Grunge couldn't effectively kill hair metal 20 years ago and neither will a nuclear attack. For the past two years, the era has been rearing its ugly, painted head on Broadway thanks to Rock of Ages, the send-up of '80s and early-'90s hard rock and pop that's so lovingly mocking that Bic lighter flashlights are handed out to the audience. It just may be the first production to go from Hollywood Boulevard to the Tonys, joining other nostalgia jukebox musicals written by questionably hip artists — ELO's Jeff Lynne (Xanadu), ABBA (Mamma Mia!) — that have become some of the Great White Way's new cash cows.
The leap from arena-size power ballads and bromance anthems to show tunes isn't exactly a big one. And, really, what's more theatrical than dudes who look like ladies?
Director Kristin Hanggi (an L.A. Weekly Theater Award winner) conceived of the idea while staging the Pussycat Dolls' show at the Roxy in 2002. "I was on the Sunset Strip every night and was just in awe of all the natural characters that already existed. All these stories that are in the walls, in the environment. It's an inherent story of the Los Angeles dream that's at the core of what we're trying to tell," Hanggi says. Once she and the team of producers found writer Chris D'Arienzo, the show began its run in 2005 at King King — the Hollywood rock club that's hosted musicals inspired by Charles Bukowski and The Scarlet Letter — with original cast members Kyle Gass of Tenacious D, former MTV host Chris Hardwick and Broadway royalty Laura Bell Bundy (Hairspray, Legally Blonde).
"I remember early on we would joke around and say, 'We're bringing Whitesnake to Broadway?' " laughs producer Janet Billig Rich. "Then we did."
Even after the big move to New York, little was changed in the story, which is narrated by Lonny Barnett (Patrick Lewallen), a mulleted Jack Black look-alike and sound man at the Bourbon Room on the Strip. "When we first started working on it," Hanggi says, "we thought maybe it would be a Vegas show. This fun, rockin' spectacle. But we learned that what worked was the characters and the comedy. So we refined it and gave it more of that Urinetown sensibility."
It's at this "historic temple of rock & roll kick-assery" that we meet two dreamers, Drew Bowie (Tony-nominated one-time American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis) and Sherrie Christian (Rebecca Faulkenberry) — he a wannabe singer, she a wannabe actress whose name is a patent excuse for including Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie" and Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." They sing and dance through music-video choreography — high kicks, jazz hands across the face, pirouettes — with other characters, including Stacee Jaxx (Mig Ayesa, no extra '80s letters), the club's resident rock star with an ego as big as his blond, curly hair. This was obviously music to Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider's ears: He briefly joined the cast last year. "He said it was like having real dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movie," Rich jokes.
A live band, which includes Night Ranger guitarist Joel Hoekstra, goes through the soundtrack's 30 hits by Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar and Poison, in addition to some real forgotten ghosts: Quarterflash or Asia, anybody? "It's just part of the cultural fabric," Rich says. "These songs are so iconic, even if you think you're not a fan, you know every single word to every single song."
Not surprisingly, Guns N' Roses and Mötley Crüe refused the rights to their material, as well as Def Leppard, who, after catching one of the performances, had a change of heart.
Rock of Ages has proven so popular, it not only spawned productions in Toronto, Melbourne and even Seoul, but, thanks to more than 800 audience members, it broke the Guinness World Record for largest air-guitar performance in 2009.
And come spring, the Hollywood musical will get the Hollywood treatment, with Hairspray's Adam Shankman set to direct the film version. While the creators are tight-lipped about possible leading roles, A-list names like Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige and Tom Cruise have been mentioned. Unlikely? As Journey would say, "Don't Stop Believing."
ROCK OF AGES | Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. | Feb. 15-27 | (323) 468-1770 From Hollywood to Broadway to Hollywood:
BEST CURE FOR THE LONG COMMUTE
The "news cycle" for the Keith Richards autobiography Life came and went right before the 2010 holidays, with the year's-end lists trying to talk people into gifting it to "cool dads," along with golf paraphernalia and single-malt Scotch. We were skeptical about it at first: As much as we love the Stones and have the utmost respect and admiration for Keef, the thought of plowing through a thick brick of a book put together by the Guv'nor and some ghostwriter was less than thrilling.
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But enough friends recommended it highly that we went to a bookstore and, right as we were pondering acquiring the unwieldy doorstop, behold, we noticed something more interesting: an unabridged audiobook of Life read (mostly) by boozy musician and Keith sound-alike Joe Hurley. Hurley can be a little overdramatic, but his delivery grows on you, and Keith's yarns and occasional gems of true wisdom are a great companion for L.A. freeway driving. The clincher, though, is that for a few chapters, Mr. Richards' publishers secured the reading services of one Johnny Depp, who proves, yet again, what a nuanced interpreter and all-around sympathetic soul he is. If that movie thing doesn't pan out for him, we predict Depp would have his future assured in the audiobook racket.
FUSION, THE RIGHT WAY
We want to recommend a fusion project to you. No, wait — come back! Yeah, yeah, the word fusion scares many a music fan (e.g., its recent use on The Mighty Boosh as a punch line for pretentious, just-for-specialists music that won't get anyone laid), but one also could argue that most music is a fusion of other things. It just depends on what is being fused and how. Meet the Carolina Chocolate Drops, revivalists of string-band and jug-band music of the early jazz era, and their fusion partners the Luminescent Orchestrii, a gypsy punk band. Now add beat-boxer Adam Matta and run all of that through a lusty, jazzy repertoire that somehow drafts Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'em Up Style" into its melange. Quality label Nonesuch has just released a delicious four-song EP of their collaboration, which twists the promise of the Drops' surprising debut, Genuine Negro Jig, into something rarer: fusion, the right way.