ROCK OF AGES Veterans Dish on Wild Audiences, Bon Jovi and the Lasting Allure of the Bourbon Room

The cast of Rock of Ages (photo by Matthew Murphy)

The cast of Rock of Ages (photo by Matthew Murphy)

  • Matt Blank

Audiences have spoken, and the 10th Anniversary New York return of Rock of Ages is a hit! The guitar-smashing, face-melting, audience-rocking ode to the 1980s has extended its limited run through January 12 of next year.

With some timely updates, new tunes and a tireless ensemble of familiar and fresh faces, the show is as hilarious, edgy, joyful and fun as it was a decade ago. It takes a special kind of genius to combine earth-shaking vocals with un-apologetically sophomoric humor (top-notch jokes about bestiality, crystal meth and vomit) and, in the process, create an entirely wholesome and sweet evening of theatre with a central love story to rival that of any Golden Age classic. There’s nothing quite like it and virtually no show I enjoy so well.

We took the opportunity to chat with a few veterans of the Sunset Strip to discuss just what it is that makes the show such a blast and keeps them (and the crowds) coming back for more. 

Collectively, these three versatile performers represent past Rock of Ages productions on Broadway, touring the country, in Las Vegas and on a cruise ship… and their current turn at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages indicates no signs of either them - or the goddamn rock and roll - slowing down one bit.

Great to see you back at the Bourbon Room!  Tell me about your history with the show.  How many productions have you done and what roles have you played?

Matt Ban: I started with Rock of Ages in 2011 playing Dennis on the 2nd National Tour. Fun fact: I played opposite Justin Colombo, one of our current off-Broadway swings, as Lonny. From there, I was asked to be a part of the first ROA cast onboard the Norwegian Breakaway. While I was onboard, I received a call from the Broadway Production Stage Manager: the OG Denbo Adam Danheisser took some time off to direct a show, and they offered me my Broadway debut to play Dennis for a limited run. This off-Broadway production is my 4th time playing Dennis! It’s always so thrilling to start a new production of this show. This cast is so fantastic and the show is such a blast that it never gets old, even though I’ve done the show over 800 times.

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Katie Webber: I first joined the Broadway company in 2010 as Waitress #1. I did three separate year-long stints in that track and one three-week stint as Sherrie. I also did a brief moment as a Swing in the Las Vegas company, while I was five months pregnant! All together, I’ve performed the roles of Waitress #1, Sherrie, Justice and Young Groupie!  

Ashley E. Matthews: Thank you! It's amazing to be back "home" on the Strip and in the Bourbon Room! I've been fortunate enough to be in two productions of this show: the Las Vegas Company and the current Off Broadway Revival. In Las Vegas I played the Waitress #1/Ensemble track and covered Sherrie, in this current production I play the Reporter/Ensemble track. I'm really lucky to have been able to step into these characters’ different shoes (and stripper boots!) They're all such unique women and characters to explore as a performer!

What is it about this show that keeps you coming back?

Matt Ban: There truly is nothing else like it. I’m always wary of jukebox musicals, but Rock of Ages really gets it right. Our amazing book writer Chris D’Arienzo has perfectly married the raucous fun of the 80s with a heartwarming story of love and friendship. It’s absurd, touching, joyful, and gritty. How can you not come back to a show that lets you belt out 80s power ballads while making jokes about tea bagging llamas? [PSA: Matt Ban does not endorse cruelty to animals.]

Ashley E. Matthews, Leah Read, Katie Webber and Matt Ban in Rock of Ages (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Ashley E. Matthews, Leah Read, Katie Webber and Matt Ban in Rock of Ages (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Katie Webber: This is my favorite show ever! The music, the choreography, the comedy, and of course, the people are what keep me coming back. I would do this show forever if I could!

Ashley E. Matthews: This show honestly feels like home. From the show itself to the casts to the creative team, it's family. It's rare to find a show this FUN to perform nightly as well, I find myself always laughing backstage at the jokes or discovering new moments onstage still, which is such a gift to have as an actor at work. It really is a party, for the audience and for us!

I know that every production is a little different.  What really stands out or differentiates this one from your past experiences?

