A GoPride Interview

Chris Renalds

Chris Renalds (Franz) guides us through the 80's musical phonomenon, Rock of Ages

Tue. April 23, 2019  by Matt Inawat

we have a good time on stage and it is even better when we see people in the audience having just as much fun
Chris Renalds

chris renalds

A hit musical where you can rock to the best 80's hits? Yes, please!

"Rock of Ages" plays now through April 28 at Broadway in Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theater.

Featuring the music of iconic artists and bands such as Bon Jovi, Styx, Poison, Twisted Sister, Steve Perry, Pat Benatar, and Whitesnake among many others, this tenth anniversary production of "Rock of Ages" features a dynamic new cast revisiting the larger than life characters and exhilarating story that turned the show into a global phenomenon. The show opened in 2009 on Broadway and earned five Tony Award® nominations including Best Musical.

We talked to Rock of Age's Chris Renalds (Franz) prior to the national tour landing in Chicago. Some of Renalds' recent credits include "Newsies" (Crutchie, ACCC), "Spring Awakening" (Gloucester Stage), and shows on Disney Wonder Cruise Line (Peter Pan, Quasimodo in Hunchback of Notre Dame).

MI: (Matt Inawat) Hi Chris! How's your afternoon so far?

CR: (Christopher Renalds) Our bus got into Nashville just slightly late so we are just getting our hotel room keys and checking in.

MI: Love Nashville! Any tourist plans while you're out there for the weekend?

CR:  Yeah, I think we will probably go out as a cast tonight and tomorrow night. It's tough balance sometimes with doing the show and having fun. I like to tell people, the 80's themselves were kind of raucous and kind of no-holds barred and doing that onstage eight days a week is a little different because you have to take care of yourself. When you think of the singers of the ‘80's like Steve Perry and Brett Michaels, they don't really have that same power with their voice anymore. As a theatre performer we kind of have to maintain that!

MI: Yeah, and congratulations on the tour! How'd you get involved with the 10th anniversary production of Rock Of Ages?

CR: I'm a New York-based actor; went to college for musical theatre at Emerson College in Boston. I saw Rock of Ages on Broadway in 2014 right before it closed and I just remember having a really good time. I sat behind a bachelorette party doing shots and they were having as much fun as the people on stage.

I went to an open call on a snowy, rainy day and that was when the process started for callbacks. I knew the creative team was a team I really wanted to work with. Martha Vancent and Janet Rothermal are what I would deem "Mama Mia" royalty. They set the "Mama Mia" tour, on Broadway and they have just been doing that show for so long and so they are people that really trust content and truthfulness on stage, so I knew that I wanted to be a part of that team and after a few rounds of callbacks.

I got an offer in April of last year. So, from there I was kind of like, "let's do it!" I signed the contract and here I am. We started rehearsing in September and we hit the road in October. Here we are a few months later; and we have a few months to go; and it's a blast!

MI: Tell us about the show; and your character Franz.

CR:  Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical in that it spins together songs from different composers specifically from the 80's and in this case tells a love story set on the Sunset Strip of Los Angeles; and also the conflict when the industrialization of downtown LA kind of took over a little bit.

These German developers come in and start to take away some of those mom and pop dive bars on the Sunset Strip and I happen to play one of those real estate developers. My character is Franz Kleinman. He and his father, Hertz are coming to the strip to kind of add things like a Footlocker; and they are like, "look at this big Footlocker, it's gonna replace this bar where everyone has all of this fun." And my character Franz has been following in his father's footsteps and there is something that is not quite right there. It's not really for him.

MI: Is there a message in the story that hits a little personal to you?

One of the big messages in Rock of Ages is about coming with a dream. You might find yourself falling in love with a different one. And so I see what is really cool is that in LA and New York and Chicago, as well, kind of have that promise. "I'm gonna move there and I'm gonna make something big for myself," and you find yourself in a different situation of a different dream because that is what city attracts.

I'm from Northern California and I grew up in suburban Silicon Valley and I moved to New York with a dream. I can relate to that and I think that is the gist of Rock of Ages, it is truly one of the best times I have had in a musical because it is just good music. It's Pat Benetar, it's REO Speedwagon, it's Journey. It's really such a good time and we have a good time on stage and it is even better when we see people in the audience having just as much fun as we are.

