A night at the opera rarely resembles the floor-shaking roar of a rock concert. But Broadway veteran Rob Evan, a lover of both classical music and classic rock, had a vision in which masterworks by Mozart, Handel, and Tchaikovsky could merge with the greatest hits of Queen, Journey, and U2. The result? Rocktopia, an evening of symphonic rock featuring a 20-piece orchestra, a five-piece rock band, a 40-member choir, and five incredibly talented vocalists. This one-of-a-kind musical event is set to begin a six-week limited engagement at the Broadway Theatre on March 20.
“Rocktopia is a planet where Ludwig van Beethoven lives across the street from Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and they say, ‘Hey, we should collaborate,’” says Evan, who made his Broadway debut at 26 as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. “Time is the only thing that separates these two worlds. Mozart lived like a rock star, and if he was alive, he would probably utilize the technology we have now. When Stravinsky wrote ‘The Rite of Spring,’ it was so controversial, people rioted!”
Evan has felt the pull of both genres since his childhood in Georgia, where he sang Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in church while covering Journey hits in a rock band. After Les Miz, he continued to straddle two worlds, starring in pop-flavored musicals such as Jekyll & Hyde and making guest appearances with symphonies around the world. “I have walked the path of a theatrical rock singer,” Evan notes. “I would be very happy singing a Puccini aria on the same night as ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
Finally, it clicked: Take the greatest works of past masters and the best rock songs of the last 30 years and orchestrate them to create a thrilling, century-spanning musical conversation. Rocktopia cocreator Randall Craig Fleischer, an internationally known conductor and composer, created intricate arrangements in which, for example, Musetta’s waltz “Quando m’en vo” from La Bohème is played as a recurring theme during the Foreigner anthem “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Not surprisingly, the Rocktopia concept initially raised eyebrows, especially in the classical world. “At first, musicians would say, ‘Wait — what are you doing?” Evan admits with a laugh. “It’s hard to explain, but once they see it and hear it, they love it.” During a 20-city pre-Broadway tour, local choirs who joined the company were delighted to sing in German, Italian, Latin, and English, pivoting from Mozart’s “Requiem” to Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” An hourlong version of the show, filmed live at the Hungarian State Opera House, aired on PBS in 2016.
Evan shares the Rocktopia stage with vocalists drawn from the worlds of opera, rock, and Broadway. Metropolitan Opera alum Alyson Cambridge will make her Broadway debut alongside Kimberly Nichole (TV’s The Voice), Chloe Lowery (Yanni’s Voices), and Tony Vincent (Broadway’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent, and American Idiot). Each singer puts his or her stamp on the songs, erasing any hint of imitating the original artists.
“We approach every piece of music in an authentic way,” says Vincent. “That’s what makes this show unusual and special. Randy Fleischer has created A-class arrangements, and Tony Bruno, our music director, is one of the best guitar players in the world. We’ve assembled the most talented people in every field.” Though Evan is unwilling to name names, he hints that a roster of famous rockers will make cameo appearances during the Broadway run.
Key to the show’s success is the fact that both genres are treated with seriousness and respect. “This is not a gimmick,” Evan stresses. “As we began fusing these two worlds, we discovered a commonality between the great composers and classic rockers. Our show makes classical music accessible to a younger generation while highlighting modern pieces that I believe will resonate generations from now, like Freddie Mercury’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’”
Some combinations even managed to surprise the Rocktopia cast, as when Vincent expressed doubts about pairing Handel’s crystalline aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” with Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Chuckling, he confesses, “I didn’t see how those two things could possibly work together, and boy, was I wrong! To me, it’s one of the most iconic definitions of what the show is about, presenting music in a way no one ever imagined.”
In addition to 60 musicians, Rocktopia features state-of-the art lighting and video projections. “Get ready to experience a spectacle,” says Vincent. “Everything is so well articulated cinematically, you could take the singers offstage and be completely enthralled by the visuals.”
In shaping the show, Evan pictured the arc of a human life. “It starts with creation and birth and goes through adolescence, dreams, and rebellion, to all the different facets of love, and then death, loss, and rebirth,” he explains. “One of my favorite combinations is Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘On the Turning Away,’ which is about social awareness and looking out for one another.” As these stirring themes are played, video screens toggle from images of Dust Bowl America to 21st century refugees. The result is an immersive, emotional theatrical experience.
Best of all, there’s no need to be an expert in classic rock or classical music to thoroughly enjoy Rocktopia. “Whether you know the name of the pieces or not, you’ll hear themes that you recognize, that spark a memory,” Evan promises. Adds Vincent, “This is a show for families. We’ve had young kids who go crazy over it, and also people who grew up on authentic rock ’n’ roll. It’s for all ages, from 7 to 70.”
The ebullient Evan is especially thrilled to return to the Broadway Theatre, where he made his Great White Way debut more than 20 years ago in Les Misérables. “In many ways, Rocktopia is the story of my life, and I am so excited to share it with audiences in New York,” he says. “It’s going to be epic!”
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