In recent years, the “jukebox musical” has taken the world by storm. While there’s no dearth of popular originals — hello, Hamilton! — and classic revivals like Carousel and My Fair Lady continue to draw crowds, the last decade or two has seen an explosion in popularity of musicals built around pre-existing songs. Some, like Beautiful and Jersey Boys, use an artist’s catalog in a biographical way, while others, like Mamma Mia! or Movin’ Out, use an artist’s work to tell an altogether different story.
Then there’s Rock of Ages, which opens next week at the Civic Theatre. What sets this popular musical apart is the wide-ranging soundtrack of some of the 1980s most popular tracks, highlighting all the excesses and majesty that the decade and its music had to offer. Featuring songs from everyone from Journey to Foreigner, Joan Jett to Pat Benatar, Rock of Ages tells the story of two star-crossed lovers chasing their dreams of stardom in a world that threatens to defeat them. Through it all, the story is narrated by Lonnie, just one example of how the characters of Rock of Ages talk directly to the audience. While the heart of the story itself may be fairly traditional, this isn’t your daddy’s Rodgers & Hammerstein, and that makes it outside the box even for its director, Doug King.
“This is not my typical show to do, as in it is a little crass and lacks integrity,” King said. “It also is not a big dance show. I joke that Phillip (Colglazier) offered it to me because it is hokey and over the top. Then I think, ‘Wait, should I be offended because Phillip thinks I do hokey well or because I can do crass well?’ Ultimately what appealed to me is the ’80s rock music. That is my era, and I must say, despite all, the show is an awful lot of fun.”
King also said that it’s the music that really lures in audiences to jukebox musicals.
“When life recycles itself, there is an identifiable sentiment that comes with it. Young people think it’s just great music, and people in their 50s and 60s are going to remember and enjoy the music because we were there. I think the show really appeals to anyone from that era of music and younger.”
That has also proven true for the show’s two leads, both of whom are too young to have experienced the ’80s firsthand. But that hasn’t lessened the appeal for either.
“For me, it’s been three years since I’ve done a musical, and a fun ensemble-style show like Rock of Ages sounded like a really great way to jump back in,” said Halee Bandt, who plays the small-town ingénue Sherrie Christian. “I also have worked with Doug as a director in the past and thoroughly enjoy working with him. It’s always a good time.”
Bandt’s appreciation for the music comes naturally, as well.
“My mom grew up in the ’80s and so all of this music was on all the time during my childhood,” she said. “It is great music and so much fun to sing.”
For Chandler Chastain, who plays Drew Boley, the opportunity to branch out and do something new was what drew him to the show.
“I auditioned for the show because I’d heard great things about the director, Doug King, and wanted the chance to expand my musical range,” he said. “I did not grow up listening to ’80s rock, aside from Guns N’ Roses which is considered more ’90s rock, I believe. The male singing in this show is extremely high pitched and I was looking for a vocal challenge, and I certainly got the challenge I was looking for. I enjoy that my character is a stock character with ‘meta’ qualities. The entire show breaks the ‘fourth wall’ quite often and I love this type of self-aware humor. The show doesn’t take itself seriously, and it’s really refreshing.”
Aside from some of the fun quirks, Bandt also appreciates her character’s evolution as the show progresses.
“What’s fun about Sherrie is that she starts out at the beginning of the show with this bright-eyed optimism but has a bit of spunk as well,” Bandt said. “She doesn’t take anyone’s crap. Then we start to see this sassy side of her come out more and more as the show goes on.”
King, who has a long history with the Civic Theatre and with the Executive Director Colglazier, has already seen a lot of sparks in rehearsals which bodes well for the final product.
“Oh my gosh, every night is really out of control,” he said. “We laugh at so many things, most revolve around Prentice Moore who plays Lonny. I give him free range to embellish or say can you make something with this moment, and then he just goes with it.”