Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rock of Ages

Hey, kids, remember the '80s? Hair metal ruled MTV! The Sunset Strip was one big wild party! Banging your head was cool, and so were long, teased, wild hair and blue eyeshadow and thigh-high boots! Also, Reagan was president, greed was good, there was that Where's the Beef commercial, and that movie Ghostbusters was, like, totally hilarious! Remember?

I have long avoided seeing Rock of Ages for a couple of reasons, the largest being that when it started its run Off Broadway in 2008, I was at the tail end of a self-imposed break from rock musicals. This break started in 2006 when I finished my first book, which is all about rock musicals. By the time the book went to press, I was so tired of seeing, thinking about, and researching rock musicals that the very thought of visiting one made me agitated. And rock musicals are supposed to be fun and rockin', and I knew that if I went to any, I'd be sour and overly critical. So I stayed away. The break worked--I'm back to thinking about rock musicals, wondering how they've been doing, even considering writing about them again. In short, I've missed them, much the way one starts to miss a dear friend they had a falling-out with so long ago that they can no longer remember why they fought in the first place. I picked a good time to return to my old scopic stomping grounds, I guess: the movie version of Rock of Ages is about to open, and the hype has resulted in sold-out houses--and highly enthusiastic crowds--at the teeny, beautiful little Helen Hayes Theater on 44th street, where the Broadway version has been running since it moved from the larger Atkinson in March 2011. I'm not gonna lie: I had fun and was glad I finally saw it. [Editor's note: Liz's book is The Theatre Will Rock.]

But I'm also not gonna lie about how unbelievably stupid and sloppy and occasionally, if inadvertently, offensive it is. Especially since what I say won't matter: no one would ever go to this show for a deep, inspired night at the theater. Nope: this show promises that you'll get "nothin' but a good time," and there's ample energy expended toward that end. The Hayes is plastered with posters of hair bands, booze, and scantily clad women with big hair draped over various shiny cars. Bars on both the orchestra and mezzanine levels remain open during the show, and at least last night, many members of the audience took appropriate advantage of that fact. The cast works hard at having fun and entertaining, and while many chorus members seem to have been cast for their dancing ability and not for their voices, there's a lot of talent up on the stage.

Also, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud funny jokes and self-referential humor about how ridiculous and excessive the '80s hair metal scene was, and also about how ridiculous a Broadway musical about hair metal is, if you bother to think about it. Which some of the characters do, at length, smack in the middle of the show, at about the time the plot falls to pieces. Not like there is much of a plot anyway. Actually, that's not true--there's a ton of plot. Too much, maybe, to be carried by the generous handful of earnest rockers and pop-metal ballads that cram the show. But for what it's worth, here's what happens. Spoiler alert! Nah, fuck it, just kidding.

Drew, a nice kid with big hair and a dream, works as a busboy at the Bourbon Room, a divy bar on the Sunset Strip owned by the slightly sleazy but ultimately goodhearted Dennis Dupree. Dennis's right-hand-man, the similarly icky-but-ultimately-cool sound- and light-man, Lonny Barnett, narrates the story. The Bourbon originally nurtured the now-famous metal band Arsenal, fronted by wildman Stacee Jaxx. When Sherrie Christian, an innocent young blonde from Kansas, arrives on the Strip to follow her dream of becoming an actress, she lands a waitressing job at the Bourbon, and she and Drew develop feelings for one another.

But wait! Many, many, many problems arise! The mayor of LA is visited by a German guy named Hertz and his son, Franz, who propose ridding the Sunset Strip of its evil rock and roll, and building strip malls there instead. The mayor goes for it, but the city planner, a career protester named Regina, gets upset and chains herself to the Bourbon. Dennis refuses to close the Bourbon despite the offer of a lot of money from the city, so the Germans take the deed to the place by force. Dennis invites Stacee Jaxx and Arsenal, which has just announced their breakup, back to give their last concert. This, he figures, might generate enough money and attention to save the Bourbon.

Stacee shows up to the strains of Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory." He is insufferably arrogant, rapacious, and utterly depraved--and he sweeps Sherrie off her feet. Just as Drew takes the stage to open for Arsenal, thereby getting his big break, Stacee leads Sherrie off to the men's room for some meaningful intimacy. After having sex with her and before taking the stage, he demands that Sherrie be fired, because he's decided that "her energy is totally toxic and she shits on my soul." Lonnie fires Sherrie who, with little convincing, accepts a job offer from Justice Charlier, the owner of the nearby strip club. Drew is signed by a record producer who changes his image and makes him part of a boy band. As Act I ends, Lonnie explains to the audience that everything is always pretty fucked up by intermission when it comes to musicals.

