Royal Flush had the pleasure of speaking with Mitchell Jarvis (Lonny) before a recent performance of Rock of Ages. In addition to discussing the hit jukebox musical, the gifted thespian weighed in on his starring role in last year’s Gettin’ The Band Back Together, his favorite 80s rocker, and what the future holds.
Royal Flush: Congratulations on the 10th anniversary production of Rock of Ages. How’s the reaction been so far?
Mitchell Jarvis: Thank you, the response has been great. So far, so good. It feels like we never really left. I’m getting close to my 1,300th show between doing it Off-Broadway in 2008 and then the Broadway move in 2009 at the Brooks (Atkinson Theatre), and I wound up opening up the tour in Chicago for a short bit of time before I came back to do Broadway again at the Helen Hayes Theatre. And I wound up doing it in Vegas for about 10 months too. I thought that would be it but here we are again! I’m 40 and still doing it.
RF: Here you go again, so to speak.
MJ: Yeah, here I go again, again (laughs).
RF: How would you compare the show from its original Off-Broadway run to what it’s become now?
MJ: About 10 years of trial and error. When we did it the first time, it was really just an experiment. It had been a bar show in L.A. for four or five years, kicking around, trying to get some sort of traction. And when they finally decided to do an Off-Broadway production in 2008, they cast a lot of really creative, experimental types of actors. So we just tried to figure what it really was at first. And I was pretty convinced that our very first performance was going to be terrible. I was really stressing out about it. And then the moment it began, I quickly became aware of how well it was going to work. That first night was very surreal. But it was more of a mystery then. And now it’s down to a science. This show is a bit like Teflon – it’s really hard to mess it up. At its worst, it’s fun camp. At its best, it’s a really interesting sort of subversive comedy. It’s like a classic hero’s journey, and it’s got a lot more to offer than people expect. It wins over every audience and by the end, I just feel like you can’t mess it up. You just have to give it its proper energy and effort and it wins over the audience. So I trust it now more than ever and I try to continually keep it fresh and fun for everybody.
RF: Why did you have such little confidence in it initially? Was it because of its unconventional nature?
MJ: At that point, I think the only successful jukebox musical was Mamma Mia! And you’re always kind of playing with fire with a jukebox musical, because most pop music isn’t particularly theatrical or narrative-driven. I think what works so well with this one is we’re able to draw from a whole genre rather than a single artist to tell the exact story we’re trying to tell and do it the way we want to do it. I think a lot of times when you’re working with comedy, especially madcap, absurdist, reality-takes-a-holiday comedy, you lose track if it’s funny or not when you’re rehearsing because you’re not getting a response. I try to avoid what we call “rehearsal laughs” where it’s for the people who’ve seen it dozens of times already and you’re trying to make them laugh at the expense of the show. If you’re really focused on doing that, the laughter’s going to stop at a certain point. And then you start to question yourself. I like to call the audience the “final character” and that influences everything I do. So to finally get there in the initial production was really satisfying once I kind of felt that energy coming back and knew that we had something.
RF: While you’ve primarily played Lonny, you also had a stint as Stacee. What was it like to completely switch gears and play such a different character after playing Lonny for so long?
MJ: Yeah, I played Stacee a little over 200 times. I loved it. I was a little burnt out at the time that I started to pursue that character. I just wanted to do it for a few months but I wound up doing it for six. It almost feels like you’re in a different play. I enjoy attacking all sorts of characters and personalities and really diving in and reinventing things so that was thrilling. I was very grateful that they gave me a chance to really recharge my batteries in that way. It wound up being a pretty cool way of mixing it up.
RF: Last year you starred on Broadway in Gettin’ The Band Back Together, another musical comedy. Despite being such different types of characters, did you find yourself bringing any aspects of Lonny to Mitch Papadopoulos?
