Steven Van Zandt looks at things the way they are, and says fuhgeddaboudit. And Van Zandt, who is a fan of the Rascals and Robert F. Kennedy, dreams of things that never were, and asks, why not?
The Springsteen sideman and Sopranos actor is the writer, producer and co-director of The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, a hybrid bio-concert that reunites the decades-disbanded hitmakers from the late 1960s within a lavish production that also includes narration and a documentary film.
In short, Once Upon a Dream is Jersey Boys, if Jersey Boys involved performances by Frankie Valli and the original Four Seasons. To put it another way, it is a jukebox musical, without the jukebox.
It is also an innovative way of presenting a show, one that could become a model for future concerts involving other still-kicking legacy bands.
"I felt a reunion wasn't enough," says Van Zandt, who was in town in advance of Tuesday's Once Upon a Dream opening at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. "These guys deserve more than a pat on the back and a tour on the oldies circuit. They were too important."
The Rascals (who, to serve notice of their maturing musical sophistication, dropped the "Young" from their name in 1967) were the original blue-eyed-soul artists, though none of them had blue eyes. The joyous and socially conscious New Yorkers had a string of black-pop inspired hits (including Groovin' and People Got to be Free), but split up unceremoniously in 1971 and disappeared so successfully that only record-label lawyers, witness protection program officers and Van Zandt could find them. The last, a diehard fan since coming upon them in 1965 when he saw them playing as teens at a New Jersey roller rink, tried to broker a Rascals reunion for years. But he had no joy in that regard until 2010, when band suited up for a charity concert that ended with Van Zandt and Springsteen popping on stage for the closing number.
"Financial motives were not strong enough for us to get back to together," says Ottawa-born Rascals guitarist Gene Cornish, speaking for a band that famously only required good lovin'. "We held our heads up high. We didn't want to sell out and do it for the money."
The relationship between the Rascals and Van Zandt had been strengthened in 1997, when the latter passionately inducted the former into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After the charity concert, Van Zandt worked on a platform for a more formal Rascal reunion, eventually winning over the band with his 30th draft of the script. "I believe history has overlooked them," says the E Street Band veteran, clad in a buttoned tie-dyed shirt (he wears his era on his sleeves) and signature head bandana. "This show is going to fix that."
The current North American tour of Once Upon a Dream follows a short, sold-out Broadway engagement. What is interesting about the 10-show Toronto run is its placement in a theatrical hall (owned and operated by Mirvish Productions) not often used for concerts. The Rascals' audience would be an older one, with some of its members being draft dodgers, former tokers and those who agreed with the civil-righting Rascals that people got to be free. "Those people don't go to see rock shows any more," says Elliott Lefko, a former Torontonian and current vice-president of L.A.-based concert promoter Goldenvoice. "With this show, Van Zandt is giving them a reason to get out of their homes and go see something."
The Royal Alex is a majestic facility, superior in style and comfort than any local music venue, and certainly above the casino halls frequently booked by nostalgia acts. The theatrical venue and contextual multimedia experience of Once Upon a Dream also helps defray any sort of stigma that the band is trying to regain or relive anything. The real-live reunion adds to the drama; by the end of the performance and the interspersed chronological documentary, history is caught up to and the reunion-witnessing audience is automatically part of the final act.
"It's very surreal, and it's a new format," says co-director Marc Brickman, who has designed and lit shows by bands including Pink Floyd. "Crowds are very sophisticated now. They want a story, and unless you're 19, I don't think a standard concert is a satisfying experience any more."
What audiences want – and what they're willing to pay for – is the feeling that they're part of something significant. When I attended a Peter Frampton concert at Massey Hall in 2010, the crowd was paunchy and grey, the hall was not full and the performer had no hair. Even when I closed my eyes, I could not recapture my 14-year-old self.
It was a nostalgia trip, failed.
Less than a year later Frampton was back, but this time performing his breakthrough Frampton Comes Alive double album from 1976 in its entirety (front-to-back, note-for-note), and at a much larger venue in front of a younger, bigger crowd. The energy level was twice as high; it wasn't memory-lane longing – it was an event.
"I'm not going to be surprised if this kind of thing becomes the next evolution of the concert experience," says Van Zandt, speaking about his hybrid format. "It took three years of heavy, heavy discussion and many scripts to get to the essence of this band. But putting the songs in context, it makes the whole thing more rewarding."
Rewards? Van Zandt has engineered the classy reunification of the favourite band of his youth. If he's not living the dream, no one is.