This spring, the international music sensation ROCKTOPIA will rock Broadway for six weeks, March 20 to April 29, at The Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway). Rocktopia is a musical revolution celebrating the fusion of the best rock songs of the past century with great classical music. Rocktopia showcases the works of musical innovators, including Mozart, Journey, Handel, U2, Tchaikovsky, Heart, Beethoven, Journey, Foreigner, Rachmaninoff, Queen, Copland and The Who. Created through the vision of vocalist and recording artist Rob Evan and Maestro Randall Craig Fleischer, a pioneer in the fusion of symphonic rock and world music, Rocktopia delivers one-of-a-kind, spine-tingling musical arrangements with talented lead vocalists, a five-piece rock band, a choir of 40 and an orchestra of 20. Developed over eight years, Rocktopia is inspired by the idea if Beethoven or Mozart were alive today they would be modern-day rock stars. With knowledge of both genres, Evan and Fleisher looked for common themes, potency, and emotional resonance in the songs before fusing them to create explosive and moving new musical arrangements.
The groundbreaking live concert will be performed by a celebrated, diverse array of rock, Broadway and opera vocalists: Rob Evan (Broadway: “Les Miserables,” “Jekyll & Hyde” and more, multi-platinum recording artist); Chloe Lowery (Chris Botti, “Yanni’s Voices”); Tony Vincent (“American Idiot,” “Rent,” NBC’s “The Voice”); Kimberly Nichole (NBC’s “The Voice,” performs with Janelle Monae, Slash, Joe Walsh, The Heavy); and featuring Alyson Cambridge (“The Merry Widow at The Met,” “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme,” “Show Boat”). Musicians featured in the Rocktopia band include Grammy and Emmy Award nominated violinist Máiréad Nesbitt (Celtic Woman, Lord of the Dance); acclaimed guitarist Tony Bruno (MD & guitar for Enrique Iglesias & Rihanna, “America’s Got Talent”); pianist Henry Aronson (MD/Conductor/keys for entire Broadway run of “Rock of Ages,” “The Who’s Tommy”); bass player Mat Fieldes (Joe Jackson’s Grammy winning album “Symphony No. 1,” the Gorillaz, “Book of Mormon”); and drummer Alex Alexander (David Bowie, Jimmy Cliff, Ritchie Blackmore). An additional 40-person choir and a 20-person orchestra enhance every performance of Rocktopia.
An inaugural performance of the show, “Rocktopia: Live from Budapest” produced by Two Hands Entertainment/Jeff Rowland, was recorded in front of a live audience in June 2016 at the 19th century Hungarian State Opera House for PBS. It was performed with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra with six vocalists, a five-piece rock band, the Hungarian State Opera Chorus, and the Jazz and More Choir. Rocktopia has since toured more than 20 cities in the United States, featuring local symphonies and choirs across the country.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with ‘Rocktopia’ creator Rob Evan to discuss his journey as an artist, the challenges he faced in bringing his vision to Broadway and the lessons he learned along the way!
Music played an incredible role in your life. Where did your passion for performance begin?
Yeah, it’s been a huge part of my life. I grew up in a small town in Georgia and I always sang. My grandmother was a music teacher and she used to tell my mom that she would play a theme on the piano and I, as a small child, would hum it right back. She would always say, “He’s got a good ear! That’s important!” I sang a lot as a kid and, moving into high school, I got involved with choruses, musicals and things like that. I won a Governor’s Honors Award, where two or three people in the state were sent to an intensive eight-week program at a conservatory. I was thinking that I might pursue opera because I had a big voice but, really, I just wanted to be a rockstar! [laughs] I grew up in the ‘80s and the bands I was listening to were Journey, Foreigner, Queen and Led Zeppelin and that’s the music that I love. I ended up doing neither! [laughs] I went to play college football at the University of Georgia and pursued a business degree. I thought I might end up being an attorney. Somehow, towards the end of my career there I was dating a girl and I took her to a musical in Atlanta. I didn’t really know much about it at the time. It was “Les Miserables.” It just kind of struck me to the core. I said, “I have to give this a shot. This is what I love.” I ended up auditioning for “Les Miserables” in Nashville in an open call. I waited nine hours to sing half of a song but they flew me to New York and I ended up in the show. I thought, “OK, I guess I’m on Broadway now! This is what I’m doing!” [laughs] I’ve been in a lot of Broadway shows and played a lot of leading parts through the years by working my way up. The cool thing about “Les Miserables,” “Jekyll & Hyde” and “Dance of the Vampires,” which was written by Jim Steinman of Meatloaf fame, is that the music had this theatrical rock element to it. That’s where I found that I worked the best. I have a big voice and could easily do an operatic aria but I can also switch guys and do a legit rock song, so I was kind of groovin’ in that lane. Paul O’Neill of Trans-Siberian Orchestra saw me and said, “I want you to be Beethoven in my rock opera.” That was for “Beethoven’s Last Night,” which they had already recorded before they met me but I guess they hadn’t found someone who could do it live. With Paul, some of the songs he would write for me were two-and-a-half octaves, so they are big sings. I was able to do that and had the range to do those things. I joined TSO in 2001 and even though I kept coming back to Broadway. I would get more involved with the rock world, whether it was opening for Elton John or opening R.E.M. when they were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. I worked with Jim Steinman in the studio when he was trying to create a cross between Josh Groban and Meatloaf. I worked with him for years and he created a rock band around me called The Dream Engine. I still had a lot of love for that but I continued to train classically to keep my voice strong because I would sing songs that were pretty hard at shows and concerts for two-and-a-half to three hours, so I needed to have a solid instrument.
