Bat Out Of Hell is back as a $12 million musical. Jim Steinman’s Meat Loaf stage show joins the ranks of “unbelievably profitable” productions, says its producer David Sonenberg. But the whole lucrative Bat phenomenon very nearly failed at birth in the 1970s, he says in an interview.
Sonenberg, who has managed Meat Loaf and Steinman, put his own money into the idea and says that the clear business lesson is that persistence pays.
As the rock extravaganza opens with a permanent home at London’s Dominion Theatre, Sonenberg discusses the business of Broadway and West-End musicals. The three Bat albums and greatest-hits collections have sold more than 100 million copies, with the 1977 original exceeding 45 million, making it one of the best-selling records of all time. The 2018 production has even better staging than the version which was a critical and commercial success with three-month trial runs in Manchester, London’s Coliseum and Toronto last year. German and Australian performances and a North American tour are planned; it may well have a Broadway run and movie version at some point, Sonenberg says. Still, he says it took more than five years to get the music released – and 15 years to get it to the stage.
Sonenberg says he had a record deal with Warner himself before going to Harvard Law School to become an entertainment lawyer: “Then I met Meat Loaf, because he was at The Public Theater as an actor, and my firm represented its Joe Papp, who in 1969 had commissioned a play by Jim Steinman did at Amherst, Dream Engine.” Steinman followed it with a draft musical called Neverland, with a Peter-Pan theme of never growing old. Sonenberg went to see it being developed at a Kennedy Center Workshop: “I was blown away: many songs went on to be on Bat Out of Hell. It was thrilling. Steinman had not taken any words from [Peter Pan author] James Barrie but there was a Peter, a Wendy, a Hook and a Tink and the title and I said, ‘You are going to have to clear rights.’” With Britain’s Great Ormond Street Hospital standing to benefit from the Barrie Estate, the British lawyer representing the author’s works refused, saying he was baffled by a musical which at that early stage featured killer nuns on motorcycles.
“I said to Steinman: ‘You can’t do Neverland, so why don’t you make a record?’” said Sonenberg. By then Sonenberg had a reputation as a lawyer representing Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and Southside Johnny, but he got nowhere in 18 months sending around demos: “People said, ‘Meat Loaf, what sort of a name is that?’ He was a good old boy from Texas and singing southern boogie type stuff like Pavarotti. People thought the songs were way too theatrical, like a circus, and they went on for eight minutes. Steinman was like an intellectual Orson Welles with an emotional sensibility frozen like a 17-year-old.”
They met musician Todd Rundgren who said for $35,000 they could record the album effectively on spec. Sonenberg’s uncle put up the cash and Rundgren produced it: “It sounded amazing and we were all thrilled.” Unfortunately, their enthusiasm was not shared by Rundgren’s manager Albert Grossman, manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the founder of Bearsville Records. They offered him the work for $75,000.
“I went to Bearsville to take a meeting with Grossman. I was a little intimidated because he was a very big man in every respect, I drove 2½ hours and the meeting lasted about a minute. He said: ‘There is no point in us talking. I don’t like Meat Loaf.’ I asked why and he said: ‘He’s too fat.’ Meanwhile Meat Loaf was considerably slimmer than (400lb) Albert.”
With his own money and reputation now on the line, Sonenberg spent another year trying to shop the word to every label: “Nobody liked it. It finally came out on a small label called Cleveland International and it was very difficult getting traction. It was considered far too theatrical to be a record or on the radio.”
Sonenberg later had the problem in reverse. “People thought it was too rock and roll for the stage. Theater is a tough nut to crack when maybe 85% of productions do not recoup their capital investment: you have to have a great team and a great director. We spent the best part of 15 years working with all kinds of directors.” Many wanted to ditch the ‘Peter Pan’ idea and just make a jukebox musical. Meanwhile Meat Loaf and Steinman “had a very contentious relationship. I managed both of them and it almost killed the three of us.” After years of lawsuits and “lots of yelling and screaming between the two of them, Meat met with me and asked if I could put together a Bat Out of Hell 2 project and I structured a deal both in England and America. Steinman had written a bunch more music for what was going to be his Neverland project including the song “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” and Bat 2 sold 28 million records, which was not chopped liver. Even in that success they managed to cross each other up. It was a complicated relationship because Steinman was the creative genius writing the music and lyrics and Meat was the persona that everybody knew. I’m sure a lot of people think Meat wrote the material. Steinman maybe felt he wasn’t getting enough attention and Meat maybe felt Steinman was too controlling artistically.
“Today they love each other, I mean truly love each other, though neither of them is particularly healthy and I am hoping they both are going to rebound. Steinman is slowly recovering and Meat Loaf has had some massive back surgery and a back brace right now. I spoke to him on the phone the other day. I am hoping he will be over to see the show in October and Steinman hasn’t been over to see the show either because he has been in hospital but he is starting to feel better too.”
The budget for the stage show was $12 million; on its initial run the producers brought it in for £7 million (about $9.8 million). Since it has already played to more than 500,000 people, Sonenberg says they have recovered “a significant part of that investment.”
“While most shows don’t make money, very few really score. Witness the success of Wicked and Lion King – or Andrew Lloyd Webber with Phantom, Cats and Les Misérables. When they really do hit, it is unbelievably profitable. It is unlike film, where 50% of the box-office receipts stay with the theater. Here, you are renting the theater out and so the bulk of the money goes to the investors and the creative people involved.”
The hardest thing is finding the right theatrical real-estate for the shows, he says, when a big spectacle like Bat needs a lot of space. It might have headed for Broadway next, but then the Dominion became available. The Tottenham Court Road theater was previously home to one the longest running musicals in the West End - We Will Rock You. The Queen musical was hit with a lot of disdain from critics and the theatre world but was a huge bit office smash. Sonenberg says the public loves musicals, while the theater world treats them as outsiders. Still, each is in a tough market, fighting other jukebox shows, dramatizations of movies and even spin-offs books such as Harry Potter.
While Meat Loaf was Sonenberg’s first client and Jimmy Iovine his second, he has signed 40 artists such as the Fugees, Black Eyed Peas and John Legend. He also produced the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. He says artists represented by his DAS Communications have written, produced, and performed recordings with sales well in excess of 300 million records.
With characters named Strat, Raven, Falco and so on, the show comes on and “like Peter Pan crossed with West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet, “ he says. “I am particularly relieved that the real hardcore Bat fans ae buying it. Just last night, there was a girl behind me when I was waiting to get a drink at the interval and she said has been seen it 36 times.”
Meanwhile the theater offers Bat Out Of Hell lager, place mats, shirts, keys rings and much more. The money machine is doing well in 2018. Not bad for a project very nearly canned as being hopeless 40 years ago. If you believe in something, don’t give up, Sonenberg insists. Persistence pays.