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Michigan-born writer brought the rock to "Rock of Ages"

of the Oakland Press

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Chris D’Arienzo was a Michigan State University journalism/theater major turned screenwriter five years ago, when a new agency he was working for asked him if he had a dream project.

“I said I wanted to write a Broadway show,” says the Paw Paw native, who “went to theater all the time and loved it” when he would visit his mother, who lives on the East Coast.

Not long after that, D’Arienzo achieved — and surpassed — that dream.

His first musical is “Rock of Ages,” the Tony Award-nominated musical built from ’80s rock ‘n’ roll hits by bands such as Journey, Pat Benatar, Poison, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister and others. Growing from club performances in Los Angeles to off-Broadway, then Broadway and now a national tour — with a film version directed by Adam Shankman that will start shooting next year — it’s become a sensation that neither D’Arienzo or the show’s producers saw coming.

“It’s been (surprising) at every turn,” says D’Arienzo, 38, who moved to Los Angeles immediately after finishing at MSU. “When I pitched it, I jokingly said, ‘This is a Broadway show,’ and everyone kind of laughed. Then all of a sudden we were going to New York, and we said, ‘The critics are gonna hate us, but hopefully the audience loves us. Then we opened and got a rave in the New York Times.

“Then it was Tony season, and we were, ‘OK, we’re not going to get any nominations. At least we’re on Broadway.’ And we got five! So we came in as a red-headed stepchild a little bit, and we just came at the right time where people embraced us, which is awesome.”

D’Arienzo is certainly getting plenty of props for the success of “Rock of Ages.” Co-producer Carl Levin, who conceived the musical with partner Matthew Weaver — and whose father and grandfather hail from Southfield — says that “we met with many writers in L.A. and listened to a lot of pitches, but Chris’ blew us away. His original vision for the show is 99 percent of what’s on stage today.”

And Constantine Maroulis, the “American Idol” finalist who earned a Tony nomination as the lead role of Drew Bowie on Broadway and is now in the touring company, notes that D’Arienzo “grew up with a lot of these characters. He grew up with these songs. This was the soundtrack of his life. He understands the stupidity of the ’80s and all the good stuff. He celebrates the innocence and the wonder of the era as well. He crafted it all into this really sweet and touching story.”

But D’Arienzo is quick to credit the music, which Maroulis calls “undeniable,” as the real star of “Rock of Ages.”

“This particular genre is probably the closest thing to show tunes of any type of rock,” he explains. “There are really powerful melodies, simple melodies, hummable, toe-tapping melodies, and they also have an epic quality about them that’s very theatrical. That lended itself to a theatrical interpretation of it.

“So to me it felt a little daring. You’re taking music that Broadway or musical theater people think they hate, and taking theater, which rock people think they hate, and seeing if there’s some way to create an evening that’s kind of an olive branch to these two groups that don’t know they have something in common with each other.

“I could have fallen on my face pretty easily, I suppose.”

D’Arienzo’s story takes Drew Bowie from suburban Detroit — there’s even a moment when the character holds up his hand as “the mitten” to show someone where he’s from — to Hollywood to realize his rock ‘n’ roll dreams. There he meets romantic interest Sherrie Christian (yes, he sings Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” to her). The plot places them, along with the show’s other characters, in a down-and-out Sunset Strip club called the Bourbon Room, which is in danger of being closed as part of a plan to “clean up” Hollywood. Drew and Sherrie come in and out of each other’s lives, while an aging rocker named Stacee Jaxx is recruited to help save the Bourbon by playing a final show there with his band, Arsenal.

D’Arienzo says producers Levin and Weaver presented him with four CDs’ worth of possible songs, and he also tapped his own collection for ideas. But he acknowledges that “Rock of Ages” was primarily based on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which was pegged as the show’s finale.

D’Arienzo says that they knew going into the project that the show would end with ‘Don’t Stop Believin’. ”

“It lays out your hero and your heroine, right off the bat, lyrically. Then the idea for me was examining life in this particular world — coming to Los Angeles with all these lofty goals, spending years trying to make it and those dreams not necessarily turning out the way you wanted them to, yet still finding happiness and love.

“So this idea of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ’ had a lot of resonance for me.”

“Rock of Ages” works its way to the proverbial happy ending, but it also breaks some rules — not only with its musical makeup but by allowing the actors to address the audience as themselves rather than their characters, which D’Arienzo calls a deliberate maneuver to let the audience — particularly the non-rock segment — in on the joke.

“That was a fun, (Bertolt) Brecht kind of thing I really enjoy,” he explains. “To me it was very important to do that, kind of like the fat kid that comes to a new school and immediately tells the fat joke and disarms everyone. I felt like right away with our show that if you come in with your arms crossed thinking it’s a big, stupid show then, guess what? We’re gonna tell you right off the bat it’s a big, dumb stupid show — and you’re gonna love it.”

The artists whose music is part of the show have certainly shown their affection. D’Arienzo says he’s rubbed elbows with members of Journey, Styx, Night Ranger, REO Speedwagon, Ratt and Warrant. Billy Joel and Phil Collins checked it out on Broadway. Levin says that after seeing the show, Def Leppard has changed its tune about letting the musical use its song “Rock of Ages,” which may be incorporated later.

“It’s fun,” says Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, who’s currently starring in the Broadway production. “It’s got the right attitude. It really shines a light on music that was generally dismissed as being frivolous and silly and gives it the respectability of Broadway. I mean, they sang ‘I Wanna Rock’ at the Tony Awards; I was just sitting on the couch saying, ‘Here’s something I’ve never seen ...’ ”

D’Arienzo — who won’t make it in for the show’s Detroit run but hopes to return to East Lansing for a 2011 engagement there — has submitted a script for the film version of “Rock of Ages,” though he notes that “what it’ll become, I have no idea.” Meanwhile, he’s developing other projects, including an original script and a “jukebox” musical based on the music of one of the “Rock of Ages” bands.

“Weirdly enough, I’ve gotten more meetings and things from the movie industry people who have come to see ‘Rock of Ages’ and embraced it more,” he notes. “I don’t know necessarily that the Broadway world is banging down my door — but I’m coming anyway. I’m excited to get that next thing out there and show people I don’t just write strictly silly, absurdist things, but that I can actually write.”

“Rock of Ages” runs Tuesday, Nov. 9, through Nov. 21 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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