Rock of Ages producer talks big screen adaptation
Rock of Ages made a huge splash on Broadway and is already being adapted into a film with a star-studded cast including Tom Cruise, Paul Giamatti, Russell Brand, Mary J. Blige, Malin Akerman, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Alec Baldwin. The musical recently kicked off its run at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, wowing crowds with its rock songs and fun vibe. Trashwire recently got the chance to chat with producer Matt Weaver about bringing Whitesnake to Broadway, adapting the show to film and man-love set to REO Speedwagon.
Rock of Ages is certainly not your traditional Broadway musical. Instead of show tunes, it uses the music of bands and artists like Journey, Pat Benatar, Poison, Twisted Sister, Styx, Bon Jovi and other huge ‘80s rock stars to tell the story of aspiring-rocker Drew (played to perfection by American Idol’s Constantine Maroulis) as he falls in love with small-town-girl Sherrie (Elicia MacKenzie in the Denver run) on the Sunset Strip in 1987 Los Angeles. Audiences are encouraged to sing along and are given LED lighters to wave during the ballads—definitely not what you’d think of when you think of Broadway.
“We came into Broadway wanting to be in the club—we didn’t want to come in and be rebels and mix things up,” Weaver says. “We were developing what we thought was a traditional musical, it just happened to have Whitesnake and Poison.” He jokes, “There’s Kander and Ebb, there’s Sondheim and now there’s Whitesnake.”
That kind of pop culture savvy, combined with funny dialogue and some spot-on costumes, is what makes ROA so appealing to a whole new crowd of theatre-goers. “We’re getting people who don’t like theatre coming in and going ‘Wow! This is a Broadway show?’ and we’re getting the theatre-goers who came in begrudgingly with their arms folded and ended up really respecting what we did. The theater people are coming in kicking and screaming, but end up loving it,” Weaver says. “If you hate musicals, you’re going to love Rock of Ages and if you love musicals, you’re going to love Rock of Ages.”
Even the bands themselves were surprised to have their music in a production playing on the same block as classics like Phantom of the Opera. “Do you think Bret Michaels ever thought his song was going to be on Broadway?” Weaver jokes. In one amusing scene, REO Speedwagon’s ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ is used as a love ballad between two rock dudes. “Kevin Cronin from REO Speedwagon came to the show and saw the man-love number and he could not believe it,” Weaver says proudly. “He said every time he sings that song at a concert now, he stops and laughs and tells the audience ‘This song has a whole different meaning for me now.’”
The live experience is what really sets ROA apart. At the opening night show in Denver, people in the audience were fist-pumping and singing along in their seats like they were at a concert instead of musical theatre event. “That was all very calculated,” Weaver says. “I always love compliments about what’s up on stage, but when people talk about the vibe in the theater, I love that too.” That vibe is cultivated in every aspect of the show all the way down to the staff in the venue. “I worked at Disney for a long time,” Weaver explains, “and I share the motto that ‘you guys are cast members, you’re part of the show’, so we throw a dinner party for the ushers before we open up the production.”
Weaver is sure that the live experience will translate well to film. “It could turn into this Rocky Horror thing where there are midnight shows and people are coming dresses as the characters,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a movie that you’re going to want to get up and dance and sing to.” Weaver attributes most of that to Hairspray’s Adam Shankman, who is directing the film. “He’s the best in the game,” Weaver says, “so I can’t imagine that’s it’s not going to have the same feel. I don’t know that people will be drinking Jack and Cokes in the movie theater, but it’ll be fun.”
The film is loaded with megastars, but the musical didn’t start out that way. “When we opened on Broadway,” Weaver explains, “everybody told us we needed a star or we wouldn’t last, but we just said ‘our songs are our stars.’” Now that he has a group of huge stars, he said the experience is surreal. “It’s Bizarro World!” He says. “We’re sitting here with Alec and Tom and Russell and it’s like ‘Woah! I don’t feel worthy!’” Even stars that aren’t in the show are fans. “We had a surprise appearance from Def Leppard today,” Weaver recalls. “We don’t even have their music in the show, we have it in the movie, so we just had this surreal Tom Cruise/Def Leppard moment on the set.”
The story of the production parallels the rags-to-riches story of its main character. From underdog to rock star, the entire journey has been loaded with well-deserved success for the cast and crew. “I’m really proud of my group,” Weaver says. We were 4 or 5 people who had never done it before, blinded by passion for the music and naïveté and we created an international brand.”