IF the jukebox musical and the 1980s rock ballad are not direct siblings, they must surely share a common ancestor. Both tend to be bombastic and demand un-self-consciousness from their performers; both attract fans who mask their sincere affection behind a layer of irony. Both are easy punching bags for critics in their respective genres, and nobody is going to argue that Broadway needs more of them.
So that’s a lot of people who might be appalled by the idea of “Rock of Ages,” an unrepentant jukebox musical that opens on Tuesday at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. With a libretto assembled from more than two dozen lighter-waving rock anthems of the Reagan era, from Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” the production arrives on Broadway with a lot of baggage, but also a charmed history. The show has already made it farther than anyone — including its creators — expected. And if “Rock of Ages” goes further still, it will be because of the artists whose relentlessly infectious songs would seem to be the biggest strike against it.
“My one luxury,” said its book writer, Chris D’Arienzo, “is that nobody has a real preciousness about Warrant or Styx.”
Like the people in his script Mr. D’Arienzo, 36, was one more transplant to Los Angeles who went to that city in search of stardom — in his case, from the small farming town of Paw Paw, Mich., where his first car was a diesel truck, and his neighbors included Jerry Mitchell, the future Tony Award-winning choreographer.
Growing up in the 1980s Mr. D’Arienzo was more a fan of punk rock and New Romantic bands than hair metal acts. “I actually tried to avoid that stuff,” he said, “because it was the music of the people that wanted to throw me into a locker.” But, as in most show business tales, Hollywood got him to change his mind.
In 2004 Mr. D’Arienzo was recruited by the producers Matthew Weaver and Carl Levin, who had successfully sold Universal Pictures an idea for a rock musical set in the 1980s, only to see the concept languish in development.
On a fateful drive Mr. Weaver and Mr. Levin happened to hear the 1981 power ballad “Don’t Stop Believing” by the band Journey and concluded that it would be just as potent on a stage as on their car radio. They rapidly put together a CD of like-minded rock songs and passed it to the director Kristin Hanggi to see if there was a show in there somewhere.
Ms. Hanggi, who was finishing the Off Broadway run of the pop musical “Bare,” agreed that there was. “The songs were organically telling their own stories, about culturally what rock ’n’ roll means to us and having permission to break free,” she said. “We knew that it would be self-aware, winking at the audience and including the audience inside the joke.”
Mr. D’Arienzo was persuaded too. “When I really looked back on the most important, nostalgic parts of my adolescence, they were defined by these songs that happened to be playing at the dance or in the car.”
In meetings at various Sunset Strip institutions, from rock clubs to coffee bars, Ms. Hanggi and Mr. D’Arienzo sketched out the show, about an ensemble of characters at a fictitious West Hollywood club called the Bourbon Room. There would be an aspiring rock guitarist and an aspiring actress who fall in love, a seduction scene set to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and a dance number to the tune of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” inspired by the dream ballet in “Oklahoma!”
( “We’re rock music nerds,” Ms. Hanggi said. “But do I know every word of ‘Company’? Yes.”)
In 2005 a nascent version of “Rock of Ages” was performed at King King, a club on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, followed in 2006 by runs at Vanguard, a nearby club, and on a soundstage at Ren-Mar Studios in Hollywood. Its cast members variously included Laura Bell Bundy (of Broadway’s “Hairspray” and “Legally Blonde”), James Snyder (Broadway’s “Cry-Baby”) and the pop singer Katharine McPhee.
Reviews were occasionally brutal — Backstage called it “possibly the worst theatrical production in the last several years” — but receipts were promising enough that in May 2006 its producers transferred it to Las Vegas for a weeklong run at the Flamingo.
That proved to be a mistake: “It was like performing for the cast of ‘Cocoon,’ ” Mr. Weaver said. Undeterred, the show moved to New York , where, with a cast anchored by the “American Idol” contestant Constantine Maroulis, it played Off Broadway from October through early January at New World Stages.
As usual, reviews varied. But the 499-seat theater was often sold out, attracting what producers said were ticket buyers seeking a boisterous concert experience rather than a genteel evening at the theater.
When movie rights were sold in December to New Line Cinema (the studio that produced the film adaptation of the “Hairspray” musical), a Broadway transfer for “Rock of Ages” became inevitable. Even in a barren economic environment the producers said they have encountered little difficulty capitalizing their Broadway production, whose initial budget they placed at $7 million.
This fund-raising success, they said, was due partly to the show’s subject matter, which attracted nontraditional investors. But they also acknowledged that their inexperience on Broadway made them oblivious to warning signs that might have discouraged more seasoned producers.
“We literally have horse blinders on,” said Scott Prisand, who is Mr. Weaver’s partner in the production company Corner Store Entertainment. “In our little world everything is awesome.”
As opening night approaches for the Broadway transfer, which stars Mr. Maroulis, Amy Spanger (“Kiss Me, Kate”) and James Carpinello (Broadway’s “Saturday Night Fever”), the producers have done all they can to play up its populist appeal: they have capped ticket prices at $99 and hired servers to provide drinks during the show.
Still, the creators understand that it will take much more than $10 cocktails to win over those theatergoers who are ready to consign the show to the dustbin of jukebox musical history, alongside “All Shook Up,” “Good Vibrations” and many others.
“I totally walk around town with my tail between my legs,” Mr. D’Arienzo said. “I totally get that people would, at first, find this to be a repellant notion. But that’s what I loved about the show.”
On the one hand, he acknowledged, a show whose first act concludes with its entire cast singing Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” would seem to have different ambitions from, say, “West Side Story.”
Then again, he said: “If I write something so ridiculous, maybe they’ll never make another jukebox musical again. Maybe that’s good too.”