The Rock Project: Getting In Tune On Stage With ‘Who’s Next’

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Bay Street Theater will offer The Rock Project's live-stream performance of The Who’s album "Who’s Next" in honor of the 50th anniversary. Photo by Benny Migliorino. Courtesy of The Rock Project.

In the summer of 2006, Gary Hygom, then a producer at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, designed the set for the theater’s production of “The Who’s Tommy.” He recalls that the experience left him with a whole new appreciation for the band.

“I have to say, that was the show that really introduced me in a new way to The Who,” said Hygom in a recent interview. “It was on Broadway prior to that run and I thought, now I have to listen to more of this band and I fell more in love with them.”

Though Hygom, who lives in Mattituck, left Bay Street Theater in 2017 to become the director of the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, that 2006 production of “Tommy” stuck with him. So last year when COVID-19 hit and Hygom and the rest of his staff were fired from the Patchogue theater, he set out to launch his own new theatrical company and this weekend, will bring The Who back to Bay Street once again — if only virtually.

“Reflections of Who’s Next” is a musical celebration of the 50th anniversary of the band’s 1971 album “Who’s Next” and it’s the first of what will no doubt be many ambitious offerings for The Rock Project, Hygom’s venture merging legendary rock music with Broadway talent.

Recorded and filmed in March in an empty Tilles Center for the Performing Arts on the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, “Reflections” features four Broadway performers and nine musicians and will be livestreamed through theatrical venues coast to coast, including Bay Street Theater, on Friday, April 30, at 8 p.m. and remains available for streaming through May 2.

“It’s so much fun to have 27 people involved,” said Hygom. “We’ve all been unemployed, so it was immensely fun — everyone couldn’t be happier to be doing it again.”

The Rock Project’s performance of The Who’s album “Who’s Next” in honor of the 50th anniversary. Courtesy the Rock Project.

Hygom explained that the concept behind The Rock Project began two years ago with his idea to merge Broadway talent and rock music in order to create something akin to what Lincoln Center offers in its tributes to great composers.

“I decided to dip a toe in and I did ‘Tommy’ — not the Broadway show, but ‘Tommy,’ The Who’s album,” explained Hygom, who produced that first show in November 2019 in Patchogue. He notes that while there are many tribute acts that pay homage to various legendary rock groups, The Rock Project follows a somewhat different model.

“One of the things that drives me crazy with touring tribute acts, though many are talented and the musicians are okay, is that the vocalists can’t handle the vocals,” he said. “I thought, let’s bring in people who can really sing.”

So for “Reflections of Who’s Next,” Hygom has turned to a slate of talent he’s come to know over the years through his work as a theatrical producer and artistic director — Broadway singers Constantine Maroulis (“Jekyll and Hyde,” “Rock of Ages”), Lana Gordon (“Chicago,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Lion King”), Justin Matthew Sargent (“My Life Is A Musical at Bay Street Theater, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” “Rock of Ages,” “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and Michael Wartella (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Tuck Everlasting,” “Wicked”). Music for the show is provided by the Long Island-based band Wonderous Stories.

While Hygom admits that in this production, while some rock purists may not appreciate that a female performer will be singing several songs that Roger Daltrey originally sang, the goal of the project is to go deeper than simply recreating The Who’s album.

“We’re amping it up and trying to understand the music with a big focus on the composer’s writing and intent,” explained Hygom.

In fact, it turns out there was quite an ambitious intent behind “Who’s Next,” given that Pete Townshend, The Who’s principal songwriter, initially wrote the music as “Lifehouse,” a rock opera that was intended as a follow-up to “Tommy.”

“After he wrote ‘Tommy,’ he decided he didn’t feel fulfilled enough and wanted to do a new opera that was far more in depth with storytelling people might relate to a little more,” explained Hygom. “‘Lifehouse’ took place in the future, in this dystopian society where people were getting into how, in the purity of a single note, lies the meaning of life.”

But Townshend’s concept for the rock opera was a difficult one for the rest of the band to grasp.

“‘Baba O’Riley’ was originally Townshend doing an acoustic version,” said Hygom. “It was a 20-minute piece of music they kept cutting to make more palatable. He was making this storyline and a world he had created, but not only did the band not understand what he was trying to say, they couldn’t impart it to the audience.”

