The Rascals Q&A: On Returning to Broadway and the Genius of Steven Van Zandt

An announcement is expected soon that the Rascals will return to Broadway with their "Once Upon a Dream" show for a three-week run beginning Dec. 16. Before they do shows at the Marriott Marquis Theater, however, the four original members will be finishing up their first North American tour since 1970 with shows Oct. 10 at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and Oct. 12 at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco plus stops in Phoenix,Chicago and Detroit before heading back east for more shows.

"Once Upona Dream" will play the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix (Oct. 14, 16, 18, 19),  Cadillace Palace in Chicago (Nov. 5, 6, 8-10) Fox Theater in Detroit (Nov. 15); Auditorium Theater in Rochester, N.Y. (Nov. 20);   Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, N.Y. (Nov. 22); the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, N.Y. Nov. 23); the Palace Theatre in  Albany, N.Y.  (Nov. 24); and the Borgata Event Center in Atlantic City, N.J. ( Nov. 29).

A hybrid of a concert and a multi-media theatrical experience that chronicles the band's experiences in the 1960s, "Once Upon a Dream," includes the performance of 28 songs, newly shot and vintage film, a light show and dialogue. Steven Van Zandt and Marc Brickman wrote, directed and designed the production, which is looking to go overseas next year.

Van Zandt and his wife, Maureen, got the Rascals to initially reunite in 2010 to perform at the Kristen Ann Carr Fund benefit. Van Zandt, who has worked with the band members individually, inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and championed the band on his radio show, says he has been asked to get them back onstage since 1982. The Rascals had 13 top 40 records between 1965 and '69 and started to break up in 1970; they fully disbanded in 1972. 

Van Zandt and the band members all say money was not enough for them and that the oldies circuit held no appeal. The historical show, Van Zandt says "gave them an artistic reason to reunite. They are so protective about their work and, in their own way, they broke up to protect the integrity of what the Rascals were."

Classic Rascals

Keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, singer Eddie Brigati and guitarist Gene Cornish came out of Joey Dee and the Starlighters ("Peppermint Twist") and with drummer Dino Danelli created the band in New York in 1965. Sid Bernstein, who had promoted the Beatles' U.S. concerts, went into management with the band, getting them signed with Atlantic Records. Individually, the band members had blues, jazz, doo-wop and country music in their backgrounds, but collectively they came to define blue-eyed soul through covers of "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour" and originals "How Can I Be Sure" and "A Beautiful Morning."  In a series of separate interviews with Billboard, the members of the Rascals told the story of their career and what went into the creation of the show. 

"I wanted to really reveal their musical depth," Van Zandt tells Billboard. "The reason I feel so strongly about this group is they should be talked about on the same musical level as the Beatles and Stones and the Byrds -- the greatest of the greatest. They weren't just a singles band so half the songs (in the show) are familiar hits and half really aren't. That's totally intentional -- it gives the whole thing a freshness that I wanted to communicate."

What was Steve's approach that made this seem viable and what sold you on his vision?
Brigati: (Van Zandt) knows every note. He had vision. Basically the key word for Steven is management. He was the umpire, the manager. He had the intelligence, thewill, the expertise and he did more in three years, in my opinion, that most professionals did in the last 40. He gave me an ultimatum -- please stop smoking and begin voice lessons – and I did it for three years. It made a difference. I was given confidence and trust. 

Cavaliere: He has created a new idea, a multimedia event with a script. If we had justgone out there like a (reunited) band, we surely couldn't have done Broadway. I was impressed with how we did there and I became a believer.

Danelli: At the beginning I had no idea how it would be received. Could fans sit through this? At (the premiere performance) in Port Chester, (N.Y.) people were stunned. It was great for us to see that because we had never seen an audience like that.

From the band's perspective, what's the part of the story that would not be told if you just played the hits and few obscurities?
Cornish: Telling the story from before we met, through when we signed, how we got involved in Civil Rights, living our political beliefs by demanding there was a black act on every bill. There's our departure from each other  and not just accepting money to get back together, but looking for a higher cause to get back together. 

Brigati: It emphasizes the cooperation.

