Rock 'n' Roll's Rascals Reunite in Broadway's Once Upon a Dream

By Judy Samelson
18 Mar 2013

Gene Cornish on the back cover of their first LP for Atlantic Records, called "The Young Rascals."

Van Zandt is the author of The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream, as well as co-director (with the brilliant Marc Brickman, creator of the show's eye-popping stage, video and lighting design), and co-producer (with his wife of 30 years, actress Maureen Van Zandt, whom many will fondly remember as Gabriella Dante, married to Silvio Dante, the mobster Van Zandt played to perfection on HBO's acclaimed series, "The Sopranos"). The music and lyrics, of course, are by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati.

Van Zandt might well be dubbed the Ambassador of Rock 'n' Roll because of his own contribution to the music as well as his passionate belief in it and in its place in history. Recently he spoke with come about this great love, about The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream, and about the band he has called one of Rock's greatest.

The concept for The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream is intriguing. Can you describe it?
Steven Van Zandt: It's kind of a new form, to be honest. I mean, you can't really compare it to anything. I wish we could because when it comes to describing it, I realize I'm describing something that's kind of new. But I do think it's something that could catch on and become a standard new form, maybe, if this thing works the way we're hoping it works. It's a concert combined with a biography. We use the guys and have them tell their story. And then, obviously, the original guys are onstage performing. And the third element is actors portrayng them — moments in their career. And then Marc Brickman, one of the great staging and lighting guys of all time, combines it all on the big screen — and I mean a really big screen, bigger than there's ever been in any theatre. And the effect of that — the combination — creates this kind of new experience. You get a very satisfying concert, and you feel like you very much know the guys in the band much more than you did when you walked in. And even if you don't know them, you end up with a very interesting story — quite emotional, actually.

And what about the music in the show?
SVZ: We have 30 songs in the show. Not only every single hit song and B side but a bunch of other album tracks that show how deep their musicality really was. I think that's been a little bit under-appreciated by their commercial success. The effect of that is really quite impressive, and you realize that these guys really should be spoken about in the same paragraph as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Byrds and the greatest of the greatest. And so I think it was an effort on my part to remind people about how important they actually were.

Before 2012, they hadn't played together in 40 years?
SVZ: Literally, no one has seen these four guys onstage together for 40 years. I think even fans from the '60s who knew all their records may be surprised at the depth of their musicality and may be, I think, surprised by their story, which is quite an interesting story and I think one that is quite compelling.

You have written and speak so passionately about the craft of making rock music and how frequently it goes missing from the current music scene, and also that it was time, maybe, for bands to hone the craft and let technology and even "art" take a back seat. In an essay on your site Little Steven's Underground Garage, you wrote that in the old days, the energy that went into creating the music was "a working class energy. Not an artistic intellectual waiting around for inspiration energy. It's a get up, go to work and kill energy. Rip it up or die trying." It seems like The Rascals were the embodiment of that kind of energy and craft. How do they measure up to your standard of craftsman?
SVZ: They absolutely define it. The most important stage of [a band's] development is the bar band stage. And what I've noticed these last, oh I don't know now, 20 years, is that bands have been skipping that stage — partly because of technology, partly because the infrastructure is no longer there, partly because maybe every single bar or club on your block may not be as welcoming as they once were to live music. But for whatever reason, people are learning how to play in some rudimentary way, immediately starting to compose songs and then they're on a website. They're eliminating the two or three — or in the case of The Beatles — five years of being a bar band. And in that two-, three-, five-year period you learn, number one, how to perform for people, but more importantly how to write. Because you are playing cover songs. Cover songs are the most important stage of your development. Why? Because they are setting your standards. You are playing other people's songs, your favorite songs, whatever they may be, and you're at a very high standard.

You then begin writing after you absorb those songs and understand and analyze those songs, and pull them apart and put them back together. You then start composing, and, of course, you're going to be writing at a higher level because they need to be as good as the cover songs that you're playing. And they — The Stones, The Beatles, The Rascals, to a large extent Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes — all of us started off that way. And cover bands are basically dance bands. You know, people danced to rock 'n' roll, and [The Rascals] are the living example of that. We talk about this in the show. They were perhaps the greatest cover band of all time. Their first major national hit was a cover, "Good Lovin'." And they probably could have proceeded that way forever — or for quite a long time, anyway. But Felix had the creative ambition to be writing and Eddie, of course, was a lyricist. And they decided to take a slightly different path and began writing and became one of the great writing teams of all time. But the important part is starting off as a bar band which means a cover band which means you're learning your craft. That's the university. That's the school where you need to go in order to succeed, to have longevity, in order to accomplish anything. It all starts there, and that is typified by The Rascals.