Photo by Larry HirshowitzTHERE ARE WORKS FOR THE MUSICAL THEATER THAT begin in theaters, and some that begin in playwrights' laboratories. Others come out of universities; still more emerge from the dedication of a solitary writer working in a home office. Lately, a number of them have devolved out of movies, using hydraulic lifts and live animals to compensate for the grandeur lost from screen to stage. But only one can claim the distinction of having been cultured in the detritus of a dead rock career, grown in the dark environment of a 150-seat rock club, and emerged into the light of intensifying notoriety without a single workshop, cold reading or producer's notes. Andy Prieboy's White Trash Wins Lotto, a satirical musical inspired by (but not necessarily based on) the life of Guns N' Roses' Axl Rose, started with one song, written as a joke. It contains not one bar of rock music, but it has become one of the most talked about send-ups of the rock music industry since This Is Spinal Tap, and a potential source of fresh air for the commercial theater, not to mention the record business. And to hear Prieboy tell the story of creating it is to get a radical education in how to succeed in music without really trying. Lesson one: Don't print up fliers, invite industry heavies or give anyone comps. Lesson two: Learn to say “no.” (Or, as Prieboy puts it, “'No,' 'No thank you' and 'Fuck off.'”) Lesson three: When you're failing miserably in your chosen profession, try to remember why you chose it in the first place.
On a foggy November evening three weeks before White Trash Wins Lotto returns for its second run at the Roxy Theater, Prieboy meets me on the street in front of his rustic Silver Lake house looking, in silhouette, like an avatar of '80s rock. He wears a double-breasted black Carnaby Street jacket, the kind that flares slightly above the knee, and his pencil-thin, straight black slacks end in cubed-heel boots. He styles his dark brown hair in a spiky shag, which would give his amiably puckish good looks a little toughness if his demeanor didn't undo it. He is enormously gracious and self-deprecating, apologetic at every possible slight and concerned about his words. “I just woke up,” he says as he leads me through a woodsy grotto behind a tall redwood fence into his studio. “You'll clean it up if I sound inarticulate, right?” In the studio are two dogs, a German shepherd mix named Puppy-Boy and the tiniest of dachshunds, Dinky. Prieboy picks up Dinky and nuzzles her face, but puts her down almost instantly. “Eeeew, you've been in the cat box!” On top of the piano, which occupies a full quarter of the room, is a CD of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, a number of artifacts from gigs gone by, and an empty ashtray. Rita D'Albert, former guitarist for the Pandoras and Prieboy's partner in both life and work, has just phoned Pink Dot for another pack of Prieboy's beloved Camel straights and a slice of pizza. D'Albert, who accentuates her olive-skinned beauty by bleaching her hair white, is tiny, scrappy and serious about business. The two give the impression of having risen above poverty, but not all of its customs. When Pink Dot arrives, Prieboy digs deep into his pocket and comes up with a wad of ones.
White Trash Wins Lotto was developed over a three-year period at Largo on Fairfax, where Prieboy and D'Albert had what they call a “residency,” performing a cabaret show — “a rock show in a concert setting,” as Prieboy describes it — twice a month with Estefan Bravo and Katy Conroy. But the idea germinated by accident in his studio back in 1994, inspired by two strangers who lived in a house directly above it. “I was down here writing my typically caffeine-driven, nicotine-fueled suicidal rock ballads, getting absolutely fuckin' nowhere,” Prieboy remembers, “and these two guys were up there writing musicals. They were always at it, and I think they were, in their career, right about where I was in my rock & roll career. They were writing musicals, and could only get gigs doing children's theater.”
Prieboy's career, as he tells it now, was “dead.” After having replaced Stan Ridgway in Wall of Voodoo, the arty, Johnny CashmeetsEnnio Morricone rock band, Prieboy had embarked on a respectable solo career that yielded three LPs and a hit song, a grim AIDS ballad, “Tomorrow Wendy,” which made the charts when it was covered by Concrete Blonde. But the moderate success ended abruptly in 1995 when Sins of Our Fathers, his last record on the Mushroom Records label, ended up gathering dust in the bins. Where it might have sold, it wasn't available: Prieboy and D'Albert toured Australia to standing ovations, D'Albert recalls, “but the record company hadn't put the record in the stores.”
