Mick Jones & Lou Gramm Explain How Diana Ross Inspired 'Jukebox Hero The Musical'

Juekbox Hero
Cylla von Tiedemann

Cleopatra Williams as Sharon Loomis and Geordie Brown as Ryan Perry in "Jukebox Hero"

Foreigner is one of those bands whose songs you know, even if you don't own one of their albums. Their success in the late '70s and '80s amassed sales of some 75 million albums and netted nine top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including one No. 1.

Lou Gramm was the inimitable voice and some-time writer, and Mick Jones the guitarist and main songwriter. Gramm left the band in 2003 (replaced by Kelly Hansen), returning recently to play the odd 40th anniversary show, but is in Toronto, alongside Jones, to see the songs in another form: sung by the young cast of Jukebox Hero The Musical, the title of which is from the pair's smash from 1981's 4 album.

The theater production, spearheaded by Jones, managers Phil Carson and Stewart Young and jukebox theatre promoter Jeff Parry, was workshopped last summer in Alberta and had its world premiere this week in Toronto. It closes Sunday night.

Other Foreigner hits woven into the two-hour-and-20 minute show are "Cold As Ice," "Dirty White Boy," "Double Vision," "Feels Like The First Time," "Head Games," "Hot Blooded," "I Don't Want To Live Without You," "I Want To Know What Love Is," "Say You Will, "That Was Yesterday," "Urgent" and "Waiting For A Girl Like You." See, you know them, right?

It was singer Diana Ross who planted the seed of a musical decades ago based on "Juke Box Hero." Jones wrote the lyric after he noticed a kid in Cincinnati waiting five hours in the rain to meet Foreigner and was ushered backstage to watch the show, but Jukebox Hero The Musical isn't about a starry-eye Foreigner fan.

The book was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, whose credits include The Commitments and Across The Universe, and tells the dual story of a dying steel factory and two musician brothers feuding over a girl; one leaves and joins the army (Mace Perry, placed by David Michael Moore), while the other leaves and becomes a rock star (Ryan Perry, played by Geordie Brown).

It is directed by Randy Johnson (A Night With Janis Joplin), choreographed and staged by Parker Esse (Shaw Festival's Me and My Girl, Grand Hotel), with music direction orchestration, arrangements and incidental music by Mark Camilleri (Celine Dion, Sting, Eric Clapton, Andrea Bocelli).

Billboard sat down with Jones and Gramm in Toronto before the world premiere. Gramm, who only found out about the production six weeks ago, was less chatty, but we did find out about his plans since retiring from solo touring.

What were the circumstances that led to Diana Ross suggesting "Juke Box Hero" could be a musical? I wouldn't think Foreigner and Diana Ross crossed paths a lot.

Jones: It wouldn't have been a bad combo actually, I have to say [laughs].

Where did you see her that she made that comment?

It was in Atlanta. We were both traveling back to New York and we were in this little VIP area and it was just us in the room. I think it was just pre or post The Wiz [1978]. She was getting involved in theatrical production and out of the blue, she said, "You know, you have a great song. It could work as a musical. It's great idea." It was "Juke Box Hero." I thought, "Wow, she knows that song."

Gramm to Jones: Did Gene [Simmons] tell her that?

Jones: I'm not sure. Did she cover it, you're saying?

Gramm: No, no, I was wondering if Gene Simmons…

Jones: Oh, they were together at that point.

Gramm: Yeah, yeah.

Oh, so maybe Gene played it for Diana?

Gramm: Maybe.

I'm sure there's been many fans over the years that have waited five hours in the rain to see Foreigner. Lou, do you remember this guy being brought into the venue, soaking wet, to watch the show from side stage?

Gramm: I don't actually, no.

Why did he inspire the lyric, Mick?

Jones: This just stood out for me. I took pity on the kid because he had all the albums and had all the stuff to sign and he was drenched to the skin. I invited him back and his eyes went [opens eyes wide, like the lyric 'saw stars in his eyes']. I remember it clearly because it was a little moment, an emotional thing. And I identified it with it a bit.

In what way?

Jones: The dreams that I had when I was that age. I was never one to wait outside the stage door, but just the spectacle, bringing that kid in and we showed him the works. We had him on stage with us. He was on the side of the stage, and he was living the dream.

You've never heard from him since, but there's currently a search to find him. No one has stepped up and said, "It was me? I stood outside in the rain for five hours and you brought me backstage and onstage"?

Jones: Maybe he doesn't even remember it [laughs].

Have you put word out in Cincinnati?

Jones: Yeah, but I haven't heard much about it to tell you the truth. Would be kind of cool [to find him].