But in act II, as expected, everything ends up ok: Hertz and Franz begin to destroy the Strip, but when Franz falls in love with Regina, they decide to return to Germany and follow their dreams instead. Stacee Jaxx shows up for a lapdance from Sherrie, whom he harasses enough that she punches him and runs off, whereupon Justice encourages her to reunite with Drew. Drew disses his record producer and takes a job as a pizza delivery boy. He and Sherrie run into one another and, after a few more twists and turns, live happily ever after. Lonnie and Dennis realize their secret love for each other as they contemplate the loss of their club, but then Hertz and Franz give the deed to the Bourbon back, and the Bourbon, too, lives happily ever after. Stacee Jaxx hits on a middle-school girl and is then forced to flee the country. PAAAAAAAARTYYYYY! ROCK AND ROLLLLLLLLL!

Sounds fun, right? It is. It's cute, if a little plot-heavy for such a light, sweet confection. I found the whole Regina-Hertz-Franz plotline expendable, in particular, and suspect that the show could be cut down significantly without anyone missing much. Rock of Ages felt a little too long for what it was.

What bothered me the most about Rock of Ages, though, was not its messy, multi-tentacled plot, but its almost aggressive social conservatism. The show makes fun of the time period: the overly wrought anthems, the big hair, the spandex and gaudy makeup. This is stuff that's totally ripe for the mockery, and Rock of Ages mocks it with appropriate, gentle good humor. What it never does, however, is question the fairly rigid gender constructs of the time, which are, I think, also well overdue for some mockery. But Rock of Ages inadvertently swallows, part and parcel, the notion that the tight clothes, big hair, and even the androgyny was a means toward a particularly hypermasculine, hypersexual end. Some of the aging characters--particularly Lonnie and Dennis--are teased, affectionately, for being aging horndogs who seem increasingly pathetic surrounded by a sea of youthful testosterone, but this same sort of commentary is never really extended to the female characters, who usually seem to drive the action forward merely by writhing, gyrating, and undulating for the men on the stage (and, of course, for the audience) like so many Tawny Kitaens. Even Sherrie, the romantic female lead, spends most of her time mooning over Drew or Stacee, or, when she joins Justice's strip club, humping a pole.

The two women who don't engage in such antics depart from the groupie stereotype only to embrace other stereotypes: Regina is the Shrill, Angry, Misguided Leftist, who impedes progress with her tree (or in this case, Bourbon Room) hugging. (And, yeah, I know it's all in fun, but the wacky joke about her self-immolation at the end of the show is beyond not funny.) Justice, too, embraces a stereotype that I'm sick to hell of seeing, and wish would stop on the Great White Way: The  earthy, soulful, big black mamma, who seems to exist solely to sing a bluesy shouter late in act II that helps young white people fix their lives.

The show also included a serious throwback in the character of Franz, who is a particularly hateful prototype: the flailing, lisping, limp-wristed fairy. The big joke with Franz is that he turns out to not be gay...just German! Hi-fucking-LARIOUS: One small-minded empty threat, neatly replaced for another! He ain't no faggot--he's a furrner, ain't that cute? I'm all for having fun--and as I've said, I did--but the reaction to Franz by the audience, which just screamed with laughter at his every hissy, prissy flail, genuinely made me uncomfortable. The implication that Lonnie and Dennis secretly love one another was slightly subtler, but only in the way that those particularly horrible seasons on SNL that featured some sort of juvenile gay joke or agonizingly extended gay punchline in every single sketch were subtle.

I get the sense from the previews of the film that Hollywood has addressed the overt sexism in the show by making Sherrie the aspiring rocker, and not Drew. I don't expect Hollywood to do anything to improve the depictions of gay characters, and while it's promising that Justice is played by the ass-kicking Mary J. Blige, I'll withhold judgment on that front, too. I really hope for some softening of this stuff, and I intend to see the film to find out. Because at the end of the day, and after all of my obligatory gripes about the social implications of Rock of Ages, I think it's only fair to acknowledge that as I've been writing, I've been listening without a break to music by Bon Jovi, Journey, and Poison. So what the hell do I know? I guess every rose DOES have its thorn.

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