How the Rascals got their groove back

"The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream" coming to Hard Rock Live. Photo by George Rodriguez

In a way, Steven Van Zandt wishes he could be in two places.

Of course, the rock guitarist and actor (“The Sopranos”) would like to stay on the Wrecking Ball Tour in Europe with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. But he also wishes he could be here in South Florida for the tour kickoff of “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream,” a stage show playing May 24-26 at Hard Rock Live.

After all, he not only wrote the show and produced it with his wife Maureen, he directed it with production designer Marc Brickman, taking “The Rascals” to Broadway for a limited-run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

“My wife and I started a theatrical company some years back with the hope of bringing a show to Broadway,” Zandt says from Copenhagen. “We just thought this was too important an event for a simple reunion. I mean, no one has seen [the Rascals] for 40 years. Even the fans who are still around wouldn’t know the actual story. So we thought, ‘Let’s connect these songs to the story in the very best Broadway tradition.’ “


Photos: Miss Florida USA Pageant

“The Rascals” is a blend of video storytelling and live performance, recounting the story of the 1960s “blue-eyed soul” band that scored hits such as “Groovin’,” “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” “Good Lovin’ “ and “People Got To Be Free.”

“It’s a real magical time. We’re all alive and functioning at the top of the game,” Rascals guitarist Gene Cornish, in a phone interview from New York, says of his bandmates Felix Cavaliere (keyboards and vocals), Eddie Brigati (vocals) and Dino Danelli (drums). “I mean, we’re doing the Tony Awards June 9. We came in fourth in box-office sales on Broadway. I never thought I’d get into a Broadway show without buying a ticket.”

Zandt says the show is “the next evolution of the concert … telling their story through video while they play their music. This will always be a hybrid kind of show. [We’re not] trying to replace Broadway in any way, but I do believe this could replace the concert in many ways.”

For Zandt, the Rascals — who started out as the Young Rascals — need a revolutionary show to reflect the revolutionary times and the revolutionary band.

“It’s not just a story about the Rascals but a story of the ’60s,” he says. “Something bigger started to take place near the end of the ’60s. You see the end of the era and the end of this band. But then, there they are live before your eyes. It creates a different dynamic than a typical show. So it has a double kind of impact. And there’s positiveness and hope. That has all been forgotten, and sadly so I think. The world is so filled with negativity. You can’t watch TV today and not be depressed. There is something gone, and I miss it. And I think the audience does, too. And those who didn’t get to experience the ’60s, which is most of the audience, get to experience it now and get an understanding of why there are so many books and movies and discussion about it. Because it was an extraordinary period.”

The band’s love of R&B and its connection to the civil rights movement is a big part of the narrative.

“We had the voices, and we had the chops,” Cornish says. “The label was afraid to put the picture of the band on the album, because they thought black stations would stop playing ‘Good Lovin’’ if they knew we were white. Our music was about civil rights. It was about R&B music. We would not do a show unless they put a black act on the bill with us. It cost us a lot of money, but we just quietly did what we could. There was a lot of heavy shit, which is in the show. But I’m proud of how we conducted ourselves musically, politically and personally.”

It took years to get there, though. After decades of trying to get the band to reunite (Zandt even inducted the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997), the stars finally aligned at a benefit concert for the Kristen Ann Carr Fund for cancer research, started by Bruce Springsteen co-manager Barbara Carr and her rock journalist husband, David Marsh, in the name of their daughter.

“For years, we had turned down million-dollar offers to get together,” Cornish says. “We always said we need a better reason to do that than just money. Being a cancer survivor myself … this benefit was the perfect reason, and we got together for free. Then, Steven came up with, like, 30 different drafts in 2 1/2 years. It was more or less based on the interview we did back in that benefit. What he came up with isn’t like ‘Jersey Boys,’ where there are other people acting our story. It’s really the Rascals. We’re onstage for two hours and 15 minutes.”

Zandt says he stuck with the project for so long because, “I wanted their legacy to be confirmed and permanent. The Hall of Fame was part of it, but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted their place in history to be concrete. I think this does it.

“You’ve just never seen anything quite like them,” he continues, remembering the first time he saw the Rascals at New Jersey’s Keyport Roller Dome in 1965. “People forget this — you have to go back in time — but white performers who moved were the exception. There was Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger with the Stones. Pretty much, white guys stood there and played. The black guys were much more performers. They were coming out of the church, the Southern Baptist tradition, where you heard and saw great gospel acts every Sunday. All the great R&B singers took performance from the church and into the secular arena, from the Temptations to Jackie Wilson to Sam Cooke. The Rascals were the first white band that performed like a black band. They had Felix on this [Hammond] B-3 organ and the most exciting drummer in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Great drummers like Keith Moon would come to New York and find Dino Danelli to study him. Gene was an exciting guitar player and one of the greatest dancers of all time. And then, you had Eddie singing with two tambourines or maracas. It was just like nothing we’d ever seen before.”

“The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream” will appear 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday at Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, 1 Seminole Way, in Hollywood. Tickets cost from $54 to $84. Call 800-745-3000 or go to MyHRL.com or Ticketmaster.com.