Rock of Ages

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© Jean Goldsmith
Posted: Mon Aug 22 2011

'Rock of Ages', the '80s soft-rock phenomenon, is about to hit the West End. 'Another hits package?' 'No way,' claim stars Justin Lee Collins and Shayne Ward.

The West End is awash with jukebox musicals. 'Thriller Live', 'Mamma Mia!', 'We Will Rock You': they construct a shoddy structure from chart artists' back catalogues, and use the plot to fill in the gaps like theatrical Polyfilla.

Narratives are reduced to absurd contextual justifications for characters yelling out a song title, then leaping around as though they've been tasered. 'Wait a second,' we expect to hear the cast shout, 'you have a desk job in town planning for Hounslow Council? You mean… you work with… CROOOOOSSTOWN TRAFFICCCK?!?'

And today, tenuously crowbarring song lyrics into conversation is my secret weapon. Because I'm on set, trying - and failing - to demonstrate my suitability for a role in the UK import of the Broadway-based '80s soft-rock musical, 'Rock of Ages'.

Starring Justin Lee Collins and Shayne Ward from 'X Factor', it's a mish-mash of songs by the likes of Bon Jovi, Journey, Whitesnake and Foreigner alongside the tale of a budding romance between a wannabe rock guitarist and an aspiring actress, set in a bar on Hollywood's Sunset Strip in 1987. So I've slipped on the leather waistcoat. I've squeezed into the skintight jeans. And I'm decked out in enough chains to render me a potential mugging target for a rogue Halfords stockroom manager.

But when it comes to the half an hour I spend scissor-kicking, knee-sliding and 'grabbing the air', show stars Justin Lee Collins and Shayne Ward seem less than impressed: 'Don't overprocess it! You want the air? Grab the air!' 'You need more bicep! LOCK it!' 'Clench your ass! It'd help if you were drunk…' Conversational use of song titles it is, then.

Some of these soft-rock artists aren't nearly as well known here as they are in the US. Does JLC think there will be audience members who are glued to every song? 'There are 28 anthems in the show,' offers Collins. 'No one's gonna love every song. But maybe there'll be one you're waiting for.'

Although if you did love every song, you'd probably be sitting there thinking, 'I DON'T WANNA MISS A THEEYIIING!'
'Erm, maybe,' says Collins. 'Although that song came out later than 1987. And there's no Aerosmith in the show, either.' Damn.

'I think it's going to work better with our sense of humour than it did in the US, though,' Ward interjects. 'We'll be more free to go a little bit off-book and get the audience involved. We're gonna rock out every single night.'

So presumably you'll end each performance thinking: 'WEE ARRRE THE CHAMPIONS?'

'No. Not one of our songs…' Double damn.

Still, there's no denying the show's sense of humour. In the US, it was known for refusing to take itself seriously, and continually breaking the fourth wall to send itself up. 'What I love about this show is that it never stops being funny. Its tongue is absolutely in its cheek,' says Collins, as rehearsals begin.

And so it proves. The first ten minutes of today's rehearsals involve a rock-star character perfecting the intricacies of the phrase 'I shit money!' in between a falsetto fanboy archly squealing about his favourite band's astounding new song. When the song's played, it's a deliberately atrocious number called 'Beaver Hunt'.

Soon after, Ward attempts to crotch-hump a blonde in thigh-high boots as she proceeds to headbutt him in the balls. In the background, an actor practises his devil horns in a mirror, flicking his moppy fringe up and down like he's a nodding dog going over cobbles on a penny farthing. Serious this is not.

But does the West End really need another jukebox musical? 'Rock of Ages' has been a huge hit abroad. In the course of five years, it went from a tiny LA bar to residencies on Broadway, in Toronto and in Melbourne. Oh, and a film's currently in production, starring Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand. But isn't theatreland already clogged-up with back catalogues? Do people want to see another musical trading off nostalgia?

'With most musical theatre shows, wives drag their husbands to it,' says the show's director, Kristin Hanggi, who's been with it since the first performances in 2006. 'But we aim to make this a show that men love just as much as women - so you get guys dragging their girlfriends to it.'

So its USP is that it's the male 'Mamma Mia!'? 'The show takes on you a little trip,' says musical supervisor (and one-time member of '90s indie band, The Gigolo Aunts) Dave Gibbs. 'It allows you to forget what you're doing and
be entertained solidly for a couple of hours.' So, you might say it's 'SOOOLIIIIID AS A ROCK!'

'Erm, one might say that,' responds Gibbs, looking a little bemused. Triple damn! 'But also, we have a story that ties everything together so it's not just song, song, song, song, zero plot.'

Wait. What was that? You focus on the story? 'Yeah, it's so easy to do a jukebox musical poorly that we really spent a lot of time working on getting the story right,' explains Hanggi. 'Jukebox musicals often don't work because the plot is just a reason to burst into song.' But… but… a jukebox musical that doesn't do that? Brain… cannot… compute. 'Don't forget that we don't use the music of just one artist, so we didn't have to fit certain songs in,' adds Hanggi. 'We looked at the whole '80s soft-rock genre, looked at our story and then asked ourselves: which songs capture it best?'

Oh. So, so much for my random insertion of songs getting me into the show, then. Still, that approach certainly distinguishes it from its West End brethren. Will it prove different enough to have genuine dramatic merit?
Only time will tell. But one's thing for sure. They'd definitely be justified in saying, 'HERE I GOOO AGAAAINN, ON MY?OOOOOWWWNNNN…' Sorry.

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