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‘Rock of Ages’ lights up Broadway

How does a young, relatively inexperienced creative team bring a love letter to 1980s hair bands to the Broadway stage? The key, it seems, is not to take any of it too seriously.
/ Source: The Associated Press

How does a young, relatively inexperienced creative team bring a love letter to 1980s hair bands to the Broadway stage? The key, it seems, is not to take any of it too seriously.

Now at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, "Rock of Ages" is a silly, raucous jukebox musical featuring the biggest power ballads and glam rock hits of the '80s — including Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" and "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" by Poison.

On a recent afternoon before a preview performance, writer Chris D'Arienzo, director Kristin Hanggi and choreographer Kelly Devine, looked like they had been spending long hours in the theater. But it was clear during an interview filled with affectionate banter that they were relishing the pre-opening night frenzy.

The trio has shepherded the show from its first workshop during the summer of 2005 in a packed club on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, through an off-Broadway run last year to reach this moment.

Devine comes with the most Broadway experience, having served as associate choreographer of another jukebox musical — the Tony Award-winning hit "Jersey Boys." Hanggi's previous projects include the star-studded "Pussycat Dolls Live at the Roxy" in Los Angeles — featuring Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera; "Rock of Ages" is her directorial debut on Broadway.

After signing on, she said her first priority was to find a writer who could capture the show's playful, self-aware tone.

"It really wanted to be a guys' musical," she said. "And it wanted to be funny. So I needed to find someone who was hilarious and who could tap into a really straight man's point of view to tell the story."

She found Los Angeles-based screenwriter D'Arienzo, who also came to "Rock of Ages" without Broadway credits.

After talking through his ideas with Hanggi, D'Arienzo sealed the deal by making producers Matthew Weaver and Carl Levin laugh during his interview.

A rock star entrance"I remember I was wearing like my Journey concert tee — it was sleeveless," D'Arienzo said. "And I threw my bag into the room before I walked in. I figured I had to make a rock star entrance or they wouldn't hire me."

The jukebox musical genre has had some monster hits in recent years — namely "Mamma Mia!" and "Jersey Boys" — as well as its share of major flops. "Lennon" and "The Times They Are A-Changin," which featured the music of John Lennon and Bob Dylan respectively, were among the biggest disappointments.

"There are other jukebox musicals that haven't really worked," said Constantine Maroulis, who stars in "Rock of Ages" as a young musician dreaming of fame.

The former "American Idol" finalist credits D'Arienzo for striking the right balance between the show's music and its plot, which centers on a romance that blossoms in a rock club. "He's really crafted the material into the heart of the story so well, and I think that's what connects with people," he said.

One factor working in favor of "Rock of Ages," D'Arienzo said, is that it draws from a large catalog of music, rather than just one artist's songs, which gave him more freedom to experiment with the story.

Other jukebox musicals were also handicapped, he said, by feelings of reverence for the source material. "While ('80s rock) is beloved by so many people, the fans of it don't have a preciousness about it that they would say like Elvis Presley or John Lennon or Bob Dylan," he said.

At the same time, the team was able to tap into a deep well of nostalgia among members of the generation that grew up watching long-haired rockers strut on MTV.

‘I feel very comfortable with the music’
That includes the D'Arienzo, Hanggi and Devine. Now in their early to mid-30s, they came of age during the age of glam rock.

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"I grew up in L.A. in the '80s in that area so it's very tangible for me," Devine said. "I really know that time. I feel very comfortable with the music, with what the style of dance was at the time."

"I was in private school with kind of strict parents so this (music) was kind of forbidden," said Hanggi, who said she would sneak glances at MTV when her parents weren't around. "I remember watching (Warrant's) 'Cherry Pie' or (Poison's) 'Unskinny Bop' and there was something so naughty about it," she said. "And that, I think, is the appeal. It's permission to be naughty."

Maroulis, too, recalled the slight rebellion of listening to '80s rock. "I remember buying my first Twisted Sister record and my mother wouldn't even let me play it in the house," he said.

D'Arienzo also has a strong connection to the genre, although he wasn't a fan at the time. "I was thrown into lockers on a daily basis by guys that listened to this music," he said.

But over time, the writer said he has developed a real affection for it.

"These were the songs that were played at my dances, they were the songs that played at teen night at the local bar, they were the songs that were in the car when I was making out," he said. "So now I have a real love for it."

In a sense, D'Arienzo has dedicated this show to the jocks who pushed him into lockers back in high school. He called "Rock of Ages" "a bit of an olive branch to people who absolutely hate musicals."

To help lure that non-theater going demographic, the team has done its best to make the show feel as much like a rock concert as a piece of musical theater. Audience members are encouraged to drink beer at their seats, wave fake lighters and even sing along.