Stepney Mods Face Wembley Rockers in ModRock at El Portal

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The cast of "ModRock." Photo by Michael Lamont.
The cast of “ModRock.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

“I remember February 9, 1964, like it was yesterday,” says Tom Coleman, producer of ModRock, which opens Sunday at El Portal Theatre. “The Beatles appeared on [The] Ed Sullivan [Show] and the world changed overnight.” Coleman is referring to the British Invasion, when mid-’60s UK music and culture captured the imaginations of young people across America. One of those teenagers was Coleman — who, many years later, decided to write and produce a jukebox musical about the period.

Similar to the stories of the Capulets and the Montagues or the Sharks and the Jets, the show spotlights lovers from rival factions: the Mods and the Rockers. Set in 1965 London, this culture clash of fashion, music and style is the vibrant backdrop of ModRock, which makes 20 classic songs from the era, the trends of the day and even motorcycles and scooters central pieces of the production.

Tom Coleman, Brian Lohmann and Michele Spears
Tom Coleman, Brian Lohmann and Michele Spears

“The backbone is 20 hits,” says Coleman, who uses his pen name Hagan Thomas-Jones as the writer for this project. “It’s a concert with a story. But the glue is a lot of work.” In fact, Coleman says this is the hardest work he’s ever done.

The glue is what transforms these hit tunes, including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “For Your Love,” “I Can’t Explain” and “Time of the Season,” into a story. For three days straight from 11 am to 11 pm one week before opening night, the cast and creative team are holed up at El Portal working out the show’s kinks.

During a lunch break, Coleman, director Brian Lohmann and choreographer Michele Spears steal a moment to catch their breath.

“We’ve found new places to help develop relationships so that people are investing in these characters for the limited amount of time that they get to know them,” says Lohmann about the current round of rewrites. “We found moments even in the last couple of days where we’re helping to lay some track for things that are going to pay off later in the relationships. We’re still evolving and discovering how the book marries to the music.”

For Coleman, ModRock is his passion project. “I’ve had this in my head for years. Now, we actually walk in, and you see it. It’s quite a remarkable experience. It’s terrifying.”

The Rockers from Wembley in northwest London were 1950s rock ‘n’ roll devotees. They rode motorcycles, dressed in black leather and often wore their hair greased up into a pompadour. The Mods lived in Stepney in east London, leaned toward clean-cut looks like suits and short hairstyles for men, and rode scooters. These trends of the time are front and center on stage.

Melinda Porto and Steven Good
Melinda Porto and Steven Good

“The narrative is fully realized visually,” Lohmann says. “We’ve got a motorcycle [’62 Triumph café racer] on stage. We’ve got a scooter [early-’60s Lambretta] on stage. We’re building suggestive elements of the neighborhoods. We’re really trying to take [the audience] into London.”

Although there is one Brit in the cast, this creative team on lunch break is based in Los Angeles. Coleman’s background is in filmmaking, which is where the original idea for ModRock has its roots.

“One of my companies did documentary films, and I was looking to do a documentary film on the British music invasion,” says Coleman. “I started looking at what the source material was. But the problem was that you had to have a story to make documentaries work. [This] was a social phenomenon.”

Mulling over the idea around the time Jersey Boys came out in 2005, Coleman decided to try his hand at a jukebox musical. He came up with the title, Downtown.

“I sort of envisioned Rent in London in the ’60s. I didn’t know much about it other than ‘Downtown’ was going to be the opening number.”

Coleman drew inspiration from his working-class childhood to relate to the characters in the story. His father was a milkman, and he isn’t shy about admitting he was a bit of a juvenile delinquent. He could relate to the anger and foolishness of being young and the feeling of wanting to distinguish yourself — to get up and feel different and special.

“I didn’t care for the Mamma Mia! approach, where the music had absolutely nothing to do with anything,” says Coleman. “The trick was, and still is, piecing together the songs to tell the story that informs the audience, shapes the characters and takes this concert to a new meaningful, poignant level. The asset that I had was this very fertile period, and all of our music, with the exception of the opening, is between ’63 and ’65 and was on the charts.”

Once the music was picked, the arduous task of clearing it began, which took an entire year. In March 2012, the publisher representing one of the three writers of one of the songs declined to approve its use, threatening to hold up the entire production. Coleman refused to move forward.

“I said I’m not going to do it,” Coleman says. “I need all my songs. It didn’t feel right.”

The Mods
The Mods

“It’s as if you constructed the story of Hamlet and, all of a sudden, Ophelia is not available,” adds Lohmann.

Coleman went back to the publisher, improved the terms and scored the song. Next up was a table reading led by the musical arranger David O with six men and six women, followed by a staged reading in Santa Monica last October.

“What’s exciting when you’re working on a new piece is you’re discovering it,” says choreographer Spears. “You have the script, but you’re discovering all those nuances about how it fits together and how it flows, and the cast is getting to create roles for the first time. When you’re the first one out there, it’s sort of terrifying and thrilling and freeing.”

Spears had the fun job of researching the ’60s dances and teaching the cast how to do the pony, frug, monkey and stroll. “A lot of this music was dance music,” Spears says. “There’s this great transition from the ’50s when everything was swing and jitterbug and people were holding onto each other into this era when the dance became very individualistic. So, you split apart and people were doing their own thing. There were things that everybody would know, but it was so much a celebration of the individual and anti-form. If jitterbug had rules and steps, the form of the ’60s dance was just let loose. There’s a great exuberance built into this music already. In our narrative, these are young kids that went dancing. It was an active part of day-to-day life.”

Lohmann, who is also the associate artistic director of LA’s Impro Theatre,  shares Spears’ delight in working on ModRock. “I’m a musician and singer-songwriter,” Lohmann says. “I listened to [this music] growing up because I have three older siblings. A lot of this stuff is right in my formative years when my sister was marching around with a ‘We Want Ringo for President’ sign in a Beatle wig, and my brother was listening to James Brown in the basement working on cars. I got the mods and the rockers in my own house. I was attracted to the music in the project because I know what a strong and emotional attachment there was for me to those songs. People are trying to find a way to make the music that mattered to them growing up have life in contemporary theater. This is yet another slice on that.”

ModRock, El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Opens Sunday.  Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm. Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets: $44-$59. 818-508-4200.

**All ModRock production photos by Michael Lamont.

Jessica Koslow

Jessica Koslow