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Rock and Roll Man

Constantine Maroulis (Photo by Joan Marcus)


Rock and Roll Man


By Cammy Paglia



The excellent Off-Broadway musical Rock and Roll Man tells the devastating tale of legendary Alan Freed (impeccably played by Constantine Maroulis), the innovative DJ destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Aria) in a corset and a woman’s wig.  Freed was the promoter of hits by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Lavern Baker, Buddy Holly, and other groundbreaking artists of the 1950s and 60s. He fostered the work of many Black artists on white radio stations, an unheard-of practice at the time. 

Rock and Roll Man masterfully showcases these stars through the performances of Rodrick Covington as Little Richard, Valisia Lekae as Lavern Baker, Andy Christopher as both Buddy Holly and Pat Boone, Eric B. Turner as Bo Diddley, Dominique Scott as Jerry Lee Lewis and Dick Clark, Jamonte  as Frankie Lymon and Dave Cooper) and Matthew S. Morgan as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Chuck Berry. The music performances in this show are earth shattering; these artists are dynamos.

The storyline magnificently details Freed’s trial in a dream he has as he is approaching his death. In the dream he is tried for promoting the downfall of white kids who will be led into a nightmare of sex and drugs and criminal activity. (Little Richard plays his lawyer in gold lame, and he is hysterical and musically sensational.) However, in actuality, Alan Freed was put on trial for accepting payments from record companies in exchange for broadcasting their tunes on his radio shows without telling the listening audience. Rock and Roll Man, of course, revolves around this practice, which was dubbed “payola”—a contraction for the words “pay” and “Victrola” or play for pay.  

However, as previously stated, Alan Feed’s true transgression was promoting what the bigots of his day called “race music.” He was terribly persecuted for encouraging racial mixing on the dance floors and advancing and promoting the musical talents of Black artists. Segregation was in full swing (no pun intended) and full integration was a serious threat to the powers that be.


A group of people dancing on a stage

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Roderick Covington and the ensemble of Rock and Roll Man. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Alan Freed is credited for coining the term rock and roll and offered a shot at fame and fortune to the disenfranchised “outlaws,” who happened to have black skin. This rock and roll man started his DJing in Cleveland, the home of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, yet his induction into its hallowed halls was unequivocally banned at first; he was eventually inducted, years later).  The man who was blamed for fanning the flames of the demise of Western civilization was a passionate entertainer in love with his work. He was not necessarily motivated by money, although some may argue this to the contrary. 

However, enter Morris Levy, whose character came to life by the riveting performance of Joe Pantoliano, who also played a phenomenal Leo Mintz, the Cleveland record shop owner who inspired Freed. This is where Freed first marveled at the records that Leo sold to both Black and white kids who went wild over them. 

Levy was connected to organized crime. In Rock and Roll Man he is surrounded by threatening Mafia types—one brandishing a baseball bat. Levy is a cutthroat, ruthless, and greedy entrepreneur (he owned the original Birdland jazz club) and he kicked Freed to the curb when their partnership went bust. His diatribe against him is vicious. It can be up for debate as to whether or not Mo Levy is actually Alan Freed’s foil. See the show and you decide.


Alan Freed was a complicated man. Rock and Roll Man is a commanding portrayal of the intricacies of someone embroiled in the zeitgeist of an era that spewed racial hatred, twisted religiosity and ruthless political agendas. In the end, Freed died a jobless, penniless pariah, scorned by his peers. He was 43 years old. His alcoholism was the official cause of death but classifying it as dying of a broken heart would be more accurate. 

See this play for its historical merit; enjoy the fabulous music (wondrously executed by composer, lyricist, Garry Kupper). Marvel at the spectacular choreography of Stephanie Klemons, Yijun Yang’s stimulating, engaging and fun set design and Leon Dobkowski’s exquisite costume design.


You will leave the theater saddened by Alan Freed’s torment but incessantly snapping your fingers and tapping your feet. How could you not? It’s hard to refrain from such behavior when “Great Balls of Fire”, “Peggy Sue”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Ain’t That a Shame”, “Yakety Yak”, “Why do Fools Fall in Love”, “Smoke gets in your Eyes”, “Maybellene” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” as well as other timeless tunes can’t be driven out of your head.

Rock and Roll Man
New World Stages—Stage 3
340 West 50th Street, New York, NY
Run time  2 hours and 30 minutes (one intermission)
Through November 5, 2023
Tickets  or call  Telecharge 212 239 6200