“Rita and I both knew that when we put on shows, we put on great shows,” Prieboy claims, “and so in 1995 we just said, 'Fuck it.' We decided at that point to go back to the basics. No more demos, no more calls to beg people to see us play. No more playing to get a deal, or writing songs to get a record contract, or writing to get a hit. We said, 'We're just going to play because we like to play.'”
Prieboy had already been listening to the musical writers up the hill, but not with any design grander than ridiculing Broadway musicals. “I'd just listen to these guys going through their writer's frustration up there, the same as mine only with different music, and absentmindedly I thought, 'I wonder what these guys, who have no background in rock & roll, I wonder what they'd make of the life story of a heavy metal icon? 'Oh, here's a wonderful story! Let's make it a musical!'” So for idle fun, Prieboy wrote his first musical-theater ballad, turning the dark, melodramatic, funereal chords of Black Sabbath into the kind of modulated, embellished chords Stephen Sondheim would write for the stage, and adding lyrics sung to a sweet, melodic tune: “I want to be in a metal band. Please may I sing for you!”
“I broke myself up,” Prieboy says of the moment the song came out of him. “Because no self-respecting metal guy would ever, ever, ever use that type of a melody, or that kind of phrasing, or that sentiment. I didn't think much of it but I wrote another song, 'Give 'Em the Meat,' about imagining Steve Tyler giving Axl Rose songwriting tips — completely fictional. And one night at Largo, after we'd been there for about six months, I taught it to Rita and our other two performers, and I said, 'If the mood is right, we'll do it tonight.' And we did it that night, and the response was immediate. It brought down the house.”
White Trash Wins Lotto had become a work-in-progress. Over the next year and a half, Prieboy wrote more songs, added more performers and developed a concept. He and D'Albert started going out to see musicals — big, production-heavy musicals like Titanic and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Musical numbers about the heavy-metal rock star began to displace Prieboy's other material, and eventually, says D'Albert, “They ate the cabaret show.”
Prieboy and D'Albert were holding fast to their pledge not to market themselves — “we were sick of being another band handing out fliers,” says D'Albert — but word of mouth was proving more powerful, and audiences were lining up outside Largo to see the show anyway. One night the fire marshall called a halt to the performance because owner Mark Flanagan had squeezed too many people in. The L.A. Times ran a story about it; Entertainment Weekly published a paragraph on it; Rolling Stone picked it up, too. Libby Molyneaux wrote a short profile of Prieboy for this paper. Then the Associated Press caught the buzz, which prompted DJs around the country to riff on the notion when they needed to fill time. One morning, Prieboy woke up to hear KLSX DJ Jonathan Brandmeier performing his own version of an Axl Rose musical.
“I got calls from Chicago,” says Prieboy, “and a friend of mine wrote me from Norway, and I got a bit of press in Spain. And I didn't even have a press agent.”
The entertainment industries of Hollywood had taken notice, too. Prieboy was getting requests from ã managers and producers for a place on the guest list. He denied them all. “We have a guest list for our friends in poverty,” he would tell them, “not for people with expense accounts.” Who wants to work with a record producer who can't pay 10 dollars at the door? So the ones who came paid, “and suddenly guys with checkbooks were inviting me out to lunch,” Prieboy says. “They were cagey about it at first. They'd say, you know, 'We really enjoyed your show . . .' and then they'd look at their fingernails and go, 'So. Are you really writing this musical?' I'd be like, 'Oh, yeah, I'm taking notes. Kind of feeling my way around it.'”
If Prieboy was still vague about his idea, he was certain about his rules of engagement. When a movie producer showed up to offer a chance to pitch the musical for the screen, Prieboy told him, “Here's the pitch: Imagine a band playing at Largo, and it's 10 dollars at the fucking door.” Another movie company made an offer, which Prieboy and D'Albert considered until the exec made the mistake of giving them an ultimatum. “He said, 'Sign this deal or I'm going.' And Rita's response was, 'You tell that motherfucker we have a lifetime supply of ramen noodles and we can wait forever.'”