MI: So was there anything outside of the the ordinary that you did to prepare for this role? How does it differ from some of your previous roles?

Chris Renalds, Kristina Walz in Rock of Ages National Tour // Jeremy Daniel

CR:  Yeah so, I think what has been really fun for me is I have a youthful appearance, and I tend to get cast in these youthful roles that are sweet, sincere and they are definitely traits that exist with Franz. Kind of a big difference being that Rock of Ages is really raunchy.

In terms of the preparation I had to do, I have a German accent in the show so I did some dialect work and also my big number is Hit Me With Your Best Shot – I love Pat Benetar – and there is an unveiling of sorts that occurs with the number and I don't want to give anything away because everyone loves the reveal, but it is a dance, kind of stick it to the man kind of number and so that was probably my biggest undertaking and I felt really taken care of by the creative team.

Janet Rothermel and her assistant Tony Gonzalez really built the choreography for my body and my costar Kristina Walz's body; and I have a really great scene partner in the actor who plays my father, his name is Andrew Tebo, and so we came upon this really great number that I have so much fun doing every night and am still challenged in doing which kind of keeps an actor invested in any kind of long-running show.

We are hitting up to 160 performances I think in the next week or so. Having done a show that many times, it's the most times I have ever done a musical, and I still have a great time every night!

MI: What's your favorite moment in the show itself?

CR:  Probably my favorite moment in when we do Don't Stop Believin' at the end. There is this moment when we are all kind of singing together and these lights kind of come up on this Soul Train homage and everyone is kind of like singing their guts out. It is just a wall of sound. You look to the left and sound is coming at you; you look to the right and sound is coming at you.

We have a really incredible technical team and Michelle who mixes our show everynight - this woman does this show for us every night in all of these venues, so all of these one-nighters, or the week sit-downs, she creates a blend that makes us sound like rock stars and that is so exciting.

If I had to think about a message for the show it is that you come in with one dream and you might end up with another and there is nothing wrong with that. It's not like saying you're settling. It's that things change; things blossom and things grow and like any experience that is worthwhile that is what comes out of it. I would say that it applies to touring as well. It's a challenge to live on the road, but then you have these moments where you meet uniquely wonderful people who come to the show. Someone who sees your show on Instagram and sends you fan art. All of those things are really valuable and kind of change your perspective and I think Rock of Ages reflects that pretty well too. 

MI: So we wamt to know about you! How did you find your passion for theatre? Was there a moment that you just knew you were born for the stage?

CR:  It's funny because my parents worked in high tech and kind of always imparted on me the importance of school and your studies and being a really hard worker. I did theatre casually. I did "Music Man" when I was 11 and I played Winthrop who is like this little kid and who like sings about the Wells Fargo wagon and I had a blast and it kind of like became my extracurricular. I realized as I was in my teen years that I was applying the hardest work ethic I had to theatre and it just kind of became a turning point for me.

I did a summer program at NYU before my senior year of high school and going to New York I got to work with a lot of industry professionals and it kind of lit that fire even more. I guess I got really lucky in that there is a lot of talent that everyone has and I have as well but I really had the work ethic and the desire to work really hard and so I think sometimes you hear these star stories about someone waltzing into a Broadway show and that has not happened for me yet, but it is something that I will put in the work for and I think there may have been a time where my parents could have been like "Oh you should be a lawyer" or, I don't know maybe something that is a little more consistent because the odds are against you as an actor in New York because it is a tough business. When I think about that first call that I went to for Rock of Ages, there had to be 300 boys there and that doesn't even include people who get agent appointments or people who rep themselves or send in videos, because we are in a digital media era. So, does that answer your question, because I feel like there are some people who are like "I was born on the stage!" and I wasn't born there, but I am happy where I ended up.

MI: It is kind of like the story of Rock of Ages.

CR: Yes, connect those dots!

MI: And speaking of dreams... is there a dream role in any play or musical in the future that you would love to play?

CR:  I love "Dear Evan Hansen." Talk about a very different show from Rock of Ages, there is a ton of meat to those high school characters. I'm still within that age-range as to someone I could portray so that would be incredible.

