The title of Rock & Roll Man—now in an open-ended run at New World Stages—refers to Alan Freed, one of the musical giants inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the year it began, 1986, as well he should have been. As a DJ in Cleveland and New York in the 1950s, Freed spread the gospel of rock & roll, effectively introducing a whole generation to the raucous sounds of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, LaVern Baker and Bo Diddley. Introducing and integrating, since rock & roll roared across America right at the mid-’50s moment that the Supreme Court did away with the notion of “separate but equal” school. Freed — who took the nickname “Moondog” early on — presented black and white artists alongside each other in the concerts he staged at the Brooklyn Paramount theater, and in 1957, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” singer Frankie Lymon was seen on Freed’s ABC TV show, The Big Beat, dancing with a white girl. In the fracas that ensued, the show lasted a mere two more episodes. And a year or two later, Freed was swept up in a payola scandal.
If the guy on the street remembers Freed today, that scandal is likely the reason, not his pioneering efforts. And this play, co-produced by Freed’s daughter-in-law, Colleen Freed, is an earnest attempt to rectify that oversight. The book is by Larry Marshak, Rose Caiola and Gary Kupper, who also wrote some original songs which, of course, don’t hold a candle to the golden oldies on generous display here (among them “Tutti Frutti,” “Maybellene,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”) but at least give Constantine Maroulis’ powerful American Idol voice a worthy workout.
Maroulis—who, having been the last Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway, has a certain affinity for ampersands—is the Rock & Roll Man of the moment. Co-writer/co-producer Caiola reached out and pulled him into the project a couple of years ago. “She thought I would be a good fit for the role and invited me to be a part of the workshop presentation,” Maroulis tells Observer. “We just hit it off, and I loved the part. I love the challenge of telling the story every night.”
The play begins at the end of Freed’s life. He died at 43 in 1965 of acute alcoholism, brought on by a variety of scandals—tax evasion and payola being at the top of that hit parade. No less a formidable force than the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover made a criminal case out of Freed taking money to play records.
Rock & Roll Man begins just before Freed’s death rattle, as he lapses into a fever-dream flashback covering his career. Between show-stopping evidence from the talent he brought forth, he is tried in the Court of Public Opinion where he is bombastically prosecuted by Hoover himself and defended, in his effete fashion, by Little Richard. It all makes for quite a circus, but the Exhibit A testimonies are A+.
Although Maroulis was born in 1975 a couple of decades after the heyday of rock & roll, that era is in his blood. “My mother and her sister saw The Alan Freed Rock & Roll Dance Party live at the Brooklyn Paramount when they were teenagers,” he beams proudly. Otherwise, he entered the public’s consciousness 19 summers ago, when he placed six on the fourth season of American Idol.
Maroulis was well-prepared for that big leap. “I didn’t have a traditional trajectory out of high school,” he admits. That’d be Ramapo High School in New Jersey, class of ‘93, and the untraditional path included gigs with several bands, soaking up performing arts training at the Boston Conservatory, and a lead role in a touring company of Rent—all before a then-girlfriend urged him to travel to Washington DC to audition for American Idol in 2004.
“For whatever reason, they just had me in their sights,” he remembers. “The camera was on me right away.” Being a bit of a rock & roll man may have been the reason. “Maybe I was a little different—my leather jacket, my long hair, all that. We just partnered and played into it and kinda created this character who had left his band and was off to find pop stardom. As a young performer, that appearance took me through my 20s, and a lot of great offers came out of that particular exposure, including a connection with the creatives behind Rock of Ages.”
Rock of Ages—the jukebox musical built around ‘80s hits from Journey, Styx, Bon Jovi and other nerf-metal mainstays—brought him back to Broadway. (Hey! It happens! He points to another American Idol alum, Justin Guarini, currently parading as Prince Charming in Once Upon Once Upon a Time.) Rock of Ages also brought him a Tony nomination. Says he: “It’s wonderful to be identified as a Best Actor.”
Ironically, Rock of Ages originated 15 summers ago Off-Broadway at the same theater where Rock & Roll Man now plays, New World Stages. “There was a word-of-mouth buzz that built about it, and that helped us secure a Broadway house,” says Maroulis. “Such a validation of all our hard work!”
All the Rock & Roll Man performers inhabiting the roles of bygone legends did a deep dive into material about their respective subjects, and they came up with stuff they could apply to their on-stage work.
“What I learned about LaVern Baker is that she is resilient and unstoppable,” says Valisia LeKae, who struts that character out in fine style. “Like so many Black women of that era—and even today, LaVern was a force of nature who loved to share the gift that she was given. Even after having both her legs amputated, she refused to sit still. ‘I lost my legs, not my mind,’ she would say. ‘I can still go out and sing!’ And she did, right up to the day she died in 1997. That same grit, tenacity and grace I try to take into every performance every night, eight shows a week.”
Matthew S. Morgan has the daunting task of doing two impersonations: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Chuck Berry. “It truly is a pleasure to portray these iconic rock and roll pioneers,” he says. “The show moves at a fast pace so you only get to see snippets of both, but we try to bring their essence out as much as possible. Jay, even as a child, was a jokester and a great storyteller. I pack that in so the audience can get a taste of what he then went on to become—the universal shock rocker—when he penned ‘I Put a Spell on You.’ And, every night I feel electric on my first entrance as Chuck. It’s a rush when the audience reacts with such joy hearing ‘Maybellene.’”
Rodrick Covington never realized how much he had in common with Little Richard until he was asked to play him: “I learned he grew up in a big family of 11 brothers and sisters in the south. I grew up with 18 brothers and sisters in the south. His father, who was verbally and physically abusive to him, was killed by a friend when Little Richard was a teenager; one of my brothers, who was verbally and physical abusive to me, was killed by a friend when I was 14. He struggled accepting his sexual identity, going in and out of the closet. I too, struggled and was part of an Ex-Gay ministry trying to “pray”” the gay away. He married a woman though he was queer; I was engaged to a woman though I’m queer. We both are Sagittarius. Little Richard teaches me to own my story and embrace who I am and where I come from. Instead of playing him eight shows a week, I get to be all of me. We’re so interconnected that his story lives inside of me.”