In 1997, BMG Music signed a deal to publish White Trash Wins Lotto “for a very nice sum of money,” says Prieboy, which he'd planned to spend on car insurance, until he wrecked the car. The cash did, however, allow him to stand ever more firm with Hollywood — or, rather, to teach Hollywood how to behave with respect toward rock & roll musicians. “Here's the problem,” Prieboy expounds, “Music people, musicians, want everything on paper, up front. That's how we've been trained to think. In the movie business, everything is so speculative that nothing gets done on paper. So a musician will look at the movie people as being devious, and the movie people view music people as being incredibly naive, because they want a multimillion-dollar production all printed out on paper up front.
“To which Rita and I responded: 'Tough shit. We want it written all down up front.'”
It's not that Prieboy had contempt for Hollywood. In fact, a movie deal would have fit nicely with his original plan for White Trash Wins Lotto — Largo, record, movie. “Big, bigger, bigger,” says Prieboy. But by the time a second movie deal came his way, the glitter had begun to disintegrate. “The pie-in-the-sky idea of how great the movies are going to be changes when you see the contract,” he reflects now. What got written down up front in deal number two required that Prieboy forfeit all monies from the accompanying record deal, play on the record for scale plus 10 percent — “if I play on the record at all” — and limit all future performances of White Trash Wins Lotto to 150-seat halls, in its present form only. “Which meant that once I signed, I couldn't change anything, I couldn't add a song. So the deal went south.”
And Prieboy temporarily gave up on the movies. “All you gotta do is look at movie guys and see how they dress,” he offers. “They dress like they write for Car and Driver. We refused to be cowed by people like them. My point of view, from my history, I was a dark horse when I joined Wall of Voodoo, I was a dark horse when I got a solo career, and here I am now, holding on to — shit — something a few people want, and I'm going to be careful about who we do our business with. No more acting out of desperation. No more saying, 'Oh, this is the only time this offer is going to come my way.' Because when you get right down to it, this thing is too precious to us to just give away for next to nothing, and to lose all our creative rights. Because you sign this stuff away, and they give you some chicken wings and some post cards and a box full of soap and say, 'Aren't you happy?' And then you turn it over and they fuck it up.”
By the end of 1998, White Trash Wins Lotto had accumulated enough songs and characters — including Prieboy's role as narrator and demiurge — to be regarded as a full-fledged theatrical production. “We'd gone from two songs to five songs to eight songs to 12 songs to 14 fucking songs,” Prieboy says, “and we have 18 people on stage. And we've got every record company in town vying to get in.” Prieboy could finally say to those guys examining their fingernails that he had really written a musical.
IN THE SMALL CONFINES OF HIS STUDIO, Andy Prieboy is introducing his cast members to me. He goes at this task formally and somewhat stiffly, taking each aside and reciting his or her bio, as if they're all guests on a TV talk show and he's the host. Blaine Capatch, an intellectual type with spectacles and angular good looks, is first: “Blaine is a comedian, and a writer, and a musician. He has written for Mad TV and The Martin Short Show. He also performs in a band with Rita.” Next, Mark Rivers, “the former drummer for the Cavedogs,” and Jackie Harris, a blue-eyed brunette whose bob haircut and pale skin give her the look of a porcelain doll. “Jackie was born in Montreal, Quebec, and performed in Toronto with Second City . . . ”
“It's dying, it's dying!” Harris whispers at Prieboy with mock urgency. “C'mon, c'mon, pick it up!”
Everyone in the room busts up, and Prieboy lets Harris take over: “I just got in a cartoon!” she boasts. Prieboy moves on around the room, still playing the straight man giving it up to his cast's persistent wisecracks and raucous appreciation of each other's antics. Paul Greenberg, whom Prieboy bills as “an excellent physical comedian,” stretches his arm around his much taller boss's shoulder as his bio is read; Traci DeNisi grabs at the chance to introduce her friend of 17 years, Crissy Guerrero. “She makes Mariah Carey look like she don't know what she's doing!” says DeNisi, snapping her fingers. “Plus, she's a really good girl.”
It is a remarkably charismatic and eclectic group of people — writers, comedians, musicians, actors, dancers, all but three culled from the community of performers at Largo, where owner Flanagan encourages everyone to see each other's shows. (“It's very familial there,” says Prieboy.) Only one cast member auditioned for his role — Brian Beacock, who plays Axl. “We knew we needed a true Broadway singer,” D'Albert explains, “someone who would play it straight.” When she met Beacock in the hallway outside the audition, she said to herself, “There's our Axl.” When he took the stage, she says, “he was amazing.”
