It’s a few days after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony when we find Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo holed up in the green room of a Beverly Hills performing arts center, talking about how their big night went across town. “Eight minutes and 30 seconds!” exclaims Giraldo, talking about the exact length their performance had to come in at. “They busted our balls: ‘You can’t have 8:38; you have to have 8:30.’ So we had to make a little medley, and Patricia said, ‘How are we gonna ever remember (the alterations), when we’ve been doing these songs for 35 years?’ We’re old now — we just want it to be automatic,” he confesses.
Ironically, though, the newly inducted husband-and-wife duo have a project underway that comes out of not wanting to hear the same songs the same way. One floor up at the Wallis Center, a team of about 30 actors is at work rehearsing “Invincible — The Musical,” a new stage production that’s been put together around a song score by Benatar and Giraldo, mostly taken from a recorded catalog that established them right out of the gate in 1979, along with several newly written pieces.
The stage musical is having its official premiere Friday night at the Wallis’ Bram Goldsmith Theatre in Beverly Hills, after a week of previews. (The limited engagement runs through Dec. 18; ticket information can be found here.) It is not a jukebox musical, they say — starting with the fact that they picked some deep album cuts and B-sides as well as hits, then made the sound truly theatrical. “I’ve heard those records we did enough,” Giraldo says. “We’ve even changed some of the structure of some of the melodies, keeping partially what they are, but twisting them a little bit, to have some more fun with it. That interests me and it interests Patricia as well. We didn’t wanna do a jukebox musical with the exact same songs the way they were. … I was excited about doing the orchestration, because I wanted to have polyrhythms of polyrhythms and string sections doing a lot of the hard stuff. Originally I wanted to take it really far away, but other people said, ‘No, you gotta bring it in a little closer,’ so we do have some guitar going on.”
“Invincible” is a reimagining of “Romeo and Juliet,” but unlike, say, the nearest recent equivalent as far as catalog-based Broadway musicals go, the Go-Gos-based “Head Over Heels,” which was set in medieval times, this show is being played mostly for dark drama, not laughs. Benatar and Giraldo say a discography that includes high-drama numbers like “Hell Is for Children,” “Heartbreaker” and “Promises in the Dark” is well-suited for Shakespearian tragedy.
So probably no light-hearted “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” in the show, then? “We have one chorus of that that comes in the middle of another song, only as an homage to everyone who’s gonna go crazy if we don’t have it,” says Benatar, “but it’s literally in there for like 10 seconds.” (She made headlines last year for taking it out of her own concerts because she couldn’t sing a light-hearted song with even metaphorical “shots” without thinking of parents mourning school shootings.)
Sitting in the green room in early November, Benatar reflects on the confluence of recent events. “These last two weeks have been the most crazy two weeks I have ever had of my life. Did Neil tell you we had a grandson, in the week leading up to the Hall of Fame? I spent very little time getting ready for the Rock Hall, because I knew what I had to do. Meanwhile, I was here every day until the very last second. On the night of the Rock Hall, we all went to bed at 3 in the morning, and I was back here at 10:30 for rehearsal.”
Benatar and Giraldo spent a good amount of time developing a completely different musical, an autobiographical one that would have focused on the first few years of their professional and personal partnership, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But, the singer says, “At this stage of our lives, you’ve had so much of you, you’re so over it. It’s really great and nice and we’re all appreciative, but it just gets to be so tedious. I started to feel like the genre was becoming passe, and the gold standard had already been reached with ‘Jersey Boys.’”
Meanwhile, they learned that a writer-producer named Bradley Bredeweg had mounted a “Romeo and Juliet” adaptation using their songs in a small L.A. theater called the Rockwell, unauthorized. A cease-and-desist order was sent, but there was one problem: Associates who went to check out the show told them it was actually good. Forces were joined, and after six years of further development, this extensively tweaked version is premiering under the direction of Tiffany Nichole Green (who’s helmed the touring version of “Hamilton”).
