Matthew Weaver, Creator of Rock of Ages
The man who first thought up the idea for what has become a multi-genre entertainment franchise lets us in on its history as well as its newest venture.
Rock of Ages. The colossal throwback musical. Sure, it's been covered by the press. It's seen five Tony nominations, multiple U.S. tours, a $75 million dollar movie, a London run; to the untrained eye, it's had its day.
But with a successful return to Las Vegas, a boffo opening in Sweden, a full-scale production aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines' newest, largest ship, and now it's recent crowning amongst the 50 longest-running shows in Broadway history, we couldn't help but jump at the chance to sit down with visionary creator and lead producer, Matthew Weaver. And what I got was an inside look at the life theatric that led him (and Rock) to be the musical-theater Gibraltar it is today.
You were a Jersey kid, right? Is that where your love of theater comes from? Doing productions in your hometown with dreams of a big move to New York?
Matthew Weaver: Not at all! In fact, other than wanting to be Tanner the shortstop in The Bad News Bears when I was nine, I had very little interest in acting. My dad was president of marketing at Paramount in Columbus Circle, so I was always a movie-maker's kid.
Your dad didn't look anything like Walter Matthau, did he?
MW: More like Truman Capote.
MW: I wish I were...But my dad (Gordon Weaver) was gay. He came out when I was nine. My parents divorced in '76, but until then, I had a very tame, normal life. And then one morning, I woke up, grabbed my backpack and my Tops football cards, and as I came downstairs, there was a limo in the driveway and my dad told me on the way that we were moving into Manhattan, that he was gay, and that we were late for a contest he was judging at this place called Fire Island. I thought it was an amusement park like Knott's Berry Farm.
There are a lot of people who still do…
MW: He was the judge of a drag show that summer called "Miss Fire Island" and that was the first weekend I spent in my new life with my dad. I was surrounded by shirtless men in bow ties, crazy parties, and lots of musical theater.
Were you aware of the universe you'd just been plunged into?
MW: I was nine; I had no clue. But when people ask me, "When did you start in theater?" I look back and I think, technically, the life theatric was always all around me. I'd be getting ready for bed and he'd be grabbing a tambourine from his collection, cranking up Les Miz or Cats and heading to Studio 54. It was a coming-of-age for both of us, but every morning I'd wake up and he'd be there with me, getting ready for work and making my breakfast. There was a lot of love in my family. My mom danced with his boyfriend at my wedding.
Did you see any Broadway as a kid?
MW: I saw Annie and a few others, but not much. I guess that'd be a better story. Really, I always wanted to be a producer. I traveled with my dad on planes all the time, to the previews with Dino De Laurentiis and all of the legends, and I watched how they worked — on Grease, on Saturday Night Fever, on Flashdance — that was my life after school. You can't beat that.
What was your first brush with the idea for Rock?
MW: Well, cut to L.A. My wife's doing theater; she had a company called Page 93 with Mark Ruffalo, and they would do these cool little productions at the Hudson or the Elephant Theatre, and I would go and be supportive…Then one day in 2005, I was listening to "Don't Stop Believin'," and that light bulb went off. I went, "Wow! This is the greatest last song for a musical that doesn't exist yet." If you listen to Steve Perry on that song, he's the voice of an era.
What was that era to you? New York? L.A.?
MW: It was summer camp. It was my teen tour...All of a sudden, a throwback musical became easy to make. REO Speedwagon, Bon Jovi, Poison. That's why Rock works! You didn't have to be on the Strip in '87. You could've been at the mall in New Jersey. And I had ground rules as it all came together. I wanted it to be a book musical, I wanted it to feel like a concert, and the big, overarching idea: I wanted to make a musical for DUDES. I asked myself, "How do we get dudes into the theater?" Because that was me.
Where do you take a musical pitch like that in a film town like Los Angeles?