“He wasn't just amazing,” Prieboy adds. “He got it. All these guys had showed up who wanted to rock. One guy showed up in his Iron Maiden T-shirt, and he was amped. I told him, 'But there's no rock in the musical,' and you could just see his face fall. But Brian understood rock & roll, and he also shared my frustration with Broadway musicals, because he'd had to perform that stuff.”
Blond, ridiculously handsome, sincere and blessed with a clear tenor that can belt show tunes as easily as opera, Beacock seems the very embodiment of a “Broadway adaptation of the White Male Rock King,” as Prieboy describes him. Now, with Prieboy introducing the scene, Beacock takes the center of the room for the show's opening number, “Guitar Center,” a mocking paen to that very institution of rock & roll dreams on Sunset Boulevard:
Good evening Guitar Center!
World-Famous Guitar Center!
Rock musicians' rent is spent here
'bandon hope all ye who enter . . .
Starry-eyed Axl, fresh off the bus from Indiana, withstands the shock of L.A., survives the chill of new wave (in a song called “Duran Duran”), is stripped of his manager by sleazebag industry execs who denounce her as “just a chick,” comes to terms with the decline of fame, and faces the hard truths of the star-making machinery (“Did you think you didn't need the Old Boy's Club?” asks a song toward the finale, with not entirely comic intent). The show is funny enough not to be taken too seriously, but true enough to be understood as Prieboy's critique of how the business builds up stars and crushes them without compunction; how deals are made and controlled by people who have neither the taste nor the integrity to detect talent. Axl Rose is the character's name, but the life story is partly Prieboy's — like Rose, he began dreaming of rock stardom in his native Indiana, and came close ã enough to know what it means to live your illusion.
The music varies from Gilbert-and-Sullivany rapid-fire patter to Andrew Lloyd Weberinspired faux-rock: “Heavy Metal Stripper Chicks,” a visit with the women of Jumbo's Clown Room, has something in common with the tunes Weber wrote for Jesus Christ (as in “superstar”) to sing. “Here's a scene straight out of The Grapes of Wrath,” Prieboy announces. “Every musical has its obligatory hoedown scene, its very own 'Shipoopi',” he says, referring to Buddy Hackett's signature number from The Music Man, which Prieboy astutely pronounces the greatest of American musicals. “Saddle up yer firebirds/Git yer two weeks pay/Grab your Strat and your baseball cap/We're bound for Ca-li-forn-i-ay,” sing the cast, playing aspiring rock stars, crowded together as if on the back of a pickup truck. “We'll walk in them companies/Hot 'n' slick 'n' sure/We'll say 'Davy Geffen, where the fuck you want my signature, sir?'”
When it comes time for the show's finale, a scene that centers around Beacock and his high tenor, Beacock complains that his voice is tired from too many days of belting in a row. But his colleagues convince him to do it anyway. “Just don't sing full voice,” one advises. “Do it in falsetto.” He starts out gently, singing sotto voce, hitting high notes in a flutey head tone. But at some point, he gives up, or forgets, and lets his high notes rip. Like everyone else in this room, he seems unable to stand performing a single notch under full-throttle.
“ONE DAY I WANT TO STAND UP AT A songwriter's workshop and say, 'Everyone's going to prepare you for the business. I'm going to prepare you for after the business. I want to prepare you for the day when you're going to be old, and no one's going to want to see you, or hear you play, or come to your shows anymore. What are you going to do now?'”
In March of '99, HBO offered to fly the creator and cast of White Trash Wins Lotto to Aspen, Colorado, to the Comedy Arts Festival. Once again, “we were very firm,” Prieboy says. “We told them exactly what we wanted, and they gave it to us. They flew us up there, treated us great, put us on a bigger stage with a great lighting system. 'Cause, you know, Largo's very rough — there are six mikes and eight lights. So suddenly, we're working with this HBO-financed system on a bigger stage. And I realized two things — what we would need to put it on a bigger stage, and that if we did put it on a bigger stage, in front of a bigger audience, it would fly. When we left Aspen, we said, 'We've just outgrown Largo.'”
