Call Him Mr. Loaf

The New Yorker

How the SpongeBob-loving star of “Bat Out of Hell: The Musical” wound up as the lead in Meat Loaf's teen-lust epic.

People familiar with Meat Loaf’s seminal 1977 album, “Bat Out of Hell,” whose cover art features a long-haired man on a horse-skulled motorcycle, flying up through a graveyard, into a flame-red sky, under the gaze of an enormous bat, will remember one song’s distinctive come-on. “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?” a man asks. A provocative dialogue ensues. In “Bat Out of Hell: The Musical,” now at City Center, after runs in the U.K. and Toronto, the question functions as a riddle, asked repeatedly by the show’s hero, Strat, played by Andrew Polec, on his search for love in the post-apocalyptic city of Obsidian, where he lives with his street gang, the Lost, sometime after the chemical wars. The question is a stumper. Even when it’s posed on the Meat Loaf album, Polec said the other day, “you’re like, ‘What is this? Like, why? And whose voice is that?’ ” That last question, at least, is easily answered. “It’s Jim,” Polec said.

Andrew Polec
Andrew Polec

Jim Steinman, seventy-one, is the songwriter behind “Bat Out of Hell” and its two sequels, which together have sold some hundred million copies, and the musical, which also includes hits that he wrote for Air Supply and Celine Dion. (Hellfire, it turns out, transitions seamlessly to “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”) Polec has starred in the show since it began, in 2017. As Strat, wide-eyed and belting out rock anthems with ease, he prances shirtless in leather pants, falls in love with Raven (Christina Bennington), rattles her powerful parents (Bradley Dean and Lena Hall), stands on a chopper, kneels under a Mylar-glitter snowfall, smears stage blood on his torso, and gets crucifictorious with a mike cord. Superfans have tattoos of the Lost gang’s symbol and of Polec himself. The day before the New York première, as an image of him writhed across a Times Square jumbotron, Polec revisited the spot where his “Bat” journey began: a building on West Forty-third Street, formerly home to a casting agency and now a WeWork.

Polec, thirty, is willowy and muscular, with a puff of blond hair, blue eyes, and the cosmic wonder of the angel in “Barbarella.” He wore all black: boots, skinny jeans, T-shirt, bolero hat. In 2015, as an unknown, he auditioned there for “The SpongeBob Musical.” “I was, like, ‘I love SpongeBob! SpongeBob is my life! ’ ” he said. “I brought this to the audition.” He held up a child-size SpongeBob backpack. Auditioners were asked to bring an instrument, so he’d brought a large red drum. “I bombed,” he said. Before he left, another actor said, “There’s a ‘Bat Out of Hell’ audition down the street.”

Polec was incredulous. “Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’?” he asked.

“No,” the actor said. “Some Jim guy.”

Polec knew all about the Jim guy: “Bat Out of Hell” was also his life. He raced to Pearl Studios, near Thirty-fifth Street, trying not to bump pedestrians with his drum. He retraced that journey now, making his way down Eighth Avenue in his SpongeBob backpack and talking about his love of Meat Loaf. Polec discovered “Bat Out of Hell” as a teen-age athlete, after a bicycle accident ended his lacrosse career. (Steep hill, blind turn, desire to “keep going fast.” “I Supermanned,” he said.) As he recovered from a severe head injury, his parents played seventies rock to cheer him up. Hearing “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf’s teen-lust epic, on themes of baseball, parking, and regret, Polec was thunderstruck. “Meat Loaf is like an athlete of the voice,” he said. He focussed his energy in a rock-and-roll direction. Leads in high-school musicals followed (Lancelot, Beanstalk Jack, Harold Hill), then theatre at the University of Rochester and at Brown.

At Pearl Studios, Polec took the elevator to the twelfth floor. His audition room was empty, and he entered, reënacting the moment. “I was, like, ‘I’m going to sing Jet, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” while bangin’ on this drum,’ ” he said. He got a callback—with drum—for a supporting role, and was cast as the lead.

A few hours before showtime, in his dressing room at City Center, Polec recalled meeting Meat Loaf. “I called him Mr. Loaf,” Polec said. “He said, ‘Call me Meat.’ ” Meat gave him some advice: “Make it your flesh, make it your blood. Give it as a gift to the audience.” Performing in the show “feels like love,” Polec said. “Meat Loaf passed the torch to us. It’s an honor to take that fire from Mt. Olympus and pass it around.” The torch isn’t all they share. “Meat said that when he was in high school, at a track-and-field event, he was hit in the head with a shot put,” Polec said. “That’s how he started singing.”