Lisa Shriver makes her 5th Avenue Theatre debut at the helm of Rock of Ages. She is the Lucille Lortel Award-nominated choreographer of the Off-Broadway revival of Into the Woods, recently completing its transfer to the West End. Her Broadway credits include Jesus Christ Superstar and Ring of Fire, and many others. In addition to her theater work, her rock, film and TV projects have included choreography for Phish’s New Year’s Eve concert at Madison Square Garden (three years in a row) and A Very Murray Christmas, starring Bill Murray.
Over the summer, we chatted with her about this thrilling new staging of Rock of Ages.
Is there anything special we should know about the way you intend to stage the show? What is your approach?
The most important thing about this show to me is the authenticity—and the vehicle for that is the music. You have to be true to the music. The ’80s is all about nostalgia, and rock was such a big part of that. We’re doing everything we can to be true to the music.
I think that one of the things that was so great about the ’80s—and I think this relates really closely to the show—is that there was so much about it that was about discovering and embracing your identity. The ’80s was a vibrant and colorful era, and I really want to be true to that era, true to that music, and to be authentic as we use all of these elements to frame this story.
I think that it’s also very important to honor the era while being thoughtful about my approach to the roll that women play in this show. I think that the rock era was certainly problematic in terms of the treatment of women at that time. It was very misogynistic and women were very limited in the roles that they were allowed to play in the world of rock. So I want to be really thoughtful as we get started so that the women are empowered characters on their own, rather than simply being props for the men and their objectives—whatever those objectives may be.
Rock has a long history of misogyny and Rock of Ages is really a love letter to a somewhat problematic era in rock and roll.
Yes, definitely. I mean, it’s a period piece! But it’s also a satire!
Roles for women in the realm of rock and roll in that era were very defined at that time. There was a very small scope of options for them to participate in this world that really meant so much to them and that they really believed in. Our roles for women in rock and in music now are defined totally differently, but at that time, your choice was to be a groupie or to not really have a part in that world at all. An all female rock band did not get the same kinds of opportunities that traditional male rock bands did. So if you wanted a place in this world, you didn’t get many choices in terms of the role that you would get to play.
Well, in that vein, would you consider Sherrie to be a victim or an empowered character?
Oh yeah, Sherrie is definitely an empowered character. I mean, if you just look at the way that she begins in this story—she leaves her home, she leaves her family and she leaves everything familiar to her in pursuit of her dream. She is strong and capable and independent. And she’s vulnerable. But she’s persistent. And she learns a lot and very rapidly.
It makes me think about my early days in this business and moving to New York in pursuit of a dream. You have your eyes opened really quickly. I had to take in a lot and I had to learn how to navigate in that world. And that’s something that Sherrie really has to do very quickly in order to survive.
And she is not diminished in any way. I mean, imagine this encounter she gets to have with Stacie Jaxx. He’s charismatic, he represents this world that she wants so badly to be a part of. Not only is she an active participant in that encounter, she’s kind of the aggressor – she knows what she’s after. And it results in some unfair consequences for her, which is something that I think a lot of women will be able to relate to even today.
I think we have a tendency to look back on that era with a lot of judgment—particularly with regard to sexuality—but I think that just as much as there were women who were in situations that maybe they didn’t want to be a part of, there were also women who actively made choices and pursued a life that was meaningful to them. And it’s not our place to judge them for it.
Does Drew have a meaningful arc, or does he get a pass in the end?
Drew definitely has an arch – but it’s a complicated arc. There are no perfect characters, and Drew certainly is not perfect. But he approaches Sherrie in the beginning with courtesy and respect, and in the end he learns something too. But yeah, he definitely goes through a complicated arc.
Obviously the music is a huge part of it, but why do you think people love this show, beyond that obvious element?
It is a love letter to the ’80s. There is a lot of nostalgia. The time was so distinctive—the politics, the music, the fashion. It was a pop culture revolution. In music you had hip hop, metal, rock. In tech you had the advent of cell phones, of boom boxes. I mean, you had technical advancements specifically to serve the music of the era. The fashion of the period also has so many roots in the music, and it was so distinctive. It was an era of indulgence and excess. Our country was growing, our economy was booming. It was an era of excess and indulgence and FUN—especially when you view it through this lens of nostalgia. And that’s the lens we’ll be viewing the show through. And again, we aren’t going to let that lens mask the fact that there were problems with that era, but we are going to try and make sure that the show is true to that era and true to that sense of fun.
The club is really where the heart and soul of this show live, and it should represent a love for rock and a nostalgia for what rock means and the roll that it played in that time. So we are looking at ways to incorporate that so that the club is always present—that the audience feels like they are a part of it and a part of holding on to it. It should feel like a sanctuary for rock. The club is a space that is beloved; it is a sanctuary for the loyal fans of rock and roll and here’s this huge corporate conglomerate that is tearing it down in the name of progress, of development, of commercialism. And that’s a huge piece of why this story matters. I know that’s a story that a lot of major cities, like Seattle, are really grappling with right now.
You’ve stage rock concerts. You’ve staged musicals. You’ve stage rock concerts that are musicals. What is it like when these two meet? Is there a different way that you approach the staging of it?
With everything I stage, whether it’s a concert or a musical or a piece of film or television, the place I always begin from is being true to the story. No matter what. I want to be true to the story and all it’s components.
The music is what dictates the movement on stage. You always want to be mindful of the elements. Rock of Ages is authentic to its period by virtue of the music. And with every show, every artist, every client I stage something for, I try to educate myself on the style, on the time. I want to do right by it.
Music is really one of the characters in this show, and it’s really one of the most important characters. The music in this show comes with expectations. Rock is a religion for some, and every song in this show is one of those ones that when it comes on the radio while you’re driving the car, you make everyone stop talking and you turn up the radio till it’s blasting, and you sing at the top of your lungs. People are going to have that level of expectation in mind any time a song begins. And we want to give them what they want! Drew and Sherrie are blank slates for the audience, all the characters are. But the music is the part that they come with a very clear expectation about.
It is personally important to me to respect the artists or the material I am fortunate enough to work with, and to be as true and authentic as I can be.
What’s your favorite musical?
I think for me Jesus Christ Superstar will always be near the top of the list just because I had the opportunity to work on that show on Broadway, and so I have a really intimate relationship with the music and the characters and the performers. And I would also say Into the Woods. I have staged that show three separate times in my career and each production has been so very different and the material really lends itself well to that variety. And the lyrics are brilliant and they have meant such radically different things to me at different points in my life, based on what I was going through at that time. And I don’t think it’s a lot of musicals that have that ability to change with the seasons of your life.