Exactly three years ago, Rock of Ages, an unapologetically silly jukebox musical offering a wide spread of rock hits from the 1980s, transferred to Broadway after a short Off-Broadway run. Audience members were encouraged to not only drink beer during the show, but also wave (fake) lighters during power ballads and occasionally sing along.
The jukebox musical, inspired by and constructed around famous pop songs, remains the most reviled genre of contemporary musical theater. Whereas the typical jukebox musical is built around songs by a single composer (Mamma Mia! is ABBA, Jersey Boys is The Four Seasons, We Will Rock You is Queen), Rock of Ages contains songs by numerous artists including Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Poison, Twisted Sister, Steve Perry, Whitesnake and Damn Yankees.
What made Rock of Ages so refreshing is how it made no reservations about offering a paper-thin boy-meets-girl story, clichés and poop jokes set to distorted guitar riffs and hard-hitting drumming. Shy, sweet Drew dreams of being a rock star instead of a dishwasher, while an idealistic Sherry, straight off the bus from the Midwest, has similar ambitions. A subplot concerns determined land developers who want to convert and commercialize the Sunset Strip and tear down the Bourbon Room, a dingy nightclub where most of the show takes place.
While Rock of Ages didn’t receive a single Tony Award, it received acclaim from many theater critics, including most notably Charles Isherwood of The New York Times, and relaunched the career of American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis. In fact, it is still running on Broadway and attracting capacity audiences to the tiny Helen Hayes Theatre, where it relocated to about a year ago.
Nevertheless, the show’s heavily promoted film version, which contains a starry ensemble cast including Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and Paul Giamatti alongside newcomers Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough, has turned out to be a critical and commercial misfire. Opening on a June weekend with relatively little competition, the $75 million movie grossed merely $15 million. It was directed by Adam Shankman, who fared far better with his moderately successful 2007 film version of Hairspray.
An entirely new script was used for the film that added new characters and fundamentally changed others. Rock star Stacie Jaxx, while still a ridiculous combination of Axl Rose and David Lee Roth, has become less of a jerk and more of a protagonist – probably to suit the star power of Cruise. And the land developers of the stage version who want to tear down the Bourbon Room have been replaced by Catherine Zeta-Jones as a seemingly conservative mayor’s wife. Although the character of Lonny, the buddy of club owner Dennis, is retained, he is no longer a narrator and confidante to the audience.
However, the essential jukebox musical concept remained essentially the same, and nearly all the songs from the show were retained. While occasionally clunky in nature, the film still provides a good deal of fun. Cruise, in particular, is nothing short of dazzling as the strange but irresistible Stacie Jaxx.
It’s all a matter of finding the right environment and tone for the campy humor. On Broadway, Lonny openly mocks the show while it is still going on. Without someone to instruct its viewers to not take Rock of Ages too seriously, perhaps audiences missed the point and found it too easy to pan or just ignore.
Could the failure of Rock of Ages potentially kill the rebirth of the film musical? Probably not. After all, film versions of Jersey Boys and Spring Awakening are already in development and Les Miz is already set to premiere this Christmas. It’s just a shame that Rock of Ages couldn’t produce the same kind of excitement around the country that it continues to bring to Broadway.