Why Def Leppard Finally Said Yes to the ‘Rock of Ages’ Musical
If every rose has its thorn, not having Def Leppard’s music in a show named after a Def Leppard song was a real sticking point for the team behind “Rock of Ages.”
The jukebox musical about love and rock-star dreams on the Sunset Strip opened on Broadway in 2009 with a host of beloved 1970s and ’80s hits, including Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” Styx’s “Renegade” and Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
But Def Leppard demurred, leading to a lighthearted jab at the top of each performance, when the voice of the Whitesnake singer David Coverdale boomed instructions over the sound system: “And lastly, in case of fire, please refrain from singing Def Leppard’s ‘Pyromania’ as we couldn’t get the rights to any of their music.”
But now the show is returning for a limited run in New York celebrating its 10th anniversary, and Def Leppard is on board: “There isn’t a person alive that’s never changed their mind,” the band’s frontman, Joe Elliott, said in a phone interview from Prague, where the band was performing at the O2 Arena. “People are going to go, ‘Ah, it’s good enough for you now but it wasn’t then.’ Well, yeah,” he added. “That’s exactly right.”
The show is ready for them. “In our first conceiving of the musical — this is back in 2005 when Chris D’Arienzo, our book writer, came on — we talked about the song ‘Rock of Ages’ right at the middle of the story,” said Kristin Hanggi, the show’s director. The creative team loved the band’s 1987 hit “Pour Some Sugar on Me” so much that the choreographer Kelly Devine did her dance auditions to the track, even after it had no hope of being included in the production.
But now it will, along with the musical’s title song. So, what happened the first time around?
“We were always getting lumped in with this so-called new wave of British heavy metal when we first started out 40 years ago,” Elliott said, adding that “the only band that really survived of any note was Iron Maiden.”
“Cut forward like 10 years, and some moron — I use the word not lightly, moron — comes up with the phrase ‘hair metal,’ and we’re going, dude, we couldn’t have been so far removed from that if we tried,” he said. “Literally while everybody else is poncing around Sunset Boulevard doing whatever they did, we were in Holland living next to a windmill recording the ‘Hysteria’ album.”
The “Rock of Ages” request felt like an attempt to include their music in “a play based on everything that we stood against,” he said.
Sensitivities about the verboten term aside, when the show first approached Def Leppard, the production was far from Broadway and the band was hesitant to take a leap into an untested project. But when the film version, which came out in 2012, was in the works with a high-wattage cast, the group had its first change of heart.
“When they said, look, they want to use your song, Tom Cruise is going to do ‘Sugar’ — he’s the guy in ‘Mission: Impossible’ for God’s sake! We’re like, O.K., this is a totally different thing now,” Elliott said. “This is a proven thing.”
“Rock of Ages” lasted on Broadway for six years — longer than the career of the supergroup Damn Yankees, whose “High Enough” is included in the show — and earned five Tony nominations. Its anniversary run, Off Broadway at New World Stages, starts previews on Wednesday and concludes Oct. 6. It features Mitchell Jarvis, who played the narrator Lonny in the original cast, and some revamped jokes with 2019-appropriate references.
And as before, the audience will be encouraged to swill beer, wave lighters and embrace their inner David Lee Roth.
“Every night when a show runs, a stage manager will send out a show report,” Hanggi said. “And our show reports were like, ‘Tonight, a family of five was vomited on by some patrons from the balcony.’ ‘Tonight, some women in the second row threw their panties onstage.’”
Of course, in the 10 years since “Rock of Ages” debuted on Broadway, many more rock and pop artists have found their way to the stage. “I think we’re part of the movement,” Hanggi said, noting that “Jersey Boys” was on the cusp of opening when her team began work on “Rock of Ages.”
In the past decade, Def Leppard released a self-titled album, became an early ambassador of the new era of Las Vegas residencies — the band played one in 2013, just before Britney Spears began hers — and continued to tour. (And yes, the guitarist Phil Collen continues to perform shirtless. “It’s totally uncommon,” Elliott said. “The guy is a fit man, I’ve got to say.”) In March, the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by the Queen guitarist Brian May.
While the band is expecting a few jabs for changing course on “Rock of Ages,” it’s ready for anything. “After 42 years of doing this, we’re well-adjusted to people criticizing us for decisions that we make,” Elliott said, citing the questions Def Leppard faced when it performed on the CMT show “Crossroads” in 2008 with a Nashville teenager named Taylor Swift.
“It’s not like the thing suffered,” he said of the Broadway production. “It didn’t go down the tubes and go bankrupt because we weren’t involved. If anybody suffered it was us, because we could have been in something that turned out to be relatively successful.”
Elliott said he rarely gets to New York theaters but loved the London production of the Queen musical “We Will Rock You,” which is coming to New York this fall. And if he can fly in during the “Rock of Ages” anniversary run, he said he’ll certainly check it out.
The show — again — is ready. “If Def Leppard came over, I don’t thing there’s anything we wouldn’t do for them,” Hanggi said. “Right after we pass out.”