Going Over the Top with the Songs of Steinman
I recently sat down in the recording studio with Broadway star Rob Evan, and with record producer Steven Rinkoff for the two to fill me in on one of their most ambitious projects yet. Over the Top: Songs by Jim Steinman is best described as “an inverted jukebox musical,” and it’s coming next to the Mohegan Sun June 9-12.
Producer Steven Rinkoff’s journey with the music of rock composer Jim Steinman began 20 years ago, when he was the engineer on a Bonnie Tyler album featuring tunes by Steinman. “I met Jim in the studio” explains Steven, “and twenty years later – here I am, and I’ve been working with Jim pretty much straight through producing and engineering the albums and acting as musical and audio consultant on all of Jim’s theater productions. When we did Bat Out of Hell 2 in 1991, Jim said essentially ‘hey – do you want to co-produce and engineer it with me?’ That was 14 years ago, and we’ve had an exclusive partnership since then.”
Broadway star Rob Evan, who’s known for leading roles in shows like Jekyll & Hyde, Les Miserables, and Little Shop of Horrors came across Steinman in a more roundabout way. “I’ve got older brothers and sisters, so when Bat Out of Hell came out in 1977, I heard it, but I was pretty young then, so I got in to Jim’s music later, when I was already performing. I obviously knew a lot of his songs, but I never connected them to one writer pumping them all out. I really got in to Bat Out of Hell later on when I devoted my life to singing, because although I wanted to be a rock star, I had this pseudo-operatic voice, that Jim’s songs just suit so perfectly.”
While Rob was on tour with Les Miserables in Salt Lake City, Utah at the tender age of 25, he has a special memory of Steinman’s music. “I remember to this day being on tour, and playing the role in tons and tons of make-up, and being too young for the part, for which I was criticized for over-aging myself. While driving home every night, I would blare and sing along to ‘For Crying Out Loud’ and that’s how I learned how to get through the songs and the show as Valjean. The song is in the same kind of range as the show, and that’s the first real Steinman song that really touched me.”
Rob and Jim’s first in-person meeting came a bit later however, during Dance of the Vampires. During Rob’s time as standby, Steven was in the theater as well as the show’s musical consultant and the two hit it off. Shortly after the show closed, Rob was called and asked if he’d like to do some studio work for Jim Steinman for the musical Batman. Rob didn’t hesitate “Not only did I say I was interested, I think I said that I’d pay them to come in and to sing for Jim.” As Steven points out – Rob indeed wasn’t paid that night.
“That was the first time that I walked into the Hit Factory studio, which has since unfortunately closed, but it was THE studio. To walk in there, and to see Jim’s records, which were commemorating umpteen million sales, and then to come into this room with these guys, and to sing, I was lucky to be able to get anything out. Everybody was so positive, and so nice, and I think we all sat down and realized that we all had a lot of admiration for each other.”
Steven was able to provide the other side of the tale, as to what they thought of Rob after that first session. “Jim and I have a label called Ravenous Records where initially the idea was just to find great singers for Jim’s songs, and as hard as that could be, we somehow got skewed into finding people that were writing their own songs, and then we became a label where we were putting out artists that had nothing to do with Jim’s music. Rob came into the studio to record some demos, It was from there that the whole relationship started, because I realized I wanted people who knew Jim’s songs, to sing Jim’s songs and, for me, Rob’s voice was the perfect male voice for that, so here we are.”
The group began to talk more seriously after that, and the ideas for the then untitled project began to form. Rob explains that “It’s funny, because a lot of this too is that Steve and I sat down way after the Batman sessions, and we realized that we loved these songs, that we wanted to do something together, and that we had real passion for trying to push the envelope beyond Broadway. I think that Jim’s music is a great bridge of the gap between rock and theater. The Over The Top show is really an amalgam of Broadway, rock, and theatrical spectacle, but it’s great entertainment. We started talking about this idea then which was to use Jim’s music, but not presented it as a cover band, or a tribute band, but redefining Jim’s music for today.”
