Friends and colleagues are asking, “What is your blog about?” I try hard to explain my mantra…how I have been fighting editors for years because they only want me to cover specific areas of music, something kids will like, something twentysomethings would like or thirtysomethings. But, that’s not what music is about, it’s about fusion!
People don’t get it, but now I know how to explain it….go to see Rocktopia at the Broadway Theatre in NYC, but go quickly, it’s a limited run through April 29.
“I just don’t get islands. I love rock, hip hop, jazz. I love Broadway. Islands don’t work for me,” says Maestro Randall Craig Fleischer, co-creator of the show that is classical opera merged with rock merged with classic symphonic. That is Rocktopia. I was fortunate enough to see the show on Saturday night during previews. The show officially opened tonight!
What’s the first thing you hear when the vocalists hit the stage? Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra fused with the Who’s Baba O’Riley sung with serious intensity by the show’s co-creator Rob Evan and Broadway veteran Tony Vincent. Of course, they have a little help from The New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra and the New York Contemporary Choir.
How the heck did this all come together? “I’ve always been a huge rock and roll fan. Always been interested in symphonic and classical rock fusion. Then I met Rob Evan when we were both working on a project I was co-creator on called Broadway Rocks. At the same time, Rob was working on his own show with a similar theme. We had breakfast and brainstormed, and the result was a merging of the two shows to become Rocktopia,” explains Fleischer.
“Picking the music for the show was a collaborative effort between Rob and I. I would study the lyrics as though I was dissecting a poem to really try to get to the essence of a song, and then pick a classical piece to complement it. We would start with a chorus and theme.” Fleischer knew he could always find a way to merge the music, but he wanted the segments to go “heart to heart”.
Evan says, “if you are in the audience and something touches you to the core, you never forget that moment and that’s what I wanted to find; something we all have in common. Not just the music but something we have all gone through such as adolescence as well as different facets of love and rebirth.”
The segments of the show are mini operas. For example, the adolescence opera begins with Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga. It’s a young woman singing “I’m madly love”. That moves into a young man singing Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me which goes into Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concierto No. 2 which goes into a love triangle with the woman singing Heart’s Alone, the crescendo. “I am not saying ‘this is what the story is,” says Evan. “But, you will feel some sort of sweep and an arc through each piece. Your imagination is better than what someone tells you the story is about.”
Then there is the “godsend of Train’s Pat Monahan who is a guest performer in the show through April 8,” Evan says. “We were looking for an artist that would not be a gimmick. He is a great vocalist. He is also known for singing Led Zeppelin. Our conversations went so well and he said, ‘I am here to serve your content.’ What excited me was I knew how well he would do. He is raising the bar for all of us. We are doing a tribute to him with Gustav Holst’s The Planets Jupiter, with Pat’s Drops of Jupiter as an encore. Those lyrics are so beautiful; perfect for the rebirth section of this whole journey.”
If this sounds a little overwhelming to pull together, it didn’t happen overnight. The process started about 8 years ago. Actually, it started further back than that when Evan was singing in church as a child. “I grew up singing things like ‘Joyful Joyful we adore thee’ not knowing, of course, that it was Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I also grew up in the 80s, listening to Queen, Foreigner, Journey and Led Zeppelin. As I matured with my voice through high school and competed and started winning awards, I realized I sounded like Pavarotti even though I wanted to be Lou Gramm of Foreigner.”
On a fluke, Evan auditioned for a show he had seen in Atlanta called Les Miserables. “It floored me. I was supposed to go to law school, but I realized I had to do this! I drove to Nashville and waited 9 hours to sing 16 bars of a song. They flew me to New York and I ended up on Broadway.” He was originally cast in the ensemble and eventually ended up playing the lead, Jean Val Jean at 26 years old.
Evan later joined the Trans-Siberian Orchestra which, he says, was a middle ground. “They loved me theatricality, but I was believable enough in the rock world. As I matured and had children and realized you have to diversify, I tried creating concert projects for myself. However, I realized that even though I am a Broadway actor and have performed in front of 20,00 people, no one really knew me! I had to come up with a project that could show the duality of my voice. I wanted to sing Nessun Dorma and turn on a dime and sing Zeppelin’s Kashmir.”
As for Fleischer, he studied with Leonard Bernstein in summer of 1989, and got his first real conducting job as Associate Conductor at the National Symphony in Washington DC. His works and arrangements have been played by many world-renowned orchestras including the Boston Pops, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic, San Diego Symphony, China Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, the National Symphony, and many others. Fleischer has also worked with artists such as John Densmore (The Doors), Natalie Merchant, Blondie, Ani DiFranco, John Cale (Velvet Underground) Garth Hudson (The Band), Kenny Rogers and Chris Baron (Spin Doctors). Then, of course, there is his operatic repertoire which includes productions of La Boheme, Turandot, Tosca, and Madam Butterfly to name a few.
In addition to Tony Vincent (American Idiot, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Voice), other vocalists include Chloe Lowery (Trans-Siberian Orchestra,) Kimberly Nichole (The Voice), Alyson Cambridge (La Boheme, Madam Butterfly, Porgy and Bess). Tony Bruno is the Brooklyn born guitarist (Enrique Iglesias, Joan Jett) sharing the stage with Mairead Nesbitt (Celtic Woman) on violin and Henry Aronson (Rock of Ages, Grease) on piano. Also, next up after Monahan departs, is Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, who will be a guest star from April 23-29.
Evan says, “the show is really accessible for people who are not familiar with classical music. You will come in and you will hear something, you will recognize it. We don’t want to be snobs, but the way we present the music has to be the highest quality. We are setting the bar very high.” Indeed, they do.