The storied career of Janet Billig Rich has garnered her titles venerable and varied as “the manager of Nirvana,” “the youngest ever senior executive at Atlantic Records” and “longtime film and television producer.”
But it’s her most recent title, as producer of the Broadway smash “Rock of Ages,” that’s got her most excited.
The Jewish New York native (and now Los Angeles transplant) was at the helm of the show’s 2006 launch and has watched it grow; the rock musical, now on its first U.S. tour, touches down in Pittsburgh on Nov. 23.
Like “Mamma Mia” before it, “Rock of Ages” builds a story out of pop songs — but instead of Abba hits, we get some of the biggest (and cheesiest) rock anthems of the ’80s, including “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
Rich talked with The Jewish Chronicle about life in Nirvana’s tour van, celebrating guys night out and Shabbat traditions.
The Jewish Chronicle: There have been a lot of musicals based on popular songs. But what makes “Rock of Ages” a great show?
Janet Billig Rich: It’s surprisingly funny, and it’s all songs you know — you’re surprised to hear them, but they get stuck in your head. I could go home and make a mixtape, but these songs tell a story about characters you care about. That’s why there were five Tony nominations — the story works with the music.
JC: How did you first get involved with the show?
JBR: I got involved in the show at its inception about six years ago. Matt Weaver, our producer, said we should do a musical where, at the end, everyone sing’s Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” I’d come from music management, so I knew how to get them the rights to the music.
JC: What does it mean to be a “producer of” in musical theater?
JBR: That’s the hardest question. It can mean so many different things in different worlds. In theater, it’s similar to what a manager does in the music world — it’s keeping all the balls in the air. Sometimes it’s as glamorous as taking the dry cleaning. It’s making sure the show is facilitated and looks the way it needs to look.
JC: How much of the show’s success relies on the audience nostalgia for the music?
JBR: People my age, who grew up in the ’80s, love it — it’s their first kiss, being out with their friends, being at a party. For younger people, it’s “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.” They know every single one of these songs. These songs are now in the lexicon of the everyday world, even more than in the ’90s. We get a very young audience as well — it’s a boys night out. Of all the musicals, this is the one for dudes. Bring your buddy to this one.
JC: You’ve worked with bands like Nirvana and Hole. At the time, did you have any idea that those acts would become as influential as they are now?
JBR: Hindsight is 20/20. I had no idea. When I was managing bands like Nirvana and Hole and The Breeders, it was “buckle up, hold on and get to the next venue.” Life was so micro that you couldn’t even see outside the box.
JC: We all know that Jews play a huge role in the entertainment industry. Are they just as important on the production and management side of the industry?
JBR: You find the biggest Jewish communities in New York and Los Angeles, and those are two entertainment capitals. So you end up doing more business with Jewish people because of location. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur roll around and offices are closed. You can’t get a deal done.
JC: Nowadays, does Judaism play much of a role in your life?
JBR: I have children now, so it does even more than when I was working and traveling. But it’s not so much going to synagogue for us as always having a challa on Friday night. The traditional pieces of Judaism always followed me.
JC: And what’s next?
JBR: If I only knew! I have no idea about the future. I’m just trying to get to the end of the day. “Rock of Ages” could be the next 10 years — and I hope it is.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)