Just ask producer Matt Weaver and Broadway star Adam Dannheisser. Between the two of them, they have devoted more than 12 years of their lives to Rock of Ages, one of Broadway’s unlikelier success stories.
On September 1, the smash-hit musical comedy set to chart-topping hits by ’80s greats, including Whitesnake, Journey and Twisted Sister will become the 40th-longest-running show in Broadway history, surpassing the original production of Hair.
Dannheisser joined the Rock of Ages company in 2008, when it played at New World Stages before transferring to Broadway; since then, he has played Dennis Dupree, the beleaguered owner of the Hollywood club the Bourbon Room, some 1,450 times. But he’s a relative newcomer compared with Weaver, who as lead producer came up with the idea and started it on its unconventional road to Broadway.
The music came first – one day in 2005, Weaver was driving through L.A. listening to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and a light bulb went off. “I went, ‘Wow! This is the greatest finale for a musical that doesn’t exist yet.’”
To be precise, Weaver had a specific demographic in mind before he had a subject. “We wanted to create a musical for guys,” he says. “And we thought that the hair bands of the ’80s, which I grew up with, would be the way to do it.”
The idea began to unfold – not just an ’80s rock musical, but a theater experience in which you didn’t feel stuck in your body as an audience member – a communal experience that would bring people back to a certain place in time, recreating the feeling of being inside the rock movement that defined an era. It wasn’t long until he had secured a director (Kristin Hanggi, who had recently worked with the Pussycat Dolls on L.A.’s Sunset Strip) and a bookwriter (Chris D’Arienzo) to find logical homes for more than two dozen familiar arena-rock songs. But then the path got a little twistier.
The first Rock performances took place in an atmosphere-heavy bar on Hollywood Boulevard. Weaver noted, “L.A. isn’t known for its theater, so that was our ‘workshop’ — three days at a bar!”
The show then moved to a more conventional L.A. theater. Well, somewhat more conventional: “There was a rave that went up after we were done,” Weaver says, “and the owner was always trying to kick us out because he had hundreds of kids lined up outside with glow sticks.” After that, the cast and crew moved to a soundstage.
At the time, Las Vegas was the envisioned destination for the show, and it reached what Weaver thought was the dream booking, at the Flamingo Casino. He was wrong. “Looking back, we weren’t quite ready,” he says, and after a brief Vegas run, a lot of people involved with Rock thought the disposable lighters had been silenced for good. But not Weaver.
“One of the truly defining parts of the journey of Rock of Ages was that it felt like it was over at every turn; but this was not just a project for us,” he says. “This was the project. We were incredibly passionate about Rock, and audiences were loving the show, so we just had to keep going.” And so with the help of producer Scott Prisand, he began the process of raising money for a New York production. Broadway industry executives told them it was a “perilous enterprise” and a “pipe dream,” especially at that time – 14 shows had closed, and theater attendance was plummeting with the economic downturn. Yet, they were able to raise the money to mount an Off-Broadway production at New World Stages, which is when Dannheisser came on board.
“I’d never really fashioned myself a musical theater kind of guy, but there I was on the first day of rehearsal,” said Dannheisser, whose Broadway credits included much more traditional theater works, by Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard.
“But with each subsequent day, I grew more confident as I realized I was not alone,” he added. “We were all finding our way together — several first-time producers, first-time New York theatrical creatives, even first-time paid actors. All of us conspiring to make this thing that no one thought would fly — could fly — fly. It was our combined enthusiasm, our naïveté, our optimism, our deference to each others’ skills that buoyed us along. If the room had been filled with tons of money, opinions, stress, expectation and entitlement, we would not be having this conversation today.”
Though the road to Broadway was a bumpy one, Weaver was finally able to exhale on April 8, 2009 — the morning after the show’s opening night on Broadway — when he opened The New York Times to a rave review from critic Charles Isherwood. One month later? Five Tony nominations.
“It was like a dream,” said Weaver. “We were against so many odds, having risked it all, and done it all — from unfolding chairs at a bar on Hollywood Boulevard, to handing out flyers on the Vegas strip — and yet we had made it to this life-changing moment.”
Since then, a 40-pound pair of costume wings and a surprising rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” have been part of Dannheisser’s routine eight times a week – with a few exceptions, including a brief hiatus to appear in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced at Lincoln Center. His other break came when the producers briefly inserted Twisted Sister lead singer Dee Snider into the role of Dennis: “They very kindly asked if I had a problem with taking a fully paid vacation for 11 weeks, and I said no.”
Since then, his Rock role has changed to pull him off the stage for a very different reason. In addition to playing Dennis, he now holds a title called resident director, which he describes as the showbiz equivalent to a player/coach in sports. “With such a long run, things tend to slip off the plate a bit,” says Dannheisser, who skips two performances a month to watch the show from the audience and keep the production as tight as ever.
“I don’t think any other Broadway show does that,” he says. “We tend to bend or break or not know the rules here, and just do what works.”
Dannheisser may well welcome some familiar faces by now on the aisle: Among the fervent Rock fan base are people who have seen the show dozens and even hundreds of times. He also shouldn’t be surprised if he bumps into his lead producer. Although Weaver lives in Los Angeles, he is frequently on the East Coast, where his entertainment calendar is somewhat predictable. “Whenever I come to New York, people ask what other Broadway shows I’m going to see,” he says. “And I always just visit Rock of Ages. That’s where I want to be.”
With the number of New York City performances creeping toward 2,000, they’re doing something right. Maybe it’s the Jell-O shots and Coors Light cans for sale in the orchestra, or maybe it’s the nostalgia for Poison and Bon Jovi. Either way, Weaver says, “You’ve got the people who love Pippin and West Side Story sitting next to the couple from Merrick, Long Island, who’ve never been to Broadway. Everyone’s checking their egos at the door, having a good time and raising their lighters.”