And then there are what they call those blockbuster shows that I would kill to be any part in, like "Wicked," I love "Phantom." I know "Miss Saigon" is on tour now. I know all of those shows are such like meaty, beautiful works of art. My whole thing is I love to work so being in any of those shows would be exciting but I think right now "Dear Evan Hansen" seems to be the target. Evan is just like a roller coaster of emotions to have to wield as an actor and that would be something that I would really welcome – that kind of challenge. 

MI: So how is being LGBTQ and out prepared or impacted your experience in the business?

CR:  You know for someone like myself it has actually been pretty favorable. I think I am here at a very lucky time. As far as being openly gay, on the spectrum, I kind of portray myself as a little effeminate and there is nothing wrong with that. The dichotomy of people seeing femininity as a weakness traces back to a systemic time of women don't have power, either way I am flamboyant and I am youthful and that lets me have a lot of work in theatre because I can play those Peter Pan's - those youthful boys.

Rock of Ages National Tour // Jeremy Daniel

I think now we are in an age of people being honest and as someone who came out in my teens, I've never felt like there was any discrimination towards myself, but at the same time, there are roles that I just don't see myself playing. I will never play Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast" and that's OK, cause I don't wanna put on the time at the gym and I'm 5'7, let's be honest here! (laughs)

I think what has been great to see in the media as to what is in theatre and film is that we are getting to see more LGBTQIA stories told, so Call Me By Your Name is an example. We had two cis-gendered hetero actors playing those roles and that is great that the story gets told, but the we have things like Pose on FX that have beautiful trans actors of color really creating the vocabulary and the optics of what really happened in the 80's with the HIV/AIDS crisis. So I think for myself there hasn't been any hinderance to being open and gay so I feel really lucky to kind of hold the hands of the ancestors in our kind of past to be where we are now.

MI: Are you excited about being in Chicago?

CR:  Oh I can't wait! I'm going to be there for a week. My twin sister is coming it's going to be amazing. I am really excited!

MI: Have you visited our slice of the Midwest before?

CR: No I haven't. I haven't literally been to Chicago ever!

MI: Any must-do's or must-see's while you're in town?

Rock of Ages National Tour // Jeremy Daniel

CR: Well I plan on having some really good deep dish. I'm a huge Top Chef fan, so Girl and the Goat and Little Goat are like on the list. And then from there I love boutique fitness so I am going to be that "white gay" and go to various boot camps. And yeah I think it's the time of year that I'm excited for too. We're getting into Chicago in April and not February - and so that is like the real lotto!

MI: Are there any charities or causes that you are involved with that you want our readers to know about?

CR: I'm not a union member, but Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is an incredible charity. I've had the pleasure of working with Easter Bonnet which is a fundraising opportunity that Broadway Cares does every year on the Minkoff Stage in New York City, I've done background vocals. It's really incredible the amount of money that theatre is able to raise and give back to those affected by HIV and AIDS and kind of all of the care that goes into it. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is incredible and the amount of information that is always available.

I know now is a politically tough time to grapple with and they are so in tune with Planned Parenthood and so in tune with co many community outreach programs. I am constantly floored with just by how much money they are able to raise but also the optics if it. How they are really able to get their message out there.

MI: It's been fun chatting this afternoon! Here's one last question before we go: sum up your life in a musical title.

CR: I say this all of the time: "My Clay Is Not Dry," because I am a piece of pottery; and I am learning and I am growing and no one should ever stop.

I think it is a one man show. I like that, but with a huge orchestra!

MI: (Laughs) That sounds fabulous! Well Chris, Thank you for taking the time out to chat. Good luck out there in Nashville and get to Chicago safely. We can't wait to see you onstage shortly!

Individual tickets for "Rock of Ages" are currently on sale and range in price from $20-$85 with a select number of premium tickets available. Tickets are available now for groups of 10 or more by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710 or emailing GroupSales@BroadwayInChicago.com. For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com. 

Interviewed by Matt Inawat. Ron Matthew Inawat is president of the GoPride Network and contributes to ChicagoPride.com, PrideLA.com and other sites within the GoPride Network.

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