Steven’s longtime experience with Jim helped to clarify that vision. “You don’t really have anybody that’s out there doing just Jim’s music now. You don’t have all those songs in one show, plus the premiering of new songs, and new interpretations. At this point, we’re building this entity called Over the Top,
The two then discussed kicking off the live show in a huge way, and with discussions underway with Radio City, Carnegie Hall, and other large venues, Jim Steinman entered a period of ill health, and they decided against the idea of starting things off big. Then came BroadwayWorld.com’s Standing Ovations 2 benefit at Joe’s Pub, in which Rob Evan performed. Joe’s Pub, and the Public Theater hold a special place in the history of Steinman, it’s where Joe Papp worked with him on early theater works including one where he auditioned and hired a singer named Meat Loaf accompanied by Steve Margoshes on piano (currently touring as lead pianist in Over The Top).
“I came down to Joe’s Pub, knowing the history of the Public Theater for Jim, and I had such a great time that night. I loved the vibe of the room, and thought that it was just so hip compared to other cabaret type rooms. It was still classier than a rock club, but it was very hip. I called Steven that night when I left, and told him that I found the perfect spot.”
The next day, Steven booked the show at Joe’s Pub, along with producing partner Tom Lazenby. The Joe’s Pub show featured 2 ‘dueling’ grand pianos, which Steve explains are now considered a trademark of the concerts. “I always said that if we had two grand pianos, and Rob on stage, that it’d be all we needed to strip this music down to its core. Even talking about bigger venues, the plan was always to have the two pianos and then we’d build it further ‘Over the Top with a mini rock orchestra.’”
Rinkoff then pitched the idea to Steinman of kicking things off at Joe’s Pub, and Jim loved it, then they had to come up with the name. “I was talking to Jim, and a lot of people were throwing out ideas like ‘For Crying Out Loud’ or ‘Rock and Roll Dreams’ and I didn’t want to have a Meat Loaf title or any song title in there, so Jim has a quote ‘If you don’t go over the top, you’ll never see what’s on the other side’ and suggested using that. His idea was to just use the whole phrase as the name of the show, and thankfully when I called Joe’s Pub, Bill Bragin said he could never fit that and so I shortened it to Over the Top – Songs by Jim Steinman. That’s the crux of it, in that it’s not over the top bombastic, but it is the philosophy of sometimes having to go over the top.”
Steinman’s been involved in the project every step of the way, and has let Steven run with it. “Jim is weighing in daily, and sometimes he pushes things that are so far that we can’t go there, but he’s very much involved in the songs, even the marketing. I sent him the new set list for the Mohegan Sun, and he’s weighing in on those now. As far as we take it, Jim’s always adding further ideas.”
Rob agrees, and has been working with Steinman as well. “What we’re all trying to put out there is something which is very representative of what Jim’s music is, and I feel like we’ve got an opportunity here, to educate people. It’s funny, because if you ask people up and down the street if they know Jim, half look at you blankly, and then you mention Total Eclipse or Bat, and 10 out of 10 say yes, absolutely. They’ve heard them and have great memories of these songs that we’re able to bring back.”
Over the Top won’t just be presenting classic Steinman tunes however, along with the hits will be rare gems, and the even rarer privilege of being able to premiere new songs as well. Says Steven “Jim got so excited by the prospects of Rob and all these soaring singers, that he said let me give you new songs. We had 2 new songs at the last one, and this time we’ll have potentially 4 new ones, including the 2 from last time, and possibly 2 new ones.”
The show will expand from its Joe’s Pub roots when it reaches the Mohegan Sun thanks in part to a larger stage, and will also feature guitarist Alex Skolnick, drummer Mat Zebroski and bassist Mat Fieldes joining Steve Margoshes and Adam Ben-David on pianos. While the show does feature all songs by Jim Steinman, each of which tell their own story, Steven is quick to point out that it’s anything but a jukebox musical. “We’re kind of doing an inverted jukebox musical, because all of Jim’s songs are mini-musicals within. We didn’t need to have a story to strap it together, we’re just putting these songs out there, as they all speak for themselves. And we’re breaking some down to the core, with the two pianos and four singers, and that’s still how we’re presenting it at the Mohegan Sun. Even with the larger band, we perform more than half the songs with just piano and vocals, and the rest with the band or portions thereof.”
