On the surface, the late Alan Freed is hardly a sterling
subject to lionize in a musical theater production. Freed, who died at age
43 in 1965, was, by all accepted accounts, a philandering alcoholic who had
no problem taking credit—primarily financial—for writing hit songs despite
a complete lack of involvement in their creation.
But Freed was also the guy who knocked American popular culture permanently
off its axis by introducing (but not inventing) the phrase “rock and roll,”
which he initially applied to rhythm and blues music made primarily, if not
exclusively, by African-American musicians. That led to the first
mainstreaming of African-American art into what was then a solidly white
culture—a circumstance freighted with historical portent.
As such, he probably is a worthy subject for the Broadway-style treatment.
And “Rock and Roll Man—The Alan Freed Story,” which, through Oct. 1, is
having its world premiere at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse, is a
perfectly fine telling of that somewhat sordid, mostly celebratory tale.
The production is animated by a first-rate cast and a solid and
attention-holding, if not particularly eloquent, book (by Gary Kupper, Lary Marshak and Rose Caiola). It also boasts a never-dull, hybrid score
that incorporates numerous golden oldies (including “Roll Over Beethoven,”
“All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Ain’t That A Shame,”
and “Tweedle Dee”) with a handful of original songs (composed by Kupper)
that generally succeed in propelling/explaining the story.
The bulk of the play is presented as a dream-hallucination that the
physically, emotionally and financially exhausted Freed has in the last
hours of his life. He is in that depleted state because he was the most
prominent victim of 1959’s federal investigation into “payola,” whereby
disc jockeys took…