Rock of Ages: Start Believin'

On one '80s musical's evolution from so-bad-it's-good to good, period

You may regard a $99 ticket as a wee bit steep, and understandably so, but there's undeniable value—entertainment value, kitsch value, sociological value—in watching a mob of mildly soused Broadway patrons suddenly, uncomfortably forced to grapple with whether or not they actually like Extreme's "More Than Words." No veil of condescension, no protective layer of smirking irony, no detached air of superiority: Is "More Than Words" a good song? The query courses like a phallic thunderbolt through the jovial Brooks Atkinson Theatre throng midway through Act I of Rock of Ages, which is—yes—a hair-metal jukebox musical. Brief synopsis:

Opening thesis: "We're goin' back to a sexier time! The Reagan era!"

Opening number: David Lee Roth's "Just Like Paradise."

Soon thereafter: Poison's "Nothin' But a Good Time," Jefferson Starship's "We Built This City," Night Ranger's "Sister Christian."

Funniest line: "He's talkin' about the new Arby's."

Second-funniest line, due to inadvertent audience participation: "I'm a stripper." [Gunshot sound of someone in fifth row opening can of beer.]

Ethnicity of villains: German.

Logic thereof: Germans are amusing.

To wit: "I'm not gay, OK? I'm just . . . German."

Premise for male protagonist: He's a barback at a seedy L.A. nightclub with rock-star aspirations and is slowly writing Warrant's "Heaven," but the lyrics he's coming up with are worse than the song's actual lyrics.

Actor playing role of male protagonist: Beloved Village Voice cover boy Constantine Maroulis.

Name of female protagonist: Sherrie.

Song prominently featured in Act II: "Oh, Sherrie."

Song prominently featured during sex scene in bathroom stall: "I Want to Know What Love Is."

Showstopper: "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

Etc. Point being, this ain't a highbrow affair. But when Sherrie abruptly breaks into "More Than Words"—shortly after meeting cute with Mr. Maroulis, and way before the whole stripper thing—the subsequent 30 seconds of crowd reaction comprise the most remarkable Broadway experience I've ever had: goofier than Spamalot, stranger than Passing Strange, more transgressive than Rent. Breakdown: [Giggling revulsion.] "Hahaha, this song is terrible." [Involuntary humming.] "Hahaha, this song is so bad it's almost good." [Stray audience voices join Sherrie's.] "Wow, do some people actually like this song?" [Tentative clapping.] "Hahaha, I almost like this song now." [Full-congregation clapping.] "Hahaha, how do we all remember this?" [Full-congregation singing on chorus.] "Hahaha, this song is fucking awesome."

And suddenly, we are all raising/flicking/waving our tiny, usher-distributed, lighter-sized flashlights: 'Cause I'd all! Ready! Know! From cultural laughingstock to grudging tolerance to guilty pleasure to unapologetically not-even-remotely-guilty pleasure in a half a minute, half a verse. This, my friends, is what love is.

I consider myself somewhat of an expert on Rock of Ages' evolution, in that I saw it Off-Broadway, too. (The other gala Off-Broadway musical I saw last fall, which hopefully also gets a shot at the big-time, though the fact that it hasn't yet reflects less on its dramatic resonance and more on the inescapable fact that its songs are lodged in the public consciousness to somewhat less of a degree than "The Final Countdown": Fela!) That version 2.0 of Rock of Ages is vastly superior does not necessarily mean that the original version sucked—although our lasciviously hirsute narrator, who wears T-shirts with slogans like "Camel Toe" and is channeling Jack Black to a profoundly uncomfortable degree, is, like, 400 percent improved. And Sherrie hits the high notes of "Harden My Heart" just a little harder. And the bathroom-stall sex scene is mercifully toned down. And that wine cooler joke really sings.

No, the difference here is venue. Tucked almost shamefully into a subterranean, antiseptic lair at the New World Stages complex, the Off-Broadway iteration was a raucous but chintzy affair, meeting your appallingly low expectations but never rising above so-bad-it's-good status. Your smug sense of superiority emerged unscathed. Now, unleashed in all its defiant glory on the Great Whitesnake Way, the grandiosity, the absurdity, the audacity of it all is just too overwhelming, lethal in its charm even for those cloaked in full ironic-detachment body armor.

Just wait until the movie.

I'm not much buying the notion that this is a Great Depression thing, that in times of trouble we gravitate toward unfussy, unpretentious nostalgia, etc., etc. This appeal feels more universal, and rooted in that 30-second "More Than Words" epiphany: The marvel of a generation finally learning to fully embrace its cheese, to say "I Love the '80s" and finally really honestly mean it. A prodigal zeitgeist finally returning, or a long-aloof populace finally returning to it. Is this cyclical, and inevitable? Will a Clinton-era musical celebrating Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, and Nirvana emerge 10 years hence? Will that possibly not suck? (Will the already-announced Green Day American Idiot stage extravaganza, a far more highfalutin and politically fraught concept at the onset, possibly not suck, too? Doubtful.) And can that show—or any, really—offer a closing number as bombastic and soul-stirring as "Don't Stop Believin' "? Rock of Ages will make you feel both way dumber and way happier. It's no Spring Awakening. But it's an awakening all the same.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

 
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