Constantine Maroulis and Rebecca Faulkenberry (seen on stage in Boston)… (Winslow Townson / For the…)
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.