MW: [My wife] Hillary and I went to Kristin Hanggi, the director, at the Hudson Theatre Complex. She was doing Bare: A Pop Opera at the time, and then she went to the Pussycat Dolls. So when we pitched it, she'd just done a very edgy musical and female-driven rock show, and she saw the value in something with more testosterone. She went in search of a writer and, with what was sheer luck, she found Chris D'Arienzo, who was a year out of being a PA…He gave the most amazing pitch — I still get chills thinking about it. We were all high-fiving in the room! My one hang-up was the road to Broadway, when I saw this as a big Vegas show.
Why not Broadway? Were you afraid of the establishment?
MW: I was completely against it. This was spectacle! This was rock 'n' roll! And Kristin would scream at me, "You're wrong. 'Sister Christian' and 'Pour Some Sugar on Me' are Broadway showtunes!" I was dead-set. So we did a showcase at King King, a little bar in Hollywood with forty-five minutes of the show, and the idea was, "Let's bring every big owner from every big casino."
Did it work?
MW: Completely. We got all these major casino owners to this little dive bar in Hollywood and we were on radar. So that was our workshop. Three days at a bar.
So much for La Jolla.
MW: From there, we went to the Vanguard, a nightclub with booths and tables, but bear in mind, this is when Rock of Ages was the Hudson Hawk of musicals. Audiences loved it, but critics [hated] us. I was doing anything I could to keep it going. I was handing out free drinks for weeks before the show to get the audience buzzed…We did it again on a soundstage…and we invited all the Vegas people one more time — and finally, finally — we got one week at the Tropicana. That was the low point of the show. We rushed it. We didn't have any money to market it, there were people in the audience lighting things on fire, and I'm out on Las Vegas Boulevard literally handing out fliers. That week ended and Chris turned to me and went, "Well that's that." So Vegas was a $300,000 lesson.
You're at the Venetian now. Do you regret your first go-round?
MW: No way! Thank God it didn't work in Vegas our first time! If we had been even a marginal hit, we never would have gone on to New York. But we flopped, and that was May 2007. As far as the team was concerned, the show was done. Dead.
To everyone but you.
MW: I was still crazy about it. My friends all called me a moonie. So I hooked up with an old pal back in L.A. (Scott Prisand) who had raised a lot of money for Broadway shows and he threw stats at me, too: "Only one in ten shows makes money. This is a pipe dream…" But that kid in me from Jersey just knew it. We were a hit. We were a show for the people.
So you flew east anyway? Knowing you would be up against the best of Broadway?
MW: My attitude was "forget New York." You know? I believed in my show. "Forget New York…we are a bridge-and-tunnel hit. That's how we'll survive." So we went out and raised two million dollars, which to my mind was a low-budget Sundance movie, but to Scott was unheard of off-Broadway. We opened at New World Stages in 2008, and again the audiences loved us, but the establishment barely paid attention. I was giving away seats to everyone I could just to fill the house.
Where was your bridge-and-tunnel crowd?
MW: The world was falling apart. Lehman Brothers was locking [its] doors down the street. It was a miracle we'd raised the two million! But in every pitch meeting, I'd play "Don't Stop Believin'" over and over again and we managed to stay afloat somehow. Finally, I had the good sense to start filling the seats with friends from the movie biz. I'd grab other producers, executives, and tell them to...come see Rock. And the next thing you know, we had started a bidding war. We sold the movie to New Line and Warner Brothers.
Were you still losing money?
MW: We were bleeding out. We had to go big or go home. So we capitalized on the banking crisis. Everything was closing, so there were theaters up for grabs…Here I am, in the same boat I was in when I only had two hundred bucks in my pocket, and I'm standing in front of Jim Nederlander, Sr. — the king of Broadway — talking about my '80s rock show. Somehow we scrounged up the deposit, so I'm foaming at the mouth praying that Nederlander likes us, and all of a sudden, he stops me and goes, "Hey. Kid. Do you have the money?" I said, "Yes, sir."
And did you?
