BWW Feature: From Page to Stage - The Story Behind ROCK AND ROLL MAN: THE ALAN FREED STORY at Berkshire Theatre Group.
On the afternoon of it's opening at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Broadway World met with the creative team behind ROCK AND ROLL MAN: THE ALAN FREED STORY - Rose Caiola (Book / Producer), Gary Kupper (Book / Original Music and Lyrics), Larry Marshak (Book) and Randal Myler (Director).
The team has been in Pittsfield for a little more than two weeks. I asked them if being in an environment outside of NYC with a new show that has the potential of playing there is beneficial and how. Caiola replied: absolutely. She went on to say that "being out of town but not so far out that we can have the industry and community come up and see the show and see how the audience responds to it. We also have the peacefulness, solitude, and the focus you can obtain in a location like this. It is definitely helpful to the creative process".
The impetus behind ROCK AND ROLL MAN: THE ALAN FREED STORY was not the Freed family. Gary Kupper was approached by Larry Marshak, with whom he had worked for many years, about a third party's desire to do a story about Alan Freed as a "jukebox musical". The intention was that Kupper might be able to write a couple of original songs for the piece. Kupper realized that Freed's story is a classic one. A rise and fall and then redemption story that can't be told as a jukebox musical because Alan Freed wasn't a singer. He feels that a jukebox musical would have cheated the story. This is the story of this man, and the story of Rock-and-Roll. That notion gave birth to the "book musical". In 2011, Kupper started writing original songs and sometime later, the team started writing the script. Freed's son, Lance, stepped-in along the way and helped to secure the rights to the Rock-and-Roll classics. They have combined the music of the era with storytelling. They admit it's both risky and tricky and has never really been done to the extent that it is in this show. Thirty to thirty-five original songs were written, most of which were thrown out. A little more than a dozen are in the current iteration of the show.
Over the years, Larry Marshak had done many shows for both Atlantic City and Las Vegas based on the 1950's music theme. At some point it became obvious to him that if one wanted to tell the grand picture, the story of all of 1950's Rock-and-Roll, it almost all goes back to Alan Freed. "He was at the center-point for all of it. He was the starting point of the music; of the business of the music; the founding of the music; the integration of the music between whites and blacks; and society's clash over Rock-and Roll, which seems antiquated now, but at the time was a central focus for the American public. Alan Freed and his music were a common element and that's why we went this way" said Marshak.
As they developed the piece, Marshak says they realized this show really encompasses everything Rock-and-Roll was in its early days: an outlaw music; a symbol of American culture at the time; the basis of the battle between "free-thinking" and societal norms of the day in the 1950's when America was "great" (for the first time around) and society as well as minds tended to be more closed.
Marshak points out that Alan Freed's story is similar to that of legendary comic, Lenny Bruce. He was hounded by the authorities of the day because he opened minds and brought disparate groups and segments of society together: blacks and whites, kids and adults... not easily. They had to fight, and Alan Freed was a force behind it.
Both Gary Kupper and Larry Marshak bring personal experience and connection to the project. As a high-school student, Marshak visited Freed at his home for the purposes of writing an article for his school paper. As Freed prepared grilled cheese sandwiches, he cued up a record and asked the young Marshak if he liked it, which he did, and replied "it's very good". Freed exclaimed "It's not any good" then quickly added "I'm kidding. Any piece of music you like is good". Marshak remembers the moment from 1964 vividly as well as the warmth of the man that did not travel down an easy pathway. Teen aged Gary Kupper watched Alan Freed's television show. He and his cousin were scheduled to appear on the show. That day, they arrived to find a different host. Kupper later learned that Freed had been fired the week before. They danced, but he always felt cheated. He says that ROCK AND ROLL MAN is like getting to dance on Freed's show in his own way.