As examples of what from their catalog did make it into the drama, Benatar says, “We’re using ‘Love Is a Battlefield’ in one of the really great fight scenes. And then one of the deep cuts is ‘Purgatory,’ which is a song about regret and knowing that you have done something and now you’re gonna have to pay the price. There’s a wedding scene that has a mixture of ‘We Live for Love’ and ‘Brave’…”
The latter song, she says, is a more obscure one they introduced to Bredeweg after they belatedly joined forces. His pre-authorized version of the show had focused on the hits and not such a deep dive. “‘Brave’ was written when my younger brother died suddenly after an accident when he was 46 years old,” Benatar says. “It was devastating, and I had to go in there and tell my parents and it was a terrible, terrible thing that happened to the family. His loss is still so profound. That night, when we got home and it was so surreal, I just sat down on the steps of our bedroom and I wrote the lyrics to ‘the song, Brave, ‘Brave,’ which Juliet now sings, when she’s gonna be forced to marry Paris even after she’s already married Romeo. This is, for her, a devastating moment in her life, and so it was a perfect spot for that song. But Bradley hadn’t known about that song because that was a deep cut, and he certainly didn’t know the history behind it.”
If they had produced a version about their own lives, what would’ve been the story arc? Well… Shakespearian, too, minus the tragedy.
“Going up against the record company as a duo, that’s when the Romeo and Juliet thing started,” Benatar recalls, “because they thought we were great until we hooked up romantically (after making her debut album). Then they were not happy, because they thought it would be down the Stevie Nicks/Lindsey Buckingham road and ruin this whole thing that they had going on, or worse, which is that the two of us would be so powerful together that they wouldn’t be able to control us individually, which is what happened. That’s when they went nuts and tried every possible way to split us apart.”
“Even when we were married and we were having our first child,” Benatar continues, “they had a thing that I couldn’t be seen in public pregnant. We didn’t abide, but that’s what they asked for. They just said, ‘You have to cover up. You can’t be seen…’ Like, what year is this? It was 1985. And they didn’t want people to know that he and I were together — they wanted me to seem like I was available to everyone. Once they realized that the two of us were locked musically and artistically and business-minded, that’s when it really got ugly. They knew we were the unholy alliance and they had no control whatsoever. So, yeah, it got ugly then.”
Forty-three years later, this Capulet and Montague bypassed the poison and have lived to received rock’s highest honor, together. Their enduring love story is “not without its challenges,” says Benatar, “and it’s not like there aren’t days where I want to choke him. I’m sure he wants to kill me most days. But we made a pact and stuck to it, and we’re a family, and still crazy about each other.”
The couple acknowledge their differences — one of which is who grew up focused only on rock ‘n’ roll and who had a predilection for dramatic stagecraft. “Musical theater wasn’t in my blood,” Giraldo concedes. “When I started making those records, I developed a sonic architecture — like people when they go in and make records, they pick colors. ‘Can you make this blue? Can you make this yellow green to describe feelings?’ I thought about where the drums would live and where all these different instruments would live in different places. So I always saw it as a visual, but I never saw it in terms of performing arts or any of that.” He even says that “MTV and videos were never my favorite platform, even though MTV was perfect for Patricia.” (Indeed, one of their videos was the second one the nascent channel ever played, right after “Video Killed the Radio Star” kicked the network off.) Even now, for him, the chance to work up fresh versions of older songs is the primary appeal (Giraldo shares credit for both arrangements and orchestration with Jesse Vargas), although he’s come to be jazzed about the choreography and other dramatic elements.
But, says Benatar, “This is a thrill for me, because it is full circle. I studied classical music for 12 years and I did so much musical theater when I was growing up because we lived in New York and, you know, that was like the thing — and my voice was suited to that. You know, I did ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Camelot’ and everything else. Neil is so left of center, and I’m really right in the middle. When we were younger, he’d go, ‘I can’t believe I married someone who listens to “South Pacific” in the car’.”