Gramm to Jones: Are radio stations looking?

Jones: Yeah, I think so.

How do you start on a project like this? Do you say, "Here is our catalog"? Did you talk to them about what the lyrics were about?

Jones: I had known Dick, and Ian was a personal friend of mine. We got into the songs a bit, trying to build the big picture of where it was going and what the story would try and portray. It wasn't the verbatim story from the song. It was taken into another area. It felt in some way that it really represented us and they were sensitive to that. I knew them quite well and socially and they'd known me.

Do you like musicals? The rock world and the musical theater world are quite separate.

Jones: I go occasionally. I saw the ABBA one, Mamma Mia. I went to see Rock of Ages; there was something about it that exaggerated too much, trying to get reactions.

Gramm: I saw that too. I saw Phantom [of the Opera] and it was spectacular.

Did you have parameters? Don't make our songs too "show tuney." Would that be job of musical director?

Jones: Yes or the interpretation of the actor who is singing. All those things go into account. I'm sure as [the show] proceeds — and hopefully it gets a life of its own — that will develop even more. There's quite a lot of dialogue in it too. The music is the principal.

Mick, you were born in Portsmout [UK], which was an industrial town and naval port. Sting has his musical out now in Toronto, The Last Ship, about the demise of the shipbuilding industry. Does the story of a dying steel factory resonate with you and your family background?

Jones: Yeah, a lot of my family were working class people. And I keep aware of things. I see what's happening in America, for example, what's happening all over the world. There's a tremendous amount of unemployment and nobody seems to have the answer to it. You've got people that have worked 35, 40 years in the job that is their family, and suddenly it's torn apart at that point in their lives when they deserve to be enjoying it. They're victims of corporate greed, the whole capitalist corporate thing that we live in. We've never been a political band. We've never written protest songs [but] I think it's important.

What's changed since the workshop production of the musical in Alberta?

Jones: There's been song additions. One that the director and the producers heard that had not been presented but was on an album that we released a few years back [2011's Acoustique & More]. It was a song ["Save Me"] that I wrote with my step-daughter Samantha [Ronson]. She's a great writer and lyricist. And as soon as the script-writers and the producer heard it, they said, "It's gotta be in the show." It was written in a pop vein, and then when the band got hold of it and the arranger, it completely changed. It's a very poignant part of the show now.

Are there plans to take Jukebox Hero to other cities or even to Broadway or Off-Broadway?

Jones: Obviously, that would be a dream come true. I hope it's going to resonate with people. From what I've seen already, it seems to be accepted. Boy, if it hits Broadway, even Off-Broadway, I'm open to that.

This is a great way for these classic songs that people know — even if they don't know they know them — to get more life.

Jones: That's an interesting thing because over the years we weren't a band that was plastered over MTV all the time. We never wanted to take that kind of direction. We weren't in the glossy magazines so much.

Gramm: Where the image was more important than the music, right?

Jones: In a way, we were quietly very successful. Very often, when people listened to the radio and they hear the songs, they don't remember necessarily [which band it is]. They've got it a little choice of about four maybe — Journey, maybe Boston who were around when we first started, but we have to remind them. Once they hear the first chord, they think, "Oh my god, is that them?"

Jukebox Hero isn't just for your fans. It exposes your music to theater goers and potentially to a newer generation — most of the cast weren't even born then — to revive the catalog or get more juice out of it.

Jones: It is our living. You have to be aware of the opportunities to keep the royalties coming in and all the other responsibilities we have. It's a job, you know? It's our careers and what we do.

Lou, is it true that you're not going to be touring with your solo band anymore?

Gramm: Yes.

Was that spur of the moment when you made that announcement this past December or had you been thinking about it?

Gramm: The announcement was spur of the moment, but the decision had been made a while ago.

Why is that?

Gramm: I'm just at the point now where I'd like to turn my attention to people I love and other things that I enjoy.

What else do you enjoy doing?

Muscle cars.

Buying or fixing?

I have a small collection. I enjoy fixing them and driving them. It's been a passion of mine since before I was old enough to drive. And in Rochester, there's a very short time where you can drive cars where it's not snowing and it also happens to be a time when we're touring the most. So I want to put that time aside.

I read that there's a possibility that the two of you might work on new music, that demos have been sent to each other?

Gramm: Oh yeah. There's a possibility for that. For sure.

Jones: Yeah, definitely. We've been so busy tell the truth. It's pretty exhausting. It's just finding that time when you can take a week somewhere, and even five or six days, just to get together and try and think back to where we were heading with the ideas. I listened to a couple of tracks last week and I definitely heard some ideas in there that are quite valid.