By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“We did miss an entire generation of musical-theater audiences ... I was scared that we were going the way of opera, but that’s changed now,” Haagensen explains, referring to the newly discovered late-teen-to-mid-30s markets for theater. “They are more comfortable with what they know. What they associate with music onstage is a concert. I think the form is accommodating what makes them comfortable. This is more than a trend; I think it’s going to permanently alter the form.”
Haagensen is referring to the increasing use of rock music and hip-hop in the theater — certainly prevalent on both coasts as new musicals get their tryouts in rock clubs, and indie musicians gravitate toward musical theater. Case in point: Rock of Ages, now in previews on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (scheduled to open April 7) after having transferred from a successful off-Broadway run last year at the New World Stages. The show was actually born in L.A. in 2005 at the Vanguard rock club, where it ran for a month, directed then, as now, by Kristin Hanggi — whom you may remember from her local stagings of Bare at the Hudson Mainstage Theater and Pussycat Dolls Live at the Roxy.
Like Mama Mia, Jersey Boys and The Marvelous Wonderettes, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical, plugging in pre-existing hits from an earlier era. Rock of Ages is an arena-rock love story set on L.A.’s Sunset Strip in 1987, “where a small-town girl meets a big-city rocker” — and the music of Journey, Bon Jovi, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia, Whitesnake and others.
The blending of the musical theater into a rock concert would also partly explain why, three decades after it was created, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage finally made its debut on a professional stage at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood (though much of the delay had to do with the Zappa Family Trust). The production thrived for months on Santa Monica Boulevard thanks in large part to the devotion of Zappa’s die-hard fans, who kept returning for the deliberately cheesy story, set to Zappa’s glorious music.
Yet once again, economics are proving to be an impediment to giving that show a professional future in a traditional theater space — even in L.A. The most likely future, at least in the short term, is rock clubs. The club-based provenance of Rock of Ages and Pussycat Dolls Live shows that it can be done, and in fact may be no hindrance to a show’s future.
That’s good news to those indie musicians with few stage credits who now find themselves drawn to the theater. Great Expectations’ lyricist Steve Lane performed in garage bands in high school and college. That show’s composer, Richard Winzeler, comes from a pop-music background, with a Billboard Top 10 R&B single. Their prior experience in theater was “negligible” according to Lane. Even now, “we are neophytes,” he says — despite the buckets of favorable notices for Great Expectations, and itslong run here last year.
Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey were also new to the form when they started writing the music for Lovelace: A Rock Opera in 2002. Caffey has been the lead guitarist and keyboardist for the all-girl band the Go-Go’s since 1978. Waronker, the daughter of record-industry mogul Lenny Waronker and sister of sometime Beck and R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker, was lead vocalist for the band That Dog until it dissolved in 1997.
“This is our first experience in theater,” Waronker says, adding that the pair knew musicals only through soundtracks and movies. “We were freaked out at first, but it’s opened up a new world.”
Songwriter-performer Stew, who launched his music career in L.A. with his indie band The Negro Problem, had no prior involvement with the theater before he developed his show, Passing Strange. Commissioned by the Public Theatre in New York, and presented there in 2007, it became a punk-musical milestone and was filmed by Spike Lee. (It was presented at Sundance Film Festival in January.) Despite the stage show’s rave reviews and accolades for being both sweet and dark at the same time, it didn’t return its investment after it transferred to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway last year. In New York, various producers shrugged it off as though it had been a failure — exactly the market-based distortions of a musical’s validity that Kendt and Haagensen decry.
Decry and, in part, buy into themselves. Kendt recalls going to see Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical Caroline, or Change, about the evolving, testy relationship between a Jewish child in Louisiana and his black maid during the Civil Rights era.
“As much as I admired it, it felt somehow wrong on Broadway — a little precious, artsy. A lot of that feeling came from the audience around me, one member of which unloaded about the tunelessness of the show as soon as the house lights came on.