MJ: Yeah, they couldn’t be more different. I kind of see Lonny as a classic clowning character. There are really no rules with him. He’s sort of the amalgamation of all of my favorite pop star references from my childhood into my adulthood. So I can really go off the rails and just make any wild choice I want with him. But with the Mitch Papadopoulos role, I was kind of the straight man of the show so I was playing the setter for all of the clowns, which is exactly the inverse of what I do with Lonny. It’s a different sort of a challenge and a different sort of approach. I got a chance to work with John Rando, who’s one of my favorite directors to work with and he kept trying to drill into me that Mitch is the straight man. He’s a winning type of character and to always keep him positive and driving the ship forward, which is the opposite approach of what I’m doing here. I spent almost all of last year working on that show. We wound up closing pretty quickly which was disappointing but we did everything we could do and I think the show was much better than it got credit for. But it keeps you humble when you’re so into something and it doesn’t work out. It just kind of drives home the point that this business is really unpredictable and all you can do is the work and do it as well as you can and let the chips fall where they may. But I have no regrets about that experience at all.
RF: The musical is named after a Def Leppard song, but the band didn’t grant permission to use their music until this revival. Do you think they were hesitant to be associated with it before they could determine its quality, and have any other artists been reluctant to grant rights?
MJ: There was probably some initial reticence from some of those bands because a lot of people in that rock world aren’t so keen on musicals. I think they also didn’t get Van Halen. But they got David Lee Roth and his solo stuff. I think Guns N’ Roses was the other band they weren’t able to get that they really wanted. But they got 34 songs and that’s no small feat to get that many people to sign off on something like this. It was pretty unprecedented.
RF: The show is so clever and it’s ultimately a tribute to that genre of music, so I’d think that after seeing what it is, any reservations would be eliminated.
MJ: Agree 1,000 percent. It’s paying homage. It’s definitely not poking fun at them.
RF: Did you see the film version of Rock of Ages? If so, what were your thoughts on it and Russell Brand’s portrayal of Lonny?
MJ: Yes, I did suffer through the movie (laughs). I just think they missed the boat every way they possibly could. I love Russell Brand, and I’m a big fan of his but the whole thing felt like they threw it together in a weekend for $100 million. There’s not a stitch of our show in that movie. There are the same character names and a lot of the same songs but for my money, it missed the essence of the show. They certainly weren’t interested in doing Rock of Ages. It missed the charm and the heart of the story. Even making Stacee the lead changed the entire dynamic but I actually thought the Tom Cruise part of it was an interesting aspect that they could’ve made a different movie out of, similar to The Wrestler but depicting the life of a rock star instead. But other than that, it felt like a long, boring episode of Glee.
RF: Do you consider yourself a fan of 80s rock, and do you have a favorite 80s band or artist?
MJ: I was a fan but sort of in a peripheral way. It was what was playing at the roller skating rinks when I was in fifth grade. It was the soundtrack for my elementary school years. So I wasn’t invested in it like someone who was in high school or college but I’ve grown to really love that era of music and appreciate how theatrical and how much fun it was. People were willing to be ridiculous and silly and not take themselves so seriously. That’s one of the things I’m most frustrated about in modern pop culture, how everyone takes themselves so seriously. So I’m loving it more and more as I get older. I don’t know that I could pick a favorite. At this point, I feel like I have a slight ownership of all the songs in our show. It’s like trying to pick your favorite child or something (laughs). My favorite personality is probably David Lee Roth. I find him to be the essence of what that era was all about and I love watching his old interviews.
RF: It’s ironic that that so many bands in that world wouldn’t want to be associated with musicals when you realize how theatrical their style of music was.
MJ: Yeah, it was the most theatrical era of pop music that there’s ever been. It’s practically built for the Broadway stage, and it’s almost like they were putting on Broadway shows in their concerts and didn’t realize it.
RF: The production is expected to run through early October. What’s on tap after that for Mitchell Jarvis?
MJ: Well, I’d like to know that myself (laughs). You never really know. The idea of extending this show is on the table so we’ll see if that works out depending on how successful this run is but aside from that, I’ll just be auditioning and trying to figure out what’s next. It’s the endless cycle of this career. You’re never quite sure what it’s going to be but you’re always confident there’s something on the horizon and that hasn’t failed me yet. So I’ll stick with that and let you know when something comes up!
Click here for tickets to Rock of Ages.