The Broadway company of Rock of Ages with celebrities Guy Fieri and Jimmy Fallon backstage
The Broadway company of Rock of Ages with celebrities Guy Fieri and Jimmy Fallon backstage

New Fans Help Rock of Ages Celebrate Fifth Anniversary

How many Broadway musicals can boast appearances by a New York Yankees all-star, a hair-metal legend, a Facebook executive, a celebrity chef, and four NFL players, along with several onstage proposals and even a wedding?

One and only one: Rock of Ages, which is celebrating its fifth year of lighter-waving, head-banging enjoyment on Broadway, thanks to 30 of the most memorable rock songs of the 1980s.

More than 1.3 million people have cheered, fist-pumped and basically had “nothin’ but a good time” since the musical comedy opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in 2009. (It has since moved to the Helen Hayes Theatre.) Just last month, Rock became one of the 30 longest-running shows in Broadway history, thanks in part to the “Super Fans” who have seen it as many as 300 times each. And thanks to such high-profile appearances as at this year’s Super Bowl, which gave the cast a chance to slip some thermal underwear under their spandex and rock out in front of a whole new crowd of fans, Rock of Ages doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

The Super Bowl was particularly useful in cementing the show’s popularity with a demographic not necessarily known for attending Broadway shows: professional athletes. From basketball (Amar’e Stoudemire, David Lee) to football (Eli Manning, Tim Tebow) and baseball (Miguel Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez), jocks have flocked to Rock, prompting ESPN’s Skip Bayless to announce that the show “has rocked the sports world and America!”

None of this would have happened without the guidance of lead producer Matt Weaver, who heard Journey’s ballad “Don’t Stop Believin’” while driving through Los Angeles way back in 2005 and hasn’t stopped believing ever since. Right then and there, he said, “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 the feeling of being inside a 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 book writer (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. “L.A. isn’t known for its theater,” Weaver said, “so that was our ‘workshop’ — three days at a bar!”

The show then moved to a more conventional L.A. theatre. 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 darkened 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, Weaver began 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.

Finally, they were able to raise the money to mount an Off-Broadway production at New World Stages. That’s when Adam Dannheisser came on board to play Dennis Dupree, the beleaguered owner of the Hollywood club the Bourbon Room. More than five years later, he hasn’t left.

“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.” (Other high-profile guest stars have included New York Yankee Mark Teixeira, celebrity chef Guy Fieri, and Randi Zuckerberg — former Facebook executive and sister of Mark Zuckerberg — who took the stage for two weeks earlier this year.)

Dannheisser’s Rock role has changed over time 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. In addition to those “Super Fans” who have celebrated promotions and even gotten married at Rock of Ages, 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.”

As the show continues to climb the list of long-running Broadway shows (it will surpass Oklahoma! next), it’s clearly 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 [New York], who’ve never been to Broadway. Everyone’s checking their egos at the door, having a good time, and raising their lighters.”