The Prieboy Principle
Can Axl Rose—excuse me, an Axl-like character—revolutionize musical theater?
By Lou Harry

From Gadfly December 1998


It's so damn hot in the rehearsal hall that the sound itself seems to be dripping from the walls—so hot that if this were your standard theater rehearsal space, the actors—Equity or not—would have long since bailed. It's even too hot to eat the pizza that Andy Prieboy has brought in to feed his cast. Prieboy, the thin, sarcastic, gothic‑looking fellow behind the keyboards, used to be part of the band Wall of Voodoo (after it hit the charts in the U.S. with "Mexican Radio"), then recorded a couple of albums on his own. Lately he's been here in L.A. doing his part to expand the definition of American musical theater. His project: a Gilbert & Sullivan‑esque musical about the life and times of what he describes as an "Axl‑like character," clearly inspired by the former Guns 'n' Roses frontman, who comes to L.A. along with others of his ilk in search of heavy metal stardom. If the show, White Trash Wins Lotto, sounds like a lark, well, that's the way it began.

"It did start as a joke," admits Prieboy. "I had neighbors behind my house who wrote bad musicals—not deliberately bad music but Broadway kind of shows. It briefly flashed across my mind how these guys would proceed if they read Appetite for Destruction by Danny Sugarman [a non‑fiction account of Guns 'n' Roses] and treated it as a 'property.' I wondered how they might reinterpret it for the Broadway stage."

"So my fingers started to play and I started singing this plaintive song I called 'I Want To Be in a Metal Band.' It was so wrong, but one night I played it on stage during my regular set of depression/suicidal material and it brought the house down."

Prieboy can't pinpoint the moment when the song grew into its own show. The first tune was written a year and a half ago and since then he's been adding new songs, coming up with more narration, and expanding to include additional performers. "The more the joke developed, to my surprise, the more there was depth," he says. "Mind you, not great depth—but depth. And I needed other characters to flesh out and act out and sing those ideas."

In addition to his band, he's added a crew of performers including Paul F. Tompkins—familiar to viewers of Comedy Central's The Daily Show—and Blaine Kapatch, a writer/producer on Mad‑TV. The company rehearses in this overheated space, then heads over to Largo, a nightclub best known as a haunt for underground comics of the Janeane Garofolo/Dana Gould school, for a handful of performances a month.

As it stands now, the show, hovering around an hour and a half running time, features Prieboy narrating from behind the keyboards in and around him and his company performing the loosely connected songs. "The image I have is throwing stones across the stream," says Prieboy. "Pretty soon the stones turn into piles and eventually we'll have a bridge."

Right now the "pile of stones" begins with an Axl‑like character getting to Hollywood, going through the early career stages and landing a record deal. It follows him all the way to opening for the Rolling Stones. "It's a basic story: kids from nowhere come to L.A., get discovered and create a revolution. In a strange way it sounds like an old Broadway musical: Young boy makes good."

So what's the evolutionary path for the show? "Rock thrives on spontaneity," Prieboy, protective of his project, says. "It thrives on danger. Broadway takes away that spontaneity—or that illusion of spontaneity—by having 80 hoofers on stage hitting their marks. So they end up taking ideas that basically germinate in garages and sweaty clubs and then corrupting them—taking rebellious music and turning it into entertainment—or worse, sensitive social commentary."

"Right now, we're doing it small," says Prieboy. "I'm enjoying the intimacy of Largo—enjoying playing to 150 people a night and doing it when I like."

There is also still an element of danger about it now for the composer—an element that keeps the show tilted more toward rock and roll than traditional musical theater. "It'll be tough to keep that up on a bigger stage with props and light cues," he concedes, but clearly the show could evolve in that direction. Right now, Prieboy is financing things through a publishing deal advance from BMG for the songs that ultimately are kept in the show. He's meeting record companies and film companies. Large cable networks are suddenly becoming interesting. "I want to work with a company that is willing to preserve the original vision—if we can use that word for something that started out, and largely remains, a joke." He's talked to Rex Smith (of Broadway's Pirates of Penzance) to eventually take over the Axl‑ish part and has considered surviving Milli Vanilli‑member Fab to play the pseudo‑Slash.

I anxiously await that production as I think anyone who gives a damn about the future of musical theater should. Why? Because, at the risk of overstating the case, White Trash Wins Lotto, with all its loose ends, casual structure, poor title and work‑needing‑to‑be‑done, gives me more hope for the merging of rock and show music than Jesus Christ Superstar, Paul Simon's The Capeman, Elton John's The Lion King, Hair and—dare I state such a sacrilege?—even Rent. Not that I have anything against those shows (well, to be honest, I haven't been able to force myself to listen to the entire score of Rent)—some I actually will confess to liking.

But the medium doesn't really need rockers trying to be theater folks. And it doesn't need theater folks pretending to be rockers (I'm speaking from painful experience here, having been one of the handful of people to suffer through the Broadway musical Marlowe, in which Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe get wasted together). What it could use is talented composers from all genres—rock, country, gospel, pop—trying their hands at narrative.

From the unshakable anthem "Wealthy, Fucked Up, and Free" to the joyful goofy "Phone Call for Willie Bananas" to the hoe‑down of a title song, Prieboy's contempt for rock and roll musicals seems almost overshadowed by his deftness as a musician. The guy knows his musical genres. The music for the "Willie Bananas" tune, for instance, would be right at home in a Marx Brothers flick. The songs entertain, stick with you, and leave you wanting to hear them again to pick out the nuances of the lyrics. And, for the most part, they rock.

Listening to White Trash Wins Lotto—sorry, but Prieboy is careful not to have tapes of the songs circulating until he's ready—makes one think a lot less of contemporary musicals that try to soften rock for the masses. If one has become disillusioned by the theatrical efforts of Paul Simon (who tried to over‑theatricalize The Capeman, which would have made a much better concert), Pete Townshend (what the hell was that bullshit plotting and the cloying new song he imposed on Tommy?) and others—or if one has listened to Rent and, ten minutes later, tried to remember any of the tunes—then White Trash Wins Lotto is a surprising beacon of hope.

For those lucky enough to get into the sold-out houses as Largo, Prieboy and company send a clear message that there are many ways to develop new work. White Trash also cries out with the message that contemporary musicals don't have to have dull and forgettable scores (i.e., the work of such yawn‑inducing, future‑of‑the‑musical composers as Michael John LaChiusa, of the recent Hello Again and The Petrified Prince).

Andy Prieboy's hostility toward the genre may be a bit over the top, but if that's what helps him produce this kind of material, well, I wish more musicians had his anger. The form would be the better for it.