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Inside ‘Jukebox Hero,’ the New Foreigner Musical

Mick Jones and Lou Gramm talk about their reunion, why they don’t mind a jukebox musical using their songs, and what could be next for Foreigner.

Mick JonesForeigner in concert at The Coral Sky Amphitheatre, West Palm Beach, USA - 01 Aug 2017

Mick Jones (pictured) and Lou Gramm of Foreigner say that new musical 'Jukebox Hero' is a way for them to earn a living in a changing industry

Larry Marano/REX/Shutterstock

As Mick Jones tells it, the origins of a jukebox musical featuring the songs of his band Foreigner date back over 40 years, when he found himself stranded in an airport lounge in Atlanta with none other than Diana Ross. “She had just done The Wiz, and said, ‘You know, you have a great song that would really lend itself to a musical,’” Jones recalls. “She said, ‘That song “Juke Box Hero” could be a great stage presentation.’ I said, ‘Wow.’ That song is a pretty ballsy rocker, so for her to even know it was flattering. I didn’t even know she knew our music.”

About four decades later, that suggestion has bloomed:  Jukebox Hero, a stage musical that works in 20 songs from the Foreigner catalogue, opens a five-night run on Thursday at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre, with road work to follow. (Yes, the name of the musical is spelled differently than the song.)  Eschewing the bio format of hit shows like the Carole King story Beautiful and the Four Seasons saga Jersey Boys, Jukebox Hero tells the fictional story of Ryan, a rock star who’s called upon to help his Pennsylvania hometown after the closing of its most prominent factory; along the way, he ends up confronting what production notes call “the ghosts of his past.”

“Our original story was a little self-satirical at one point,” Jones chuckles when asked if he’d considered telling Foreigner’s own tale in the show. “We figured it would probably be better to have a story that would have a little bit of drama.” In the course of the show, the cast belts out “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Feels Like the First Time,” “Cold as Ice,” “Hot Blooded” and “Dirty White Boy” as well as deep album cuts like “Women” and “Blue Morning Blue Day.”

Jones says he toyed over the years with the idea of a musical or movie using the songs that he (and sometimes lead singer Lou Gramm) wrote. But Jukebox Hero didn’t come together until he was approached a year ago by Jeff Parry, a Canadian impresario whose company has mounted theatrical productions and tributes to the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Band (The Last Waltz Remembered). “I was nervous about it,” Jones says. “I’m not a huge fan of musicals! But we figured maybe it’s time to take a shot.” Jones’ central role was helping audition cast members for the singing parts, and he and his stepdaughter, singer-songwriter and DJ Samantha Ronson, supplied the show’s lone new song, “Save Me.”

Both Jones and Gramm will attend the Toronto opening night, where the two are scheduled to join the cast for an encore. For his part, Gramm, who left the band in 2003 and hasn’t always spoken highly of Jones’ decision to hire a new singer for a post-Gramm version of Foreigner, only heard about the project two weeks ago in a phone call from Foreigner’s management. “I was surprised, but it’s exciting,” says Gramm, who wonders how he’ll feel on opening night. “I hope I won’t be sitting there criticizing the vocals: ‘He didn’t make that high note, did he?’”

In recent years, especially after they were both inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013 and performed together, Jones and Gramm have reached a degree of détente. At certain shows, the current Foreigner lineup performs first, followed by a reunion of the original band, including Gramm. “At first it was a little odd,” says Gramm, “but once you get over it and realize that’s the way things are … they’re great guys and they’ve been friendly to us.” Gramm’s dream scenario is a Las Vegas residency featuring the founding members. “I think it could be done,” he says. “Perhaps if it was done modestly and with a little time to rest between shows. No grueling bus tours. Casinos have beautiful rooms with the best acoustics, and we could perform a week or 10 days. I haven’t floated the idea, but I may at some point.”

Last year, the modern Foreigner released a live album, on which they were joined by an orchestra for updates of older material. (And next month, a DVD of a 1978 show at the Rainbow Theatre in London will be unveiled.) A new Foreigner album with Gramm is not currently on the table, though he says he and Jones worked on “six or seven songs” for a new record before Gramm left the band. “They were pretty damn good — I still have the demos,” Gramm says. “I sent them to Mick and he’s excited about them too. So there is talk about him and I working on those songs again. You’ve got to be working on them for some purpose, right?”

Is he worried that Jones would have the current lineup record them instead? “Please, no,” Gramm laughs. “That’s why I was at first reluctant to send them to him. When he asked, I said, ‘Let me think about that.’ Then I said of course I would. I don’t think he would [record them with the new edition]. He has too much respect for the original band.”

“I hate to say ‘brand,’ but that’s what we are.” – Mick Jones

Gramm, who became a born-again Christian almost 30 years ago, wasn’t impressed with his first dose of staged rock. A few years ago, he took his twin sons, then 17, to see the hair-metal-fueled Rock of Ages on Broadway. “The first four or five minutes, there was so much profanity that I got up and walked out,” he says. “It was brutal. I expected some of that — life is life. But it was so loaded with profanity and comments about girls and body parts. I said, ‘Enough of that.’ I was offended.”

But for the time being, both Jones and Gramm agree that jukebox musicals have become an unavoidable way for boomer rockers to earn a living in an industry decimated by a fall-off in album sales and meager streaming royalties. “I thought, ‘Where else do you go?’” Jones says. “You got to a movie or a stage musical.” A jukebox musical, he says, could be an “income generator,” adding that “it’s a new avenue and opens up a bigger market. Given the state of the music business, you have to do that. I hate to say ‘brand,’ but that’s what we are. The financial situation with the music business doesn’t leave you much choice. We have to be inventive and creative too.”

Adds Gramm, “There are only so many songs you can have in a movie score.”

You wonder what Foreigner would have thought if, 40 years ago, they’d been told they would be considering a Vegas run or seeing their songs used in stage musicals. “I’m not sure I would have liked it,” says Gramm. “But times have changed, haven’t they?”

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