In Aspen, Prieboy and D'Albert had met Snowden Bishop, an independent producer who was working with Lionel Pasamonte, the show's technical producer. Bishop signed on as the show's producer. White Trash Wins Lotto was performed at Largo for the last time on Prieboy's birthday (he won't say which one), April 17, and by October, Bishop had secured a three-night, weekend run at the Roxy, the club Prieboy and D'Albert had been eyeing since they signed with BMG. Every show sold out. An added fourth night sold out within 24 hours. “It verified for me that we could fill a 350-seat theater four nights in a row,” Prieboy says. “And we confirmed that the production would work on a bigger scale.”
Other weekends will follow, every other month, until White Trash outgrows the Roxy, too. Or doesn't. No one wants to speculate too far ahead about a show that happened by accident. “We're taking it one little baby step at a time,” Bishop ã insists. “I would hate to overexploit this and push it to a new venue before it's ready.”
Five months ago, Prieboy and D'Albert signed a record contract, with MCA Records' Michael Rosenblatt and Jay Boberg, both of whom had faithfully attended the performances since word had begun to spread about it, and paid their 10 bucks at the door. “Jay Boberg was the former president of IRS records when I was on IRS records,” Prieboy recalls. “He dropped me in 1986. And he brought in Gary Ashley, who was head of Mushroom Records, who signed me in '94 and dropped me in '96.” Which leads Prieboy to offer another bit of advice to spurned musicians who would burn their bridges: “Never send those letters.”
With music distribution drifting toward the Internet and CD copying running wild, rock music marketing is bracing for an overhaul. Prieboy maintains that it would behoove record companies to take on the kind of long-term risk MCA has with White Trash Wins Lotto; to get behind a project that's bigger than a single band or a record deal. Rosenblatt gives every impression that MCA has done just that: He even uses “we” when he talks about the show. “We're going to put out an original cast album, then we hope to have an extended run here in Los Angeles,” he says. “We'll be taking it to Chicago, New York, Miami. And then we'll get it made into a movie.”
The deal is no less than Prieboy expected, but he remains a little bewildered. “I had to ask myself as I walked out the door, 'Have I really sold this incredibly anti-industry piece to the industry?'”
And will he sell an anti-Broadway piece to Broadway? The way things work these days, a movie deal wouldn't preclude a stint on Broadway. That would seem a good thing not just for White Trash, but for the moribund Great White Way, for which Prieboy reserves the bitterest of his cheerily delivered jibes. “Rita and I went to see The Scarlet Pimpernel in New York,” he says. “And it would have been fine, except that the composer seems to have written songs hoping Whitney Houston might cover them. It's all puss chords . . . ” He plays a few of those major sevenths and ninths, the building blocks of jazz-inflected pop.
“Yeah,” D'Albert chimes in. “It's like the kind of stuff you can testify to, you know?” And she testifies a few bars. But it gets worse than that. There's Rent: “The shittiest bunch of rock & roll songs I've ever heard in my life,” Prieboy declares.
“My musical is probably wrong,” he allows, “all the way down the line. It's just what a dumb rock & roll guy, me, views as 'theater,' and there's something about me being a rock & roll guy that makes theater just foreign. Rock & roll is one of the few mediums in which you can end a show telling everybody to fuck off. It doesn't have to have a happy ending. It never has to resolve. And it's one of the few secular things that is sacred to me, rock music and the way that we, collectively, clean the barn every few years.
“I never approached this like, you know, 'What the American Theater is sorely lacking.' But 20 years from now, when some hack is looking for a property and thumbing through our time and our dreams and our blood and hopes and desires, and they think, 'Oh, here's a real interesting time we can write about and trivialize, turn it into Grease — maybe, just maybe, somebody will remember White Trash Wins Lotto and say, 'No, you can't do that, you can't water down that heavy-metal guy into a do-gooder hero, because that myth was already dispelled in White Trash.'”
Either that, or Prieboy will be telling a different story in these pages. “God knows what all this is going to be like in five years when the record company drops us and the show has flopped. I'll be talking to the L.A. Weekly, going, 'Wee wee wee wee! That bad record company treated us mean!'”
Which seems unlikely, but not the end of anyone's world. “It's very important at all times,” Prieboy reiterates to himself as much as to anyone, “to remember that this started out as a friggin' joke.”
White Trash Wins Lotto plays the Roxy Theater December 8-10.
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