”We’re still calling it a workshop, in our minds, as we’re still developing it daily but that doesn’t mean the audience will get anything less than a soaring melodic roller coaster. We originated it at Joe’s Pub, and now we’re taking it out of the city, to further develop it and to then take it further. As we all know these days, the whole landscape of radio has changed, and instead of going to record companies first – we just want to go on the road and put it out there in different size venues. We are even talking to promoters in the UK and Germany.
The other joy and goal as Rob explains – is being able to perform these songs live. “My whole thing is just to get in front of an audience with the music, because I love to perform the gargantuan songs, I always have. I think that our target audience, and the demographic for this is very wide. The rock fans who don’t come to Broadway will love this show, and then it has songs like Braver Than We Are, which is as theatrical and as beautiful as you can get. I want the show to have moments for everyone in it, because Jim’s music has that.”
Steven adds to this, noting that “the great thing like Rob was saying with demographics, is that now with Holding Out for a Hero in Shrek 2, Jim has 6 year old fans as well. So, we have 6 year old fans and 40-50 year olds who grew up on Bat out of Hell, and really everything in between. We still get reports about ‘Paradise parties’ at colleges, with 18 year old kids discovering Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, so we just want to let people know that there is a person behind this, and a reason that all these songs exist, and that’s Jim Steinman.”
Making up the group explains Rob is a variety of talents. “We’ve got Jeremy Kushnier of Rent, Footloose, and Aida fame who has a great voice. We looked for people that have different strengths and each of our voices compliments each other. We don’t have 2 of the same sounds up there, Jeremy’s voice is totally different from mine, and he’ll have his own songs too. Jeremy has such a soaring high voice, and after singing in rehearsal said – wow, this music is freakin’ hard to sing! That’s what make’s Jim’s music so exciting. We’ve got Elaine Caswell, who is from Jim’s world, and the rock world and has a phenomenal voice. Also there’s Nicki Richards, who is also from the recording world as a session singer, and she’s toured with Whitney, Mariah, Celine, and just has an incredible voice. She can also really switch gears, which is something that we can all really do to switch gears between a rock song, and a theater song. Right now the goal for the show are to continue increasing it in size, but on a daily basis, the two don’t think much past the next show. “Right now the goal is to keep doing it as often as we can. There’s nothing like this out there, and there’s a huge demand for this material. Look at how many records these songs have sold over the years.”
The show is being branded in a unique way, promoting the singers, songwriter, band and of course the songs. “We’re branding it as having songs like Holding Out for a Hero, Total Eclipse of the Heart, Making Love Out of Nothing at All, I’d Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That, because everyone knows these songs. Now though, Jim is also getting the credit he deserves. We’re trying to get across who Jim Steinman is, and that he’s not just a writer, he’s an artist. It’s not just like he writes it and hands it off – he’s the Dr. Frankenstein and we’re all the monsters. When Jim finds someone to write for, it’s not just like finding a singer to sing his songs. He gets to know a singer, and to know their voices. Over the Top is an entity, not just a show of Jim’s songs, and we want to see the Over the Top brand out there, as the place to hear Jim Steinman’s music. Plus we’ve got new songs that are being written for the show.”
With this rock-n-roll theatrical experience tugging at him, one naturally wonders what the future holds for Rob Evan in terms of stage work, and he’s happy to explain. “I really have to be honest with you, and to tell you that I’ve turned down a lot of auditions lately. Broadway’s been a wonderful platform and opportunity for me, and I’ll always look for great Broadway projects, but I’m just following my heart right now.
I sometimes get a little bit of a bittersweet taste in my mouth for shows that have opened and closed, because you get so emotionally wrapped up in things. I’ll always look for great projects on stage, but at the core of that is that I just really love to sing and to perform. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra gave me a great taste of performing to an arena full of 12,000 people, which is a huge rush, and it’s like doing a great scene in a play or a musical, but it’s a different rush.”
The two agree that these days theater people breaking through into a legitimate pop/rock career is certainly a rare thing. Rob says “right now, we’re just trying something else and it’s going to have a full plate of theatricality in it.”
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