Matt Ban: First off, there are quite a few surprises for long-time fans of the show: there may or may not be a few new tunes featured in this production. *cough* buy some tickets and find out *cough*. It’s also a really awesome cast. Mitch Jarvis (the original Lonny) is a comedic master, and getting to play with him onstage every night is incredible. The show always feels different and fresh. It also features an incredible ensemble, led by the incomparable Katie Webber (Broadway’s Waitress #1). Aside from alumni from the Great White Way, the show also features folks from the Vegas and Touring productions including Tiffany Engen, our Dance Captain and my personal life coach. The coming together of all these ROA weirdos has made one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever had the honor of sharing the stage with. Plus, I get to sit next to one of my closest friends (Justin Colombo) in the dressing room every night, and every once in a while, we even get to share the stage.

Justin Colombo and Matt Ban in Rock of Ages

Justin Colombo and Matt Ban in Rock of Ages

Katie Webber: The biggest thing for me, is the people. It’s a mix of folks who have done the show before from various companies, and also some who are brand new. This company is stellar on and off stage and I am thrilled to get to spend so much time with everyone!

Ashley E. Matthews: In this new production we have a brand new number so that definitely is stands out the most for me. The show finally got the rights to some of Def Leppard's music so we now have a number that features “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and the song “Rock of Ages.” It's really exciting to be a part of the history of the show and the creation of a new number like that. I've been doing the incredible choreography by Kelly Devine for various auditions for this show for a long time, so it feels really surreal to get to do it every night onstage now! The female ensemble were also able to be featured In an onstage video for the number which was such a unique and special experience! This production also features other Easter eggs and some reworking of the script. The rehearsal process was really exciting as we had Kristin Hanggi (director), Kelly Devine (choreographer), and Chris D’Arienzo (book writer) all together working and reworking the material to create what we have now, kind of taking moments from all the productions of the past and creating some unique ones to this one now, which I think is the ultimate Rock of Ages experience!

How do you find the New York audience compares to the crowds in Vegas, on the road or on the boat?  I've only seen it in NYC and in Vegas, and there was a VERY different vibe and energy in Sin City.

Ashley E. Matthews backstage at the Vegas production of Rock of Ages

Ashley E. Matthews backstage at the Vegas production of Rock of Ages

Matt Ban: NYC audiences are the absolute best. You honestly never know what to expect. Sometimes we’ll get a really rowdy crowd on a Wednesday night (which is wild because most people work Thursday mornings… I assume), or we’ll hit a Saturday evening where the audience is predominantly made up of tourists who may not speak a lot of English. Either way, there’s a palpable energy that fills the room that can only be found here in New York. On the ship, there were often times where people would leave early or not fully engage; this was mainly because the show is offered as a free part of the onboard entertainment. Touring with the show also brings its own challenges. The show really reverberates differently in different areas. Certain audiences don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into. I never did the show in Las Vegas (the only North American production I can’t put on my ROA bingo card), but we did sit down in Atlantic City while on tour. I remember those audiences being especially rowdy and fun. I guess it’s a good break from gambling and pigging out at the buffet. [PSA: Matt Ban fully endorses Casino Buffets].

Katie Webber: Haha Vegas was crazy! Actually there are some nights in NYC that are crazy, too. And it’s awesome. We really feed off the audience’s energy and when people are having a great time, it lifts us up that much more.

Ashley E. Matthews: The audiences in Vegas could definitely party! I think the main difference would be that Vegas audiences weren't afraid to start their party as early as walking in the lobby (or maybe even earlier!) So that energy could be there from the very first downbeat of the show and last throughout the very end. (Though of course sometimes, some folks maybe had one too many jello shots or foot long daiquiris in the process). I've noticed so far that some NYC [crowds] can take a little bit longer to get there compared to Vegas but once they get caught up in the runaway freight train of fun that is this show, they completely let go and join in on the party! By the end they're dancing in the aisles and singing along!

Rock of Ages crowds are a bit legendary among fellow audience members and theatre staff. What is your wildest audience-behaving-badly story?

Matt Ban: Oh man. How do I narrow it down? I’ll give you a story from each production.

National Tour: When we sat down in Schenectady, NY, we had one of the rowdiest audiences I’ve ever seen. During “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn,” the cops busted in and 3 women were escorted out of the theatre for getting into a physical altercation (so nice of them to wait for the only quiet ballad in the show). Then, during the finale (“Don’t Stop Believin’”), four audience members stormed the stage. One woman jumped up, grabbed me by the hips, and started dancing with me. I politely thanked her for her kind yet wildly inappropriate compliments and watched as two security guards tackled her. That was pretty wild.