Lana Gordon in The Rock Project’s performance of The Who’s album “Who’s Next.” Courtesy The Rock Project.

So the band wound up abandoning the project and instead, the music written for it ended up on the album “Who’s Next.”

“Townshend had a breakdown from working so hard on this project,” said Hygom, who notes that the upcoming show also includes some of The Who’s greatest hits as well as some of the bands deeper tracks, and he thinks both avid fans and casual listeners will enjoy it.

“When we filmed it, I had two friends come see the show — one is a die-hard Who fan and the other appreciates music,” said Hygom. “The die-hard fan was happy with it, and the guy who loved music found things he had never known before.”

Broadway performer Constantine Maroulis grew up loving rock operas like “Tommy,” Jesus Christ Superstar and later, “Rent.” A two-time Tony Award nominee and an American Idol contestant, he starred as aspiring rocker Dew Boley in the original Broadway production of “Rock of Ages,” a show built around classic rock songs from the 1980s, and was able to help create what that show would eventually become.

“I welcome those opportunities to create something new and fresh. I’m a musical theater geek but I have an authentic rock spirit as well,” he said in a recent phone interview, adding that the “Reflections” project is right up his alley. “I’m always looking to challenge myself when looking for work and taking this on was a no-brainer. I’ve been a Who fan all my life.”

Constantine Maroulis. Courtesy The Rock Project. Photo by Tyler Gustin.

This was a big week for Maroulis, virtually speaking. On April 24, he took part in a “Rock of Ages” live concert reunion which will be followed by the April 30 launch of “Reflections.

“We’ve all been trying to figure out the last 15 months and how to do quality content at home virtually, these two projects capture that,” he said. “It’s going to sound great and will look great with steady cams, crane shots and a massive sound system.”

Though there have long been taboos against theatrical offerings being presented on the small screen for fears audiences won’t come to see live productions, Maroulis notes that the last year has totally changed that mindset.

“Now we’re learning. ‘Hamilton’ is the biggest show in the world and putting it on Disney+ is only going to enhance it when it comes through your town, and it’s the same with the ‘Rock of Ages’ concert and the same with ‘Reflections,’” he said. “Granted, these are more like concerts, but there’s really a theatric narrative and edge to them. It’s not me standing in front of the band rocking out — it has a beginning, middle and an end.

“As Broadway evolves into 21st century and new media, it continues to attract a wider and more diverse audience. ‘Rock of Ages’ brought a new audience to Broadway, and shows like ‘Tommy’ certainly did the same,” he added. “I hope people will really connect with the material. It’s a pretty affordable ticket, so make some drinks and some popcorn, throw it on the big screen and rock out for a couple hours with us. It’ll be awesome.”

Justin Matthew Sargent Courtesy The Rock Project. Photo by Matthew Stocke.

Like Maroulis, as a Broadway performer, Justin Matthew Sargent has appeared in a number

of rock-inspired musicals, but it turns out that thanks to his parents, who are big fans of The Who, “Tommy” was the first one that he recalls really listening to.

“I think rock musicals are a really good way to connect with an audience who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in musical theater,” said Sargent in a phone interview. “I feel I have found my niche in this kind of theater. The style of singing is very challenging. It’s deliberate and at that same time, kind of careless.

“You have to be willing to go for it,” he adds. “What’s interesting is people don’t realize the amount of technique that goes into it. Rock and roll is all about theatrics. It’s an easy world to tap into as an actor and its visceral, you feel it.

“I tend to think it all started with The Who and Pete smashing guitars,” he added. “Telling a story through rock and roll and being a young person in the world of rock and roll was a huge influence in his music.”

Though Hygom had initially planned to offer this show to audiences live from the Tilles Center, the logistics of staffing and COVID-19 protocols dictated that it was best to pre-record the production and offer it for livestreaming. But with the pandemic now waning and theaters making plans to reopen, he notes that the ultimate goal is to present the show in person at venues across the country.

Come early next year, he and his crew will do exactly that by touring “Reflections of Who’s Next.” Many theaters have already expressed an interest in hosting the live version once it’s feasible.

“It’s a new chapter in my life and I think it’ll be great,” said Hygom.

“Reflections of Who’s Next” by The Rock Project will be presented on Friday, April 30, at 8 p.m. and will be available through May 2. Tickets are $20, plus applicable fees and can be purchased online at baystreet.org.

 

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