BWW Interview: A Chat with HELLDRIVERS OF DAYTONA Lyricist Rob Meurer
The World Premiere of the hilarious new pop rock musical Helldrivers of Daytona takes the Chicago stage running through October 30 at The Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street, Chicago. With music by Berton Averre (The Knack), lyrics by Rob Meurer (Platinum Records with Christopher Cross), and book by Emmy Award-winner Mark Saltzman (The Tin Pan Alley Rag, The Adventures of Milo and Otis), these award-winning creative minds have put the pedal to the metal in this NASCAR-themed musical full of girls, cars, and rockin' guitars.
Helldrivers of Daytona's lyricist Rob Meurer's musical theatre collaborations with Berton Averre have been seen in productions and festivals in Chicago, Los Angeles, and regionally, as well as featured in the ASCAP/Disney Workshop. Rob came to prominence in 1980 through his keyboard and arranging work on Christopher Cross' Grammy-sweeping debut album, and has toured internationally with major acts. He was Music Director for Shelley Duvall's celebrated Showtime series, "Faerie Tale Theatre", and been awarded gold and platinum records as well as being thrice cited for excellence by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
BWW's Kevin Pollack had a chance to speak with him about the show and his musical career.
BWW: You've worked with Grammy-winner Christopher Cross for many years. How did you two meet?
RM: Chris and I met as teens in the late 60's in San Antonio. We were fans of each other's band. He was guitarist in a band with the best original music in town (his), and I was the drummer in a more straightahead rock band. I'd go to his parents' house and we'd sit in his room (high) and he'd play me his new songs and we'd dream of recording an album. We just connected on what this music was supposed to sound like. That's why I changed over to playing keys. Ten years later we were an overnight success! Actually, we had a band named Christopher Cross -- it's not his name -- and though they were all his songs, that first album that won all the Grammy's was the product of a four-piece band. Warner decided HE would be Christopher Cross. Anyway, to make a long story longer, I played keys on most of that hit stuff back then. A few years later we started writing together, and we still do to this day. We've collaborated on six albums of material.
BWW: You've also worked on Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre on Showtime. How was that and do you have a favorite episode?
RM: Working on Faerie Tale Theatre was special. I was the music producer and almost every episode had a different composer, so I got to work with some wonderful folks. That's where I met Van Dyke Parks, who remains a good pal to this day. Each episode had different stars, and everyone Shelley asked said yes, Mick Jagger to Jean Stapleton to Eric Idle. I think my favorite episode is The Three Little Pigs, with Billy Crystal, Steven Furst, and Fred Willard as the pigs and Jeff Goldblum as the wolf. Valerie Perrine was the love-interest pig. It was a hoot.
BWW: What influenced you to go into writing for musical theater?
RM: I had done a couple shows in high school, but I was much more involved in playing in the rock band, so that took precedence. But then in the 70's, Sondheim had his incredible run of amazing shows. I was a pretty hardcore rocker with hair to my shoulders, but I would come home at 3 AM after gigging and listen to Company, Follies, Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and my mind was totally blown. Other big shows were happening during that time as well, such as Chorus Line, and I just sponged it all up. Then all the Cross success happened, and we toured for years and that was a huge (and wonderful) diversion. Then one Sunday in 1993, I saw an article in the L.A. Times about organizations in town that taught musical theatre writing...
BWW: How did you and Berton Averre meet?
RM: Berton and I both joined the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in '93. We both came in as composer-lyricists, but for the final assignment of the first year's curriculum we were required to write a ten-minute musical but only in a single capacity. I had written a couple lyrics that year that received some notice and were funny, and Berton, whom I barely knew, asked me if I wanted to write words to his music for the mini-show, and I said sure. It worked so well that we've been doing it that way ever since. It has been an amazing, ego-free collaboration. We both are dedicated to writing the very best songs possible, and we write songs that do a lot of work. They are never pop songs that just lay there.
BWW: What can people expect when they see and hear Helldrivers of Daytona?
RM: A cracked breath of fresh air. It's a wild ride, and the operative word is FUN. It's fast, bawdy, irreverent,surprising, and very funny. And here's the catch: purring beneath the hood of all this rocking insanity is a very traditional piece of American musical theatre. It is painstakingly constructed and features a devotion to craft seldom heard currently, if I may say so.
BWW: You, Berton and book writer Mark Saltzman worked on a previous show together called Setup & Punch and with Berton on Robin Hood: The Untold Story and Jungle Man! How was that process, and how have you developed working together up to now for Helldrivers of Daytona?
RM: Actually Setup & Punch was a diversion from Helldrivers for Berton and me. Mark had written this wonderful three-character play whose characters happened to be songwriters. Since we were all three working together already, Mark asked us to write a few songs the show needed. It was an intriguing assignment, because this is not a musical; the songs don't spring from the needs or emotions of the characters but are rather the product of the working relationship of the songwriters. So Berton and I wrote a somewhat diverse handful of songs for the show, and it all seemed to work.
BWW: Why Chicago for this premiere?
RM: Many would argue Chicago is THE theatre city in North America; in any case, it certainly is number two. One of our producers and our director, Danny Herman, have worked in Chicago for a long time and they felt it was the place to start the show.
BWW: Would you ever try to convince Christopher Cross to write a musical or jukebox musical using his music?
RM: In fact, he has talked to me about that already. A few years ago he saw Spring Awakening and I think it made the idea of writing for the stage a bit less intimidating for him. We are discussing writing a show, his music and my words. We're sniffing around for source material.
BWW: What next on the horizon for you after this?
RM: Berton and I have another show that will likely be produced at a college near Los Angeles next summer, and of course the three of us will probably start on something new. Berton and I are also working on another musical which we're not yet at liberty to blab about, but it's a very promising project with a built-in NY connection.
Photo by Sara MacFarlane