Broadway: My first performance on Broadway was on Halloween. As you know, people in NYC tend to imbibe a bit on All Hallows’ Eve. I had an amazing showing of friends come to see my debut, and they all showed up in costumes. Looking out and seeing a drunken Freddie Mercury screaming and crying for me was pretty excellent.

Katie Webber backstage at  Rock of Ages ”

Katie Webber backstage at Rock of Ages

Cruise Ship: The unlimited drinks packages sold to passengers all but guarantee that the ROA audiences are going to be properly lubricated for their Bourbon Room experience. One lady was so intoxicated that she fell asleep in the third row. I have one moment in the show where I break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, so I made sure to call her out and had the entire audience cheer really loudly until she woke up. It was pretty amazing to see the confused look on her face. The next day she (soberly) thanked me for including her in the show.

Katie Webber: Well, I’ve seen a lot! I’ll just say that this show gets people excited in a way that I’ve never seen at any other show!

Ashley E. Matthews: Our audiences are the best! They're as much a part of the show and experience as anything happening onstage! It's so fun seeing what new vibe or energy our audience can bring. In Vegas we definitely had a lot of commentators. I recall a night I was on for Sherrie. I [said] the line "I'm a stripper!" And a woman in the audience confidently yelled, "you go get your money girl!" Both the actor playing Drew and I had to fight through tears of laughter after that!

What is your personal favorite glam/hair metal song from the 80s?

Matt Ban: I’m from New Jersey, so if I don’t say Bon Jovi, I probably won’t be allowed back across the border. Of course “Living on a Prayer” is NJ’s 80s anthem, but I also really love “Runaway.” “Back in Black” by AC/DC is also pretty great.

Katie Webber: I’m a huge fan of anything Bon Jovi!

Ashley E. Matthews: I really love Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar On Me!” Which is why I'm really excited it's now in the show. I also love Lita Ford's “Kiss Me Deadly,” which is in the show as a musical interlude but not full blown number. I also would listen to most Bon Jovi songs all day every day!

Finally, tell me about your experience with the Broadway Blackout earlier this summer!

Matt Ban: I loved that experience because it was so genuinely New York. We had just arrived back from our dinner break in between shows and I was on the phone with my wife, Erin Rubico, when we noticed a growing crowd outside the stage door. Our PSM, Jeff Brancato, came out and told the throng of ROA cast and crew that the power was out and that we were standing by to see if the show was going to be able to happen. Five minutes turned into 20 minutes and we realized it wasn’t looking good. Our amazing choreographer Kelly Devine just happened to be there that night, and had the idea that we should go and entertain the hundreds of people waiting to get into New World Stages. The incredible NWS staff cleared out a spot for us on the 50th Street sidewalk and we treated the patrons to our finale song. It turned into a massive singalong and I watched as the frustrated faces let go for a bit and just enjoy being swept up in a true NYC moment. Unfortunately the show did get canceled, but I like to think that people didn’t feel completely disappointed. New York really rose to the occasion that day. I took an Uber back to my home and watched as civilians put their lives in danger to direct traffic. I watched NYC drivers (notorious for their impatience and aggressive driving) give heed to others and not allow for any gridlock. Everyone in the city knew that this was a rough night, and everyone seemed to have each others’ backs.

Katie Webber: Omg the blackout! We were not expecting that at all! After we evacuated the theatre and caught wind that we might be cancelled, we went over to where the (potential) audience members were waiting in the street. There were hundreds of people. We put on an impromptu performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and they loved it!

Ashley E. Matthews: After evacuating the theatre and hearing word that we would have to cancel the show that evening, our fearless Choreographer Kelly Devine suggested we head to the front of the theatre to sing a song from the show for the guests waiting in line. It was such a great experience! We sang "Don't Stop Believin’" and the crowd sang along. It was really great to be able to give these folks some portion of the show and entertainment on such a hot night under the circumstances. That was truly a once in a lifetime NYC experience! The blackout also happened to be my first New York blackout so that was very Interesting.

 

Get to see these three stars in their element!  Rock of Ages continues at New World Stages through Jan. 12, 2020.  For tickets and more info, visit rockofagesmusical.com.

For more on them, visit mattban.com and follow @katiewebbernyc and @ashleyematthews.