At present writing, acclaimed director Julie Taymor and Bono and the Edge of U2 are putting the finishing touches on a musical version of Spider-Man. Bet you never thought you’d see something like that in your lifetime. But here it comes, along with a host of Broadway adaptations of familiar properties, like crappy movies (Toxic Avenger: The Musical, The Wedding Singer), TV shows-turned-movies (The Addams Family) and movies-turned-musicals-turned-movies (The Producers). One of the biggest runaway hits of the past decade—Mamma Mia!, based on the music of ABBA—continues to bring live karaoke to the masses with a wafer-thin premise so ingenious that it basically ushered in a new paradigm for theatrical production. So, now we have the Green Day musical (American Idiot) and the Queen musical (We Will Rock You) and, regrettably, a musical based on ’80s hair metal ballads and corporate rock that threatens to redefine the word “awful”: Rock of Ages.
The economics of Broadway (and London’s West End) are bizarre, to say the least. The profit margins with a hit production remain fairly slim—there’s huge overhead in theatrical rentals, at least half of your cast belongs to an actor’s union, and the expense of breaking down and setting up a set on tour is astronomical. There is, however, a ton of money to be lost with mounting a musical. You can take a known commodity—say, the choreography of Twyla Tharp and the music of Billy Joel—and still drop a massive turd (Movin’ Out). The process of theatrical production is not so much based on an accurate reading of what people will want, because the average Broadway ticket price is creeping over $100 and audiences are, on the whole, fickle. In the post-Mamma Mia! landscape, it’s more about risk analysis: mitigating the pitfalls of production by trafficking wholly in known commodities. Of course, there’s always something interesting and original incubating Off-Broadway (Rent, Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), ripe for a step up to the Big Show, but simple economics dictate that it’s much cheaper to just license music and gently massage it into a product fit for mass-consumption. That’s why people are hooked on Glee, at least.
With Rock of Ages, there’s a Music Supervisor, a Music Coordinator, a Music Director and an Arranger all working behind the scenes to fold elements of the “Now That’s What I Call Hair Metal” soundtrack into a light and frothy libretto. Bits of the songs seem to serve the narrative well—a Mr. Big/ Extreme medley is a master stroke—but anyone who comes to Rock of Ages expecting to hear any of these 20+ songs delivered in full will leave sorely disappointed. This is perhaps best exemplified by the massive cocktease of whittling down Europe’s “The Final Countdown” into one verse + chorus at the opening of Act II. At least there’s a laser show. For, like, a minute. But that’s not much of a show-stopping set piece for audiences who are now accustomed to seeing rotating stages and casts roller skating overhead and life-sized replicas of helicopters land on stage. Poison, Mötley Crüe and half of the bands on the soundtrack still deliver much bigger in stadium tours every year.
More discerning members of the audience will probably notice that Rock of Ages takes extreme liberties with the soundtrack, which somehow conflates the spoon-fed pabulum of early ’80s arena rock (Styx, Journey, Pat Benetar, Asia) with the mid-’80s hair metal decadence portrayed in The Decline of Western Civilization Part II. The setting—a super-sleazy Sunset Strip club modeled after the Whisky-A-Go-Go—supports the latter, but man, do we really have to drag Night Ranger into this? Of course, at present writing, Joel Hoekstra of Night Ranger in playing on stage with the band in the Broadway cast while Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider continues a limited engagement as the onstage narrator and David Coverdale delivers the taped introduction. In Rock of Ages, it’s all part of the same drab tapestry, which one character neatly encapsulates as “poop jokes and Whitesnake songs.”
There’s a story tying this all together, casting mid-’80s Los Angeles as a boulevard of broken dreams, where the male protagonist (played by American Idol flameout Constantine Maroulis, who was nominated for a Tony for his role in the original production) struggles to become a “rocker” while the girl of his dreams trades an acting career for stripping. But it’s all packaged in an insincere script with foul puns and incessant fourth-wall-breaking asides to remind you that you’re a sucker for even setting foot in the audience. But perhaps the most grotesque irony is that some of the most soulless music of the 1980s gives this musical its pulse. For a show that drops the f-bomb every 10 minutes or so, it’s not very subversive. And considering its Sunset Strip setting, it’s not nearly decadent enough. My 67-year-old mom fondly recalls listening to Journey and Styx on the way to soccer practice, and watches Glee religiously. She’s practically the target audience for this kind of tired exercise, but by the end of the two hour and 45 minute cavalcade of awkward nostalgia, all color had drained from her face. On the way out, I asked her what she thought. “In the immortal words of Ozzy Osbourne,” she sighed, “it fucking sucks.”