How did the ball get rolling for what became your latest project, “Rocktopia?”
Eventually, I found myself looking for a concert idea for me. Even though I had been in a lot of Broadway shows, worked with major rock bands and had a couple of platinum records, the name Rob Evans isn’t going to sell a whole lot of tickets! [laughs] I found myself using my business background, coming up with a concept of mixing genres. For example, I will sing “Nessun Dorma” but then I will kick into Led Zeppelin’s “Cashmere” in the middle of it! That went over like gangbusters when I was trying those ideas out. It was at that point when I realized, “This is bigger than I am. This shouldn’t be a Rob Evans concert.” I had been performing in the symphony world for a number of years at that time because I was a legit Broadway star and they would fly Broadway stars out. They would do a Pops program and the Pops program would pay for most of the symphony’s year because the classical audiences were dying off and weren’t selling a ton of tickets to the really heavy masterworks. At the same time, the musicians didn’t love playing the Pops concerts that much because they weren’t trained to play that; they were trained to play the classics. My co-creator, Randall Craig Fleischer, is the music director and maestro of several orchestras in the U.S. but has been a guest conductor for most of the majors. We sensed our love of both together and we started throwing ideas at each other to come up with a fusion concert. At that point in time, it was not called “Rocktopia” but we knew we had something. We put that out and, even though it was kind of all over the page, a couple of the ones where we really dug in deep and did really complex fusions that truly honored both, the classical music not being dumbed down at all and keeping the heart of the rock and roll, hit it out of the park! This is also looking at people in tuxedos standing on a stage screaming and also people in Metallica T-shirts at the same concert! The people were blown away. My producing partner in one of the first conceptual concerts in 2012 overheard a few people talking in the bathroom during intermission. Someone asked, “What was that composer paired with the Pink Floyd song?” Another replied, “Oh, that’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ by Aaron Copland.” Meanwhile other ones would go, “What was that mixed with Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring?’” Someone else replied, “That was Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze!’” [laughs] There was this kind of communing going on in the men’s room and everyone was sharing their personal music experience and educating each other. We kept shaping it, arching it and ended up with what “Rocktopia” is today, which is a parallel universe where Ludwig Van Beethoven and Jimmy Page lived across the street from each other, would hang out and come up with ideas. [laughs] It’s timeless! I also wanted to take it a step further because music is emotion and individual and arch it over something that we all have in common. We all may have different tastes in music but the one thing we all have in common is the human condition. It begins with birth and creation and goes all the way to death. We experience all of these things in between — adolescence, experimentation, rebellion, love, loss and some sort of rebirth. Even though I don’t tell that story, it’s happening around you in the movements that I’ve created and the way the music tells its own story. These songs weren’t shoehorned together by chance, they were well thought out and we found a lot of commonality between the songs. We also have LED screens that have video content that will hint to what emotion or time of life we are dealing with at any given moment.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in bringing a concept like this to life?
When we first did it, we did it with a full symphony of about 65, a full chorus of about 50 and a rock band of six singers. We looked at it and thought, “This is unproducible. This is great for a one-time event but how in the world are we going to get investors to put money into the project and tell them that they will make money. Even the PBS special is giant. It was epic! We filmed it in Budapest.” PBS is another great example of us finding ways to get this project out into the world. PBS is a wonderful platform. It’s free and it also helps the local stations because they use it for their pledge drives and it helps raise money. When we filmed in Budapest, we used the Hungarian State Opera House. It was built in the 1800s and it’s everything you’d expect from an ornate, European opera house. We used the full Budapest Harmonic, which was another 70 people and their opera choir. We brought the band and the singers over and it was a giant success as far as the filming was concerned but we weren’t making a penny on it. In fact, we were spending to build our brand and to tell the world what we were doing. We had to deliver a tour for PBS and that happened this past spring. It was our initial debut tour and we are still relatively unknown at that point. That’s when we really scratched our heads and said, “How are we going to go from city to city like a rock band? Do this a different place each night with a different orchestra and choir?” What I wanted to do and realized I had to do was make this thing adaptable to whatever size room we were in and what the budgetary constraints were. For instance, it went from the range of performing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in Atlanta with the 60-person Georgia Tech Chorale and our band to performing in Portland, Maine with 14 musicians, six backup singers, the rock band and the production. You know what? Each one got the same reaction! We knew the concept was going to work. We were able to deliver the music on the level that it needed to be delivered live and it still worked! I even found that, sometimes, it worked better when it was smaller, as opposed to having a massive stage with everybody packed on it. Broadway is a good middle ground for us. We are right in the middle of those two extremes with the amount of people that are going to be on stage. The stage in Budapest was enormous! It was so big and we used a lot of it, man! [laughs] Stages like that in New York are just not that big. If it became a cluttered mess, I don’t think it would be as effective. We’ve really done our homework when it comes to evolving it. We are investing a lot of money in this idea. it’s scary and risky but it’s also really exciting at the same time!
