a few blocks but a world away from King King, a hole-in-the-wall nightclub. The glamorous — but not exactly glam-rock — Pantages Theatre will provide the homecoming stage as "Rock of Ages" returns with an "American Idol"-anointed heartthrob, Constantine Maroulis, up front and a home team of some 30 producers welcoming it back to town.

"This might be the most special show yet," says Matt Weaver, the producer who's been the primary force guiding the show. "Coming back to Hollywood Boulevard, that's going to be amazing."

"Rock of Ages" is a classic Hollywood-style romance about coming to the big city to be a big star. (Cue the Journey anthem.) "Matt came up with the idea we should have a musical where everybody sings 'Don't Stop Believin'," says veteran rock manager Janet Billig Rich, a fellow producer.

The staged story of wannabe Led Zeppelins is only slightly less believable than the real story of "Rock of Ages'" road to success. On a recent afternoon, five core members of the production's creative team — film producer Weaver; his wife, theater producer Hillary Weaver; Billig Rich; director Kristin Hanggi; and guitarist and associate producer David Gibbs — gathered at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, one of the Sunset Strip venues that serve as inspiration and setting for "Rock."

Many early development meetings were held between these hallowed, photo-covered walls. The group came from different disciplines, but love of '80s music united them. The Weavers, Billig Rich and producer Carl Levin had just watched a project called "Time After Time," a story built around '80s pop, die in studio development hell. They turned their sights on "the other '80s": the music of Poison, Whitesnake, Pat Benatar and Bon Jovi.

Hillary Weaver had just produced "Pussycat Dolls Live" at the Roxy, with Hanggi directing.

"We had the Sunset Strip on the brain," says Hillary.

Of the team, only Levin — a recovering investment banker with a seemingly limitless American Express account — had real experience in that '80s club scene that bred MTV stars. "I grew up in Beverly Hills," says Levin recently from New York, where he moved in 2008 to work on the Broadway production. "I would sneak into clubs on the Sunset Strip. It was so appealing, watching tour buses pull in from all over the U.S., the drama that's on stage."

Chris D'Arienzo could relate to the idea of a Midwestern dreamer drawn like a moth to Los Angeles. He came from Paw Paw, Mich., to make it as a screenwriter. But he was beginning to lose hope at about the time his agent told him about "Rock of Ages." Hard rock wasn't this Elvis Costello fan's genre of choice — but it was music he knew well.

"My first kiss was to this music," D'Arienzo says in a separate interview. "My first dance was to this music. It's the closest thing to show tunes in the world of rock 'n' roll.... It all made sense to me."

D'Arienzo came in with "a legendary pitch in which he acted out all the characters," says Matt Weaver.

"It was like Chris was born to write 'Rock of Ages,'" Hanggi says. "He had the whole show spilling out of him."

But the team was relatively young and very green. "None of us had done it before," says Weaver. "It was a perfect storm. We had a lot of passion and what we didn't know was our secret weapon" — their inexperience. They made huge mistakes. Matt Weaver saw the show's ultimate home as Vegas, not Broadway. But a week at the Flamingo in May 2006 flopped, and no other venue picked it up. "That was a $300,000 lesson. That's when we realized we've got to go to New York," he says. The show needed the blessings of the theater capital. Though Weaver, for one, was sure that critics would not like it.

Two crucial changes happened during the year between "Rock's" move from Vegas to off-Broadway's New World Stages, and then, three months later, to Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre. D'Arienzo had time to write a real story with fully developed characters and a physical setting.

D'Arienzo recalls the month he spent in an apartment overlooking Times Square working on the rewrite for Broadway as a dream come true. "Being hunkered down there allowed us to elevate the show. We made it more than just a pageant of '80s metal tunes. We crafted a story that was intentionally simple, something in the spirit of old musical theater traditions."

The second change was the casting of Maroulis. The Boston Conservatory-trained actor had a solid background in musical theater. He had toured as Adam in "Rent" and starred on Broadway in "The Wedding Singer." But he was most famous for being a finalist on the fourth season of "American Idol."

Maroulis originally met with the "Rock of Ages" producers in Los Angeles shortly after his "Idol" success, but his commitments didn't leave room for playing small L.A. venues with a still-forming show.

He got his second chance when "Rock" came to New York. The show's producers say they were initially wary of his fame, that the "Idol" stigma was too pop for their rocker audience. Then Maroulis nailed the audition.

"He's subtle and he's sensitive and he's funny, and then he opens up and sings," Hanggi says.

Having grown up in New Jersey in the '80s, metal was second nature to Maroulis. "These songs were big to me," he says from New York, where he was taking a break from the "Rock" tour to enjoy his daughter, born in December. "You just listen to the melodies: It's theatrical, it's huge. The way they sit in someone's voice. Broadway loves a great melody and good story."

Indeed, if the L.A. theater world failed to appreciate "Rock of Ages," New York fell for it. The New York Times gave "Rock" an enthusiastic review (other reviews were largely positive as well) that was followed by five Tony nominations. Within months of opening in April 2009, Maroulis — nominated for actor in an original musical — and the rest of the cast, along with original hair-metal band Poison, were performing on the Tony telecast.

"Rock" broke Broadway rules and conventions. For the first time in a century, a Broadway theater sold drinks in the aisles. They handed out free cigarette lighters. The producers took the ushers out to dinner and said they wanted them to be part of the show. The ushers and the booze helped make the musical like a rock concert. (The Pantages will follow some, though not all, of these practices.)

"If a couple wants to get up and make out during the show, great, let them. We have one big foot very respectfully in Broadway, and one foot out," says Matt Weaver.

"Rock" closed at the Brooks Atkinson in January and will reopen at the smaller Helen Hayes Theatre in March with a cast drawn from the New York, Toronto and national touring productions. It's heading for Australia and London's West End. Warner Bros. is planning to turn it into a $75-million production directed by Adam Shankman ("Hairspray"). Big names are being tossed around for the film, including Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin.

"But it's different," says Weaver of the possible movie. "We're not all there in the trenches."

"Rock of Ages'" creative team may not be to the Sunset Strip born, but they all show great respect for the show's music, even if they sometimes have a laugh at its expense.

"We put them on a pedestal," says Matt Weaver. "Our mantra from the beginning was the band are the stars."

Many of the musicians whose works are staged and celebrated support the show — and some will be there at the Pantages. Dee Snider of Twisted Sister and Jack Blades of Night Ranger and Damn Yankees have even been in the "Rock" cast.

"There's something about this genre of music that was completely minimized by journalists and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," says Billig Rich, the former Nirvana manager who was responsible for getting rights to the songs. "To the Night Rangers and REO Speedwagons and Styx of the world, 'Rock of Ages' gives them a different validity. They're the jewel in the crown of something that they've never been before."

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