Dammit, Janet. Let’s rock!

rock of ages 1
The touring cast of Rock of Ages passes along this public service announcement: don’t stop believin’. The show is coming to the Curran Theatre. Photo by Winslow Townson

Janet Billig Rich would like you to cum on and feel the noize. And girls? Why don’t you rock your boys. And maybe we’ll all get wild, wild, wild.

Billig Rich extends the above invitation as a bona fide rocker, as a Long Island native and, most importantly, as one of two dozen producers of the surprise Broadway smash Rock of Ages.

The most successful juke-box musical this side of Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages takes guilty-pleasure rock songs from 1980s hair bands like Journey, Night Ranger, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake and Poison, and turns them into a funny, feel-good slice of musical theater nostalgia. The touring production of this Tony-nominated Broadway hit rocks and rolls into San Francisco’s Curran Theatre March 8 as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series.

Janet Billig RichBillig Rich (right) comes to the world of theatrical producing from years of managing rock bands such as Nirvana, Hole, White Zombie and the Smashing Pumpkins. She was also the youngest senior executive at Atlantic Records back when working for a major record label actually meant something.

These days, she and her husband are living in Los Angeles raising twins. She describes herself as a soccer mom, but when you’ve survived Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, you’re never just a soccer mom.

Indeed, Billig Rich became a working producer (not simply an investor which is what so many “producers” these days actually are), applying her expertise in managing clients and catalogs to start securing rights to all the songs used in Rock of Ages.

“Every single song has its own story,” Billig Rich says on the phone from L.A. “Getting the rights to all the songs took about three years. Initially, when we didn’t have anything going on, the show didn’t look so good on paper. An ‘80s rock musical? That made pitching the rights holders tough. Everyone took massaging and babysitting.”

But then there were workshops, when rights holders and band members could see the show on its feet and hear songs like “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” in the context of a story about musicians and managers on L.A.’s Sunset Strip circa 1987.

“Securing righrts was a lot of heavy lifting,” Billig Rich says. “I’m happy to be on the other side. Sometimes when I’m watching the show, I get a little panicky twinge and think, ‘Oh, my God. Did we get the rights for that one?’”

When producer Matt Weaver first described Rock of Ages to Billig Rich more than eight years ago, he asked her to envision the actors on stage and the audience all singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the end of the show.

“I thought about it, and that song does everything, says everything,” she recalls. “And remember, this was long before Glee. The song has a great message and it’s a curious beast of a song because it doesn’t follow the usual verse/chorus/hook pattern. The chorus doesn’t even come until 2 ½ minutes in. But it’s a song that just makes you happy. You could put it at the end of August: Osage County and people would still be standing in the aisles singing.”

Sure the songs are fun, but do they really work in the theater?

“People used to ask me all the time if bands like Whitesnake or Poison were theatrical?” Billig Rich says. “Honestly, so many of their songs are an inch of their lives away from being a show tune. That’s one of the reasons the show came together so easily.”

You might expect, given the show’s title, to hear Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages,” but you won’t.

[BONUS VIDEO: The Road to Rock]

“Titles aren’t copyrighted,” Billig Rich says with a laugh. “So screw them. It was just one of those things. The manager couldn’t even get us to the band. He just said, no, no, no. Just a few months ago, Def Leppard came to the show and loved it. They were so mad they weren’t in it. I said, ‘Dude, you should have said that two years ago.’ I called them two weeks before we opened on Broadway. Reviews for the off-Broadway run were great. We had raised millions of dollars. The time was right. Oh well. They want to be in it now, but you can’t change a hit show on the whim of some rock star.”

A lot has been said about Rock of Ages being “Mamma Mia! for dudes,” and Billig Rich heartily agrees, having just invited all of her kids’ soccer coaches to see the show during the tour’s recent stop there. The coaches went wild and kept coming back with their buddies.

“Dudes love this show!” Billig Rich says. “The music is total dude rock, and the show is full of hot girls and hot guys. One of the slogans we thought up but never used was “Big hair, big dreams,” which I love. We also thought up but never used “Hairspray is back but now the dudes are wearing it.”

Soon to be a movie starring Tom Cruise (he recently inked his contract) and directed by Adam Shankman (of Hairspray and So You Think You Can Dance fame), Rock of Ages just keeps rockin’ on.

The secret of the show’s success, according to Billig Rich, is that the music is “fantastic with fun arrangements that give us different takes on songs we know and love from the ‘80s.”

But that’s not all.

“What makes the show special is the characters,” Billig Rich continues. “Chris D’Arienzo, who wrote the show, created characters you care about, that you want to know more about. People relate to the people on stage, and then there’s this great music. That makes a show.”


Rock of Ages runs March 8 through April 9 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $30. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com for information.

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