Finding the right people to bring this thing to life and bringing it to the people is a daunting task.
Absolutely! Due to this thing being so big, in the beginning, we didn’t have the ability to go out and hit clubs. That’s not this show. This show is big! We did it in 2012 and worked on it for four years. It was just me, my immediate producing partner and my co-creator. Part of working on it was raising money and convincing people this idea is great. It’s a hard thing to do! Listen man, my elevator pitch is so much better now than it was seven years ago! [laughs] That’s because we all know what it is but it’s still hard to educate the audience on what it is. That’s because it’s new, fresh and different. After people see it, we did a polling and we were 98% approval and a 5-star rating but, in New York, 97% of the people had never heard of us. [laughs] So, it’s a little daunting to think of that! In 2016, we had done the PBS deals and it was time to put together the new band. I used two or three people that I had in 2012 but the concept had focused and we knew exactly what lane each person needed to stay in. That was important to me because I used a Broadway star in my earlier concept but I knew when it was time to sing the female opera arias, I needed a real opera singer. The one that we have now is from The Met and she loves the idea! When she is singing Handel’s aria, “Lascia ch’io pianga” and my rock singer is singing “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” and it’s all happening together, it’s really gorgeous because nobody is pretending at that moment. To have these worlds collide and work together really gives you goose pimples! The casting was the hardest thing. When we really lucked out in Budapest with such a great group of people, who really bought into the concept, that joy and passion was evident on stage. Once I saw that, I said, “Yeah, we’ve got something here!” When we toured it for 20 cities and everyone was still buying in and really gelling on stage as a cohesive band, it made our next steps very clear. Now we will go back into rehearsals and really try to raise the bar, so by the time we hit the Broadway stage, we are firing on all cylinders!
“Rocktopia” premieres on Broadway in 2018. What are your plans moving forward?
This is a touring product and my long-term vision is multiple companies around the world. Something that we have going for us is that the material is so timeless and a lot of it is very well known. You get all of these great composers and bands together in one evening. That doesn’t mean it’s never happened before because some people have done classical fusion but not anywhere on the level of what we are doing. With “Rocktopia,” the show is the star. The band that I have and the singers that I have are people who have been with me since the PBS show and they truly believe in it. They were hard to find due to the level of what I’m asking for being so high. It’s not easy to find singers, guitarists and violinists capable of doing what we are doing. It’s not a tribute band in any shape or form. We are bringing our own unique voice to what this concept and what these fusions are. We are giving a new voice to it. We have an African American female named Kimberly Nichole, who was on “The Voice.” She has performed with Slash and Joe Walsh and is kind of a mix between Pink and Tina Turner, I always say! She’s singing “Dream On’” and she knocks it out of the park! It’s crazy! We are not pretenders. When I sing “Come Sail Away,” I’m not trying to sound like Dennis DeYoung. I’m singing it like I sing it, which is really cool. If we’re doing this in London or Korea, I’d want to use localized performers to put their own voice into what this is. The other element of this, and why I think we can continue to tour for years, is that this is one version of what “Rocktopia” is. We can do a 2.0 or a 3.0 because we have, at our disposal, the world’s greatest catalog of classical music and rock!
It’s inspiring to see you visualize this project and make it a reality. What’s the biggest thing you learned about yourself along the way?
Know your limitations? [laughs] Seriously though, man. Know your limitations! My ego has firmly come into check. I’ve been in the business awhile and I’m not a young man anymore. I will be 50 years old next year and I’ve been in the business for 25 years. I’m sure my ego was out of check early in the business. I got a lot of success really early in life. I was playing above the title in “Jekyll and Hyde” when I was 29 years old, playing the lead role on Broadway. I was Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” when I was 26. The business can really humble you. Today, I’m a parent and I have three sons and I feel very lucky because I get to do what I love and feed my family. All of that stuff becomes an evolutionary process. Then, taking on something like this where I’m bringing my own show to Broadway, which I’ve co-created, I’m producing and I’m starring in sounds like a head trip but for me it’s not. Honestly, if there was someone who came into my life that does my part better than me, I would want that person to be on stage because I believe in the concept and where I’m headed with my own career is more of a creative and producing role than it is about performing. I’ve had so many great years of performing, I don’t need it. I feel like I do at this moment in time to serve this concept the best for right now but I would have no problem stepping aside, especially if it was sacrificing the concept and my other roles in it.
“Rocktopia” is shaping up to be a can’t-miss event. Thanks for your time today and giving us an inside look at how it came about, Rob.
Thank you for your time, Jason. Remember that tickets for “Rocktopia” are on sale currently at www.telecharge.com or at the The Broadway Theatre box office. You can also check out the website at www.rocktopia.com to get all the information you may need!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.