MW: We did. By opening night. And we finally got our crowd…I thought we were sunk…We [ended up getting] five Tony nominations, Poison came to the party…That's when we finally felt like a hit. I always think, in terms of New York and the "in crowd," that we didn't need 'em, but yeah, we did. And thank God we got 'em! We just made the top-50 longest running shows in Broadway history and without…the Tony Award [nominations], I doubt that would've been possible. And we're now back in Vegas, playing to a full house, finally.
You've come full circle.
MW: It's total magic.
Although, you know we're going to have to talk about the film, right?
[Weaver begins to tear up.]
What happened there? On your side?
MW: I'm not even going to carefully choose my words — the movie was tough. It was a tough experience. We went in with the best of intentions, and in my mind, the biggest mistake was not having Chris D'Arienzo involved. Chris is the heart and soul of Rock of Ages. It's what that guy did with the characters and the tone of the show that made all the difference in the world.
And what about the shortcomings of the production itself? You got a lot of flack for using Miami and a soundstage as stand-ins for the Sunset Strip. A lot of critics said that — and a few other things — really led to the film coming off flat.
MW: It was just the wrong combination of people. That's hard to see sometimes, even on the producer's side. And I got the Heisman when I got down to Florida. I walked in thinking, "Hey! Fantastic! You're making my show a movie. Let's do it!" And they went, "Yeah!…We'll see you at lunch."...But here's the silver lining to that story — we are still open on Broadway because of the movie.
How is that?
MW: No press is bad press, it turns out. It seems counterintuitive, but the show is so amazing that it's hard to match the live show onscreen, no matter what. And transferring something raw and live to film is always a gamble. I will say, for as much bad press as we got, I've met a lot of people along the way who loved the movie, saw the show, and loved that, too. The pulse of live theater is just hard to beat…The numbers don't lie. And when Warner Brothers spends seventy-five million dollars on a film, a big part of that is the brand they build...You come to New York, you see Rock of Ages still playing (and by the way, we are the only show that opened in 2009 that is still going strong), and you go "You know, I love the music, and I heard the show is incredible!" And when they go see the show onstage? It's one-hundred percent positive word of mouth. Every time.
So it's the critic-proof show you were aiming for all along.
MW: In a way, yeah. But I'll own it. The movie could've been better.
And Tom Cruise?
MW: I thought he was amazing. Fantastic. And every time I begin to complain about the film I think, "Oh wait a minute. We're still running!"...We made a Broadway hit with Poison and Styx! Now, if the show had closed because of the movie? That's when you would have found me holed up...in the Hollywood hills.
Speaking of cruises…You're on a boat now. Have you seen the Norwegian Cruise Lines version you're about to debut?
MW: I have, and it's great! As solid a show as the Broadway cast…The ship is called The Breakaway…I walked into that theater and went, "Oh. Same set, same songs, same jokes... This is Rock of Ages!" I sat down with the cast and immediately blurted out: "We started in a bar, you know!"
And you finally recouped.
MW: We finally did! Let the chest bumping begin.
When does this next incarnation of Rock of Ages set sail?
MW: We have our inaugural sail around the New York Harbor May 8th, 9th, and 10th, and I'm going to do a party so the Broadway cast can meet the Norwegian team. I want the cruiseline cast to know that they're a part of the family now.
So after all this time, what wins in your book? A dark movie theater on a Sunday morning? Or back-of-house at the Helen Hayes on Saturday night?
MW: These days, I'll take a Broadway theater nine times out of ten. There's just nothing better than watching the ushers dance in the aisles or knowing the guys in the box office by name. And, shocker! I'm in theater! Who'd have thought, right? I had a dad who wore mink coats growing up and used to belt Lloyd Webber at three am. What can I say? I was carefully converted. And I've got goose bumps about what I'm working on next.
Oh yeah? Anything you'd want to let a plucky young reporter from TheaterMania break?
MW: I should keep my lips sealed for now, but keep an eye out for an announcement very soon. My next project is one hundred and eighty degrees from Rock. It's a whole new world, really, but equally exciting.