Rose Caiola was drawn to the project for different reasons. She was born after Rock and Roll's heyday. She remembers her father playing Chuck Berry and Little Richard's music in their home. She was a big fan of the music but had no knowledge of Alan Freed. Kupper brought the concept to Caiola with whom, Kupper had collaborated successfully on FRECKLEFACE STRAWBERRY. Caiola says that she "has always enjoyed hearing stories about visionaries. People who were inspired and passionate and risked things to make change." When Kupper told her about Alan Freed, she thought it was an amazing story that really should be told. Caiola felt that if she didn't know about it, others like her probably didn't either. To combine a story about somebody who really made a difference and be able to include all the wonderful music and history was exciting to her as a producer. As a writer, it compelled her to get involved and help share the vision of the show. She enjoys seeing the young people in the audience, including her own children, exposed to this music, some for the first time, then go home, get on You Tube, and watch the original artists, and then sing it all over the house. She says: "This music never dies. Just like I think Alan's dream didn't die. He made his mistakes... This is the era of the anti-hero. Nobody's perfect. Hamilton made a lot of mistakes as well, but he did something amazing. So did Alan. His legacy lives on and I think that's really what we are showing in the journey we're taking the audience on. And, having lots of fun at the same time".
Caiola and her colleagues knew Randal Myler was the perfect director for the project. Myler has had a lot of previous success with bio-musical shows focused on performers like Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, John Denver, and Dusty Springfield to name only a few. He gets requests for projects like this at a rate of 2-3 a month. Myler says he has to step - back and ask himself: "if this person wasn't famous, is there a story here?" Freed's story appealed to him greatly and he liked the team involved. There are lots of shows that try to take an artist's volume of work and string them together but Myler feels this is different. "Sure, there are a number of songs form the period that fit here because that was Alan Freed's thing, he was spinnin' 'em, but Alan Freed was not a singer. Larry Marshak believes the R&B and rock-and-roll classics in the show are there in the context of their having been performed as part of 50's shows that Alan Freed was part of, and the original songs are "story songs" - they tell the story of the show. An aspect of this show that attracted Cailoa who says that as a producer she always looks at the book of any musical because the audience wants to be moved, wants to be taken on a journey and she feels this team really made an effort to do that with this project. The team hopes that people will come to see some great, historic, rock-and-roll; particularly from it's early days, but will also learn about the little known man who helped launch the genre and didn't let societal issues of the time get in the way. The team acknowledges that it is both a challenge and something of an obstacle. As they pointed out: nobody really knew who Alexander Hamilton was either. People may not know who Alan Freed was, but his problems, challenges, and success are things everyone should find interesting and relatable. This was a man who influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Mick Jagger, and The Beatles. Freed was the first inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In his statement upon being inducted, Ringo Starr, credited Freed and said that without Alan Freed, there would have been no Beatles who had listened to European broadcasts of Freed's radio shows.
ROCK AND ROLL MAN: THE ALAN FREED STORY was originally mounted at Buck's County Playhouse in New Hope, PA. in September 2017. Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield allows the team to explore production values that they hope to be able to explore should the show become a New York show. They have brought all their designers up and "blew it out" in that respect. It is exciting to see the vision of the show as Myler and the team have always hoped it would evolve to.
The team acknowledged that they don't really focus on New York or taking the show to Broadway. Myler quipped: "I don't think Picasso ever painted thinking; boy I hope this gets in the met". He believes you focus on making the best piece of art you can. He does feel it's wonderful being in The Berkshires where "cast members are not being pulled apart by their New York situation", auditions, etc. His colleagues added that "you get the quality of pro's up here without the distractions and tension of the city, yet there is a community here with lots of theatre and lots of theatre goers - it's a great artistic area- the best of both".
ROCK AND ROLL MAN: THE ALAN FREED STORY with book by Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak, and Rose Caiola original music and lyrics by Gary Kupper directed by Randal Myler music direction by Dave Keyes choreography by Brian Reeder continues through July 21 at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre 111 South Street in Pittsfield, MA. Visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org/event/rock-and-roll-man-the-alan-freed-story/ for tickets and information.