Audiences may be shocked to find out Elvis Presley is not the king of rock ‘n’ roll.

That title should belong to Alan Freed, a once blacklisted disc-jockey from the ’50s, according to Kevin Harris, director of San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s upcoming original musical, “This is Rock ‘N’ Roll.”

Stock photo.

Audiences will be taken through the historically accurate life and journey of Freed, from his days as a DJ, when he first introduced a style of R&B in the ’50s — which he called R/R — to the days of his reputation being ruined during the payola scandal. When record companies paid DJs to play their artist’s music. He is credited by some as the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll.

Dozens of popular songs from 1947 to 1961, representative of the genre and Freed’s contributions, will be featured in the show and performed by a live five-piece band.

Harris said the biography-play is meant to show American audiences some of their cultural roots.

“Not many people, especially young people, know about Alan Freed and just how much he’s completely shaped every aspect of our pop culture,” Harris said. “There would be no Ryan Seacrest. There would be no Lady Gaga. Michael Jackson and The New Kids On the Block — they’re all descendants of him. It’s important to know how it all ties together and to know your past.”

The musical was a long time coming for Harris, writer David Vienna and choreographer Drew Silvaggio. After 10 years of searching for the right project to work on together Vienna and Harris started collaborating on a musical about seven months ago that eventually became “This is Rock ‘N’ Roll.”

Silvaggio, who directed the Nutcracker at the Civic Ballet in December, is an old friend of both Vienna and Harris. He has also been waiting for a project like this to team up on.

“It’s great for the three of us to get together after knowing each other for so long,” Harris said.

Freed’s character will be played by Chad Stevens, who has always looked up to Freed and knows his history.

Stevens said he learned about Freed from “American Hot Wax,” a movie based on a portion of Freed’s life. The movie revealed to Stevens how the DJ who “didn’t take any crap” was a pioneer of music.

“People credit Elvis with bringing a black sound to white America, but Freed was there before Elvis and was really trying to push the original music,” Stevens said. “He was called the king of rock before Elvis.”

Freed now stands as one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. The location is a credit to Freed since he coined “rock ‘n’ roll” there.

“I think it’s a great thing that we’re bringing Freed’s name to the forefront,” Stevens said. “We have a lot of really good singers and dancers, and it’s music everyone knows. Whether you’re from that era or not, you’re going to recognize the songs.”

Stevens appears in every one of the 35 scenes in the two-hour musical, which might be daunting to some, but is almost normal for him, he said. He has been acting on and off since 1973, fulfilling many leading roles and will be partaking in his 11th performance at the theater.

“It’s not intimidating; it’s actually kind of a cool challenge because there are very few times when I walk off the stage,” Stevens said. “The great thing about this show is you don’t need 500 lines to get the point across.”

Harris said he expects a full turnout for the rock ‘n’ roll musical.

“We’re trying something a little bit new with the show and people are stoked David Vienna is working on it and Drew Silvaggio,” Harris said.

The “new” components of the show include a renovated, state of the art sound system, made possible by a $50,000 grant the theater received from the Hind Foundation, associate director of the show Lisa Woske said.

“(It will support) the multimedia effects (Harris) has incorporated into this stage musical: wide-screen projections, sound effects, band, monitor and speaker adjustments, etc.,” Woske said. “So audiences get to experience rock ‘n’ roll music live through a brand new, high-tech system.”

Woske, who is also the public affairs coordinator for Cal Poly Arts, said the musical will be different from previous shows not only because of its audio and video enhancements but also the way the story develops. It is a book musical, she said, with a beginning, middle and end.

“It evokes an era and the universality of the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll,” Woske said. “(It’s) different from what we hear today. But then again, not so different because early rock was born from remaking, re-visioning music that had (been done) before. A lot of Elvis’ hits were someone else’s hits before him, but never done quite that way. Plus, what’s also exciting about this show is that, because it’s an original production, it has literally never been done before.”

But, with an original production comes great challenges and rewards for the crew within the artistic direction of the show.

“It’s a great blessing, but a horrible curse because it’s very easy to get off track and not really tell the story,” Harris said. “You get lost in your head a little bit, but we’re figuring it out.”

SLO Little Theatre is a volunteer-based community theater that has been putting on shows since 1947. The theater itself is nothing more than a black-walled room with chairs surrounding three sides of the slightly raised stage, with the actors and audience in close proximity.

“It’s fun to perform at Little Theatre because they’re 3-feet in front of you,” Stevens said. “I love community theaters because it gives everyone a chance to be involved. It’s really good entertainment for the whole family. And we do it because we love it; everyone who is there wants to be there.”

Local financial service group Blakeslee & Blakeslee has been a long time sponsor of the theater, largely in part to Diane Blakeslee, a now retired certified financial planner.

“I have been very impressed with the history of the theater and been involved with them since I arrived here in 1965,” Blakeslee said. “I think that their plays are fantastic and the talent here locally is just unbelievable.”

The musical acts as the theater’s largest fundraiser and has the potential to bring in 15 to 20 percent of its gross annual budget. “This is Rock ‘N’ Roll” opens Feb. 18, with tickets starting at $35 for regular performances and $50 for Saturday Martini Nights (dinner included).

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