Let's step back to your early days. When you were still known as the Young Rascals, you did a lot of covers. How did you decide what songs to record?
Cornish: "I had a knack to for figuring out which labels had black bands and would go to record stores and look for anything that sounded funky. I liked the Olympics -- they had a hit with 'Western Movies' – so I bought some records and one of them was 'Good Lovin'.' We all liked it. We would also take Beatles songs and slow them down to make them soul songs and we were probably the only male band that did Supremes songs. When we got signed to Atlantic Records, we would see the reaction to a song (and decide whether to keep it). We recorded about a quarter of our repertoire and (Atlantic executives) picked what they wanted. We weren't sure.

Cavaliere: One reason we chose these songs was that R&B acts were not getting their fair share of airplay. We felt that these songs were up for grabs. Unfair as it was, it benefited the Rascals, like the Animals and the Beatles and the Stones. But we could pull off those songs well.

When did you feel it was time to make the transition to writing your own material?
Brigati: It wasn't originals vs. covers. It was what's the best song.

Cornish: I was relegated to the George Harrison spot – two songs and shut up. I was lucky to get my two songs in and I believe I developed as we went along. Mysongs are very personal - I left the political to Felix and Eddie.

The shorthand is, of course, blue-eyed soul, but it is not as if you were a white band trying toplay R&B.
Danelli: Geno came from rockabilly, Eddie with his doo-wop, Felix with rock 'n' roll and jazz. Everybody had something different. (Prior to joining the band) I was in New Orleans and I loved that it was a school of music. In the early '60s, I picked up all my R&B chops and brought them back to the Metropole in New York where I heard all the great jazz bands. All those (musical) colors influenced the Rascals. 

In retrospect, it seems like people today do not understand how rushed the pop music world was rushed  in the 19609s, like there was no tomorrow for most bands.
Cornish: We recorded 108 songs over a five-year period. Eight albums, 17 hit records and the record company considered us lazy. We had the pressure of putting put a hit record every three or four months. We had the help of (producers) Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, but (Atlantic) allowed us to produce ourselves.

Eddie, you were the first to leave, in 1970. What happened?
Brigati: Basically I was stuck in the business end of it. Fortunately, we never stopped creating art, but  my energy and time and youth was spent in trying to survive the business end of it. We were kids. Separated, divided and eventually conquered. Our demise was in the mishandling of us. I guess it had to come back to fruition. Half oof the time during the show, I'm looking up at the screen and thinking, 'wow did that happen?'

How did you decide what would be best to perform in the show?  
Cornish: It was a long process, lot of rehearsals going over stuff we have never played live. We've gotten to the point (technologically) where we could represent these songs the way they were recorded, songs like 'It's Love,' 'Find Somebody to Love,' 'Away Away.' We had to listen to the records to relearn to them

Cavaliere: The producer of the show and Steve are a lot like Paul Schaffer -- they don't like to deviate from the original records. He put a list together and it worked from the first day so we kept it. We may have a meeting or two to moves some things around, change some endings or add some songs. 'If it ain't broke don't fix it' seems to be the rule around here.

What was on that list of songs?
Van Zandt: My favorites like 'See,' their last important record for me and not a hit but something I play it all the time. Things like 'It's Love' and 'Baby Let's Wait,'  probably most obvious (record) that should have been a hit. The most important song is the first single, 'Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,' the song that made me a fan. We have the three No. 1 hits – 'Good Lovin', 'Grooving' and 'People Got to be Free.'

What surprised you about the reaction to the show?
Cavaliere: I was surprised to hear how many people were interested in hearing these stories. That and the album tracks that didn't make it onto radio, but the audience appreciates them because they were album buyers. There's nothing that a musician wants more than acceptance and you see that joy that's out there – it kinda gets to you. It's just like the beginning (of the band), you forget about the nonsense. There's  a mutual respect for each other now.

Cornish: I guess it's about being transported back to the '60s for two hours so it's not just about the music or the group. It becomes about living in a time of optimism and hope and people are getting that. I believe we are all living in a depression and denial and this is show is an antidote to that. I didn't expect that. It is consistently a  celebration of the joys of life.