Alan Freed, the central character in “Rock & Roll Man” was, in his prime, the most influential disc jockey of his day, and arguably the most influential in history. For good reasons: from humble roots in Cleveland, Ohio, to his meteoric rise to New York City, bringing rock and roll (he actually coined the term) into the mainstream, and merging black and white music and performers. He also is remembered for a scandal that pretty much brought him down. Does the word Payola ring a bell? Now there is a musical rocking the New World Stages: it officially opened June 21.
Like most off-Broadway shows, it has dreams of moving to larger stages in Times Square. Though, as writer-producer Rose Caiola notes, most attendees, especially out-of-towners, don’t really know what is Broadway and what isn’t.
“They do know that our prices are affordable,” she says, “and every night this show is spreading joy.”
So who was Alan Freed? A Jewish boy from Cleveland who was considered weird for not only loving music, but loving music made by both white and black artists. And he was determined to share that love. He became a local D.J, then moved upward and onward and eventually also created national concerts which mixed the races.
“This man caused a social shift,” says Caiola. “He de-segregated artists at great self-sacrifice.” While not technically a Jukebox musical, “Rock & Roll Man” is more of a bio-musical. Well-known songs (primarily from 1945-65) are mixed with original ones. One of the draws is the man at its center, Constantine Maroulis, who was Tony nominated for “Rock of Ages,” and attracted many fans when a finalist on “American Idol.”
The show was pretty much developed for him two years ago. “I was familiar with his name, but I didn’t know the depths of sadness and disruption he experienced and caused,” says Maroulis. “He had so many layers for me to play. He was flawed, married three times, but stayed close to all his family.” You don’t necessarily love this Alan Freed, but you can’t help but want to spend time with him. He gets caught up with the mob, becomes a target of J Edgar Hoover, a serious alcoholic, and that’s before the pay for play thing happened. But as Constantine points out, “hey, we loved Tony Soprano and he was a murdering crime boss. Ultimately, Freed was a victim.” (The performer has a new song of his own, doing well, called “Daydream.”) One of my first questions was how did the producers get the rights to play all these famous songs? (By people like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and more)
Well, it pays to be nosy. Caiola was at a Knicks game one night, and heard the man beside her mention producing “Motown.” She introduced herself, told him about her dreamed-about project. He said he was close friends with the Freed family and the rest is history. “This whole show has been about destiny,” she says.
As for the payola thing, the show makes clear many others did it, including Dick Clark, who, by the way, only played white versions of black songs. “Freed only played music by their original artists,” says Caiola.
The framework for the show is clever: we are basically in a fever dream of sorts, while Freed is on trial, fighting for his legacy. J. Edgar is on the other side, Freed defended by Little Richard, who is hilariously played by Rodrick Covington. All the performers are top notch, most notably Valisia Lekae as Lavern Baker. Who wins that case? Well, audiences can make up their minds. Overall, the folks behind the show feel this is its moment. “This is an important story to do now,” says Caiola. “Besides being about race and how music can unify, it’s about the impact one individual can have.”
For now, audiences are rocking to the man who coined the phrase that became the soundtrack for so many of our lives. (Even the Beatles were fans) To move to larger stages, it needs investors. It already has a few, like Tony Castrigno.
“Rose invited me to a workshop of “Rock & Roll Man” and I fell head over heels for the music and the energy of the show,” Castrigno says. “The storytelling is fresh and focused on the influence Alan Freed had on American culture by putting Black music and musicians on white radio stations and stages. I truly had no idea what he had done, and at what price. He so rankled the administration that they had to find a way to bring him down.” Down he eventually went..spoiler alert..he died far too young. But Alan Freed’s legacy is eternal. In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In Cleveland, of all places, where a little Jewish boy first fell in love with a sound.
Michele Willens is the author of “From Mouseketeers to Menopause.”