Magnatone Giveawya

August Issue
more... ArtistsGuitaristsGear of Broadway

Guitars on Broadway: Book of Mormon, Rock of Ages, and Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark

A A
Guitars on Broadway: Book of Mormon, Rock of Ages, and Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark

We wouldn’t blame you if the word “Broadway” conjures images of grown men in furry cat costumes or jazz-hand-wielding women in fishnets and top hats rather than tasteful guitar playing. But blazing 6-strings have snuck onto the Great White Way via several modern productions that up the cool factor and inject some rock into New York City’s great theater tradition.

Presently, three of the hottest such productions are Book of Mormon, a comedy written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone that’s taken Broadway by storm; Rock of Ages, a raucous love letter to ’80s hair rock; and Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, a stage adaptation of the iconic comic set to a soundtrack written and produced by U2’s Bono and the Edge.

Besides the obvious benefits of having a fairly high-profile gig, networking with rock stars, and having a steady paycheck, there are other perks for players who break into the scene: On top of the $1,545 weekly base salary (big hits bring in even more cash), you get medical and pension benefits through the local musician’s union you’re required to join, and if you’re feeling burnt out or need to go on tour with a side project, you can take an unpaid leave of absence for up to 49 percent of a show’s run. Further, if you appear onstage and in costume or play several instruments in a single production—yes, nylon-string and archtop count—that’s considered a “double” and it brings a pay increase. The first double brings a 12.5-percent bonus, and every double after that increases by 6.25 percent (for instance, a second double gets an 18.75-percent increase, and so on).

We met with the six players who cover guitar duties for these three shows to chat about how they broke into the Broadway scene, the challenges and rewards of the gig, keeping it fresh eight shows a week, and what gear they use. The story doesn’t stop here, though—head to premierguitar.com to watch our Rig Rundowns for each show, and to check out a photo gallery of their rigs.

Rock of Ages

If there’s a single show on Broadway that best showcases guitar, it’s Rock of Ages. It’s packed with ’80s hits—from Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize” and Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”— which encourages crowd singalongs and makes the gig a bit more like playing to sold-out crowds in a cover band than backing a hit musical. Guitarists Joel Hoekstra and Tommy Kessler provide more than backing licks—the two perform on a 20' x 24' platform onstage throughout the entire show as members of the fictional band Arsenal. As Kessler puts it, “I like to think the guitars are one of the main stars of the show.”

For Hoekstra and Kessler— who split their time between the Rock of Ages gig and touring stints with Night Ranger and Blondie, respectively—it seemed a perfect match. Hoekstra has played lead guitar since the beginning. “I had subbed on the show Tarzan that Phil Collins wrote the music for,” he explains, “and the music supervisor for Rock of Ages was the keyboard player on that show. He looked me up, saw I was with Night Ranger, and it seemed to be a natural fit. There really wasn’t an audition.”

When Hoekstra started, the music was still being written. “We didn’t receive the music until the day of the first rehearsal—and there were only two rehearsals,” he explains. He prepared by learning the parts to the originals and going through tapes of previous productions of the show. “It allowed me to prepare 50 percent or so for that first day,” said Hoekstra.

Since the guitarists are onstage, however, they can’t rely on sheet music. “We had to memorize the music ASAP—nobody wants to see a dude reading charts while shredding!” Kessler, on the other hand, got the gig through a blend of old-fashioned networking and social media. He looked up Hoekstra at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance and got in touch via MySpace. Hoekstra checked out Kessler’s Van Halen videos on YouTube, and later came calling when he was looking for a sub. “He said it was tough to find someone who could play ’80s-style rock, like the finger-tapping stuff, and also had theater experience,” Kessler says. “I love a good challenge, so I went to every single rehearsal and every tech meeting.” After subbing a few times, the second guitar spot opened up and Kessler got the gig.

Rock of Ages Gear

Guitars
Joel Hoekstra
DBZ Cavallo, DBZ Bolero, DBZ Barchetta
Tommy Kessler
DBZ Cavallo, Taylor 810, Taylor 854ce 12-string

Amps
Joel Hoekstra
DBZ Cavallo, DBZ Bolero, DBZ Barchetta
Tommy Kessler
DBZ Cavallo, Taylor 810, Taylor 854ce 12-string

Effects
Joel Hoekstra
Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, Ernie Ball volume pedal
Tommy Kessler
Fractal Audio Axe-Fx

Accessories
Ernie Ball Power Slinkys .011-.049 electric strings, Ernie Ball .012-.054 acoustic strings, Boss TU-2 tuner (Hoekstra), Boss TU-3 tuner (Kessler), Tech 21 MIDI Mouse

The guitarists get to the theater about an hour early to clean the guitars—DBZ electrics and Taylor acoustics—and double check the rest of the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx-centered rig. Then, they eat and get in costume—including a requisite wig for Kessler (Hoekstra already has long locks).

Despite playing a grueling eight shows per week, both players say the live-performance element keeps the show fresh. “The audience gives us a certain energy much like that of a live rock show,” explains Kessler. “We often play into some of the jokes in the show, and of course we bring out our favorite style techniques and moves from the ’80s—sometimes we can even pop up in the theater aisles if the time is right.”

“You have to perform each night like it is a brand-new show,” Kessler says. “You want to keep fresh and excited, because it’s probably the first and only time that audience will see you, and they deserve a great show—and that is what I want to give them.”

Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done. “It can be physically and mentally challenging,” says Hoekstra, though he’s quick to add, “I am one lucky dude. Theater gigs are great because they keep your chops up, pay pretty well, and keep you actively networking— and you’re able to sub out and do other gigs, too. It’s allowed me to keep Night Ranger and Trans Siberian Orchestra going the entire time, as well.”

Watch our Rig Rundown:

Post a comment to this article