The rock musical based on 1980s big-hair, heavy-metal hits is popular with audiences in any decade
When writer Chris D’Arienzo’s agent let him know that a musical based on ’80s heavy-metal hits was being produced in Los Angeles he knew he was the man to write the book. You might say he couldn’t “fight this feeling any longer,” but D’Arienzo knew he could do justice to some of the biggest hits of his youth by weaving them into a Broadway musical with real heart.
To win the Rock of Ages gig, however, he had to impress the producing team.
“It was probably the ballsiest pitch of my life,” he said. When he arrived for the pitch meeting, he saw the writer who had just finished pitching shuffle out the room with deflated energy, and it lit a spark of inspiration.
“I walked to the conference room where all the producers were sitting and kicked in the door, threw my bag in, took my shirt off (revealing an authentic sleeveless Journey concert T-shirt) and sauntered in like I was some kind of David Lee Roth character.”
In a move that very easily could have gotten D’Arienzo kicked out of the building, he managed to impress the team of neophyte Broadway producers with his guts. They hired him immediately.
D’Arienzo got to work. His gargantuan task was to identify pop and rock songs of the ’80s that he wanted to use, secure the rights, then interlace them to tell a story. “For me it was important to make sure that the songs transitioned seamlessly with the book so that they really acted as dialogue instead of, ‘Hey, let’s take a time out to sing an ’80s pop song,’ ” he said.
‘For me it was important to make sure that the songs transitioned seamlessly with the book so that they really acted as dialogue instead of, “Hey, let’s take a time out to sing an ’80s pop song.” – Chris D’Arienzo, Writer
Some bands were understandably resistant to having their most famous rock anthems turned into a Broadway musical.
“I get it,” said D’Arienzo. “If I was a hard rocker and someone told me they wanted to make a Broadway show out of my heavy-metal tunes, I would be very leery. But luckily a lot of them saw what we were trying to do.”
When asked if there was one song that got away, D’Arienzo said, “I always dreamt of starting the show with [Guns N’ Roses’] ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. I was really bummed when they wouldn’t give it to us, but then I started playing with the opening and re-listened to David Lee Roth’s ‘Livin’ In Paradise’ and I realized that Roth’s song worked so much better…Although I think ‘Jungle’ is one of the greatest rock songs ever written, I do believe it was a happy accident and a real gift from Diamond Dave!”
With a portfolio of awesome ’80s tunes in hand, D’Arienzio created a plotline that spoke to the spirit of the era. Sherrie (as in ‘Oh Sherrie’) is an aspiring actress just off the bus seeking fame in L.A. She lands a job at a bar on the Sunset Strip and meets aspiring rocker Drew, who’s bussing tables waiting to make the big time. Along with other kooky denizens of the Strip, the two set out to save the bar (and the rock’n’roll lifestyle it represents) from greedy developers plotting to tear it down.
D’Arienzo knew two of the songs he had in hand would inform the plot – Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Starship’s “We Built This City.”
“The other songs really informed character more….I always tried to avoid songs that were really literal,” D’Arienzo said of his process. So as our hero and heroine fall in love, we rock out to Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” and as the characters set out to follow their hearts we hear, “Here I Go Again on My Own” by White Snake, and as the crew protests against the developers, we chant, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
In 2006, once the script was crafted, the creative team took the show to a bar in LA, where the reception was enormously positive. “[The bar] was packed every night,” said D’Arienzo. “Then we went to Vegas for ten days; that was soul-sucking and horrible….There is nothing worse than trying to do theatre for a room full of really drunk gamblers coming in on Rascal scooters with Margaritas-by-the-Yard hanging around their necks.”
The production moved to off-Broadway in 2008, where it enjoyed a hugely successful run, and in 2009 transferred to Broadway. D’Arienzo spent five months working with the cast and crew to make the transition. “I can say without question [those were] the best five months of my professional life.”
On the other hand, the team was not sure how audiences in New York, that mecca of high art, would receive such a cheeky, low-brow kind of show.
“But people really dug it,” D’Arienzo said. “I was relieved, only because we were told from the beginning that New York would absolutely hate us. But we always believed in our show and the majority of people in the Broadway community really embraced it.”
Note to theatregoers over the age of 35: while the music will leave you dancing nostalgic for a bygone era, the costumes may hit a bit close to home. “There were some really bad looks back then,” acknowledges D’Arienzo, “and I think I tried them all.” Pegged pants, layered tops, polo shirt upon polo shirt (collar up of course), with a button-up on top and a t-shirt underneath, the styles, in retrospect, were not kind.
D’Arienzo has stayed actively involved in the life of the show. In Manhattan he watched over the setting up of the re-opening of Rock of Ages on Broadway. He also adapted the screenplay for the feature film based on the musical starring Tom Cruise, Paul Giamatti, Mary J. Blige and Alec Baldwin. In addition to the Broadway and New York runs, the film and the ongoing national tour, the show has enjoyed hit productions in Australia, Asia and England.
The world over, Rock of Ages has proved to be a light-hearted, joyful rock musical and a nostalgic trip down memory lane for audiences. Never underestimate the power of rock anthems, garish outfits – and a good bit of hairspray.
Genevieve Miller Holt, formerly of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, is the General Manager for Broadway Across America in Cincinnati.
Rock of Ages: Ticket information
- Written by: Christopher D’Arienzo, with arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp
- Directed by: Martha Banta
- Dates: January 25-27
- Where: Buell Theatre
- ASL Interpreted, Audio-Described and Open Captioned performance: January 26, 2 p.m.
- Tickets: Call 303-894-4100 or
Photo gallery: Rock of Ages
Online bonus: About the 10th anniversary tour
Rock of Ages is hitting the road again for a 10th anniversary tour that comes to Denver January 25-27. What can audiences expect? “The same terrific music, and the really funny, fun time you have when you come to the show,” director Martha Banta said. But, she added, “This is a new production of it. It’s not a remount of what was already done.”
The show had a winding road to Broadway. First staged in a club on Hollywood Boulevard in 2005, the show made its way to different venues in L.A. and Las Vegas. “The trajectory of the show was constantly stop-start-stop,” writer Christopher D’Arienzo said. “Every time we did it, it felt like maybe it was the last time we would do it.” It opened off-Broadway in January, 2009, and two months later was on Broadway, where it would remain for six years, running 2,328 performances.
David Gallo’s set for the tour has a strong rock vibe, said Banta. “The overall concept of the set is that it’s a rock and roll tour. So, you’ve got the road boxes and it looks just like a blank stage.” But, Banta said the set – like the musical itself – is filled with surprises. “Things drop in and the boxes open up and there’s a whole scene in there. A briefcase opens up and something else is inside that. And you roll out something and now you’re somewhere else.”
For D’Arienzo, “Rock of Ages is this tremendous gift.” In addition to its Broadway run, the show has been seen across the country and across the world, and was even turned into a Hollywood film, starring Tom Cruise. “It’s awesome the tour’s going out again, and that’s so cool,” he said. “Any time there’s a production of Rock of Ages, part of me is kind of blown away; like, wow. They still want to do this? That’s amazing. And it makes me so happy and I’m so grateful.”
– Written by Jeff Lunden