It was 1965, and he was at a skating rink in Keyport, N.J. Headlining that night: The Young Rascals, who were promoting their hit "Good Lovin'." The price was $2.50.
"I'll never forget it. It was the most exciting night ever," says Van Zandt, the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. "They were phenomenal live, really quite different than anybody else. And very, very influential to this day."
Making that night even more special? A young Bruce Springsteen was also there. The two New Jersey natives would meet soon after and bond over the classic American blue-eyed soul band.
Forty-eight years later, Van Zandt has found a way to repay The Rascals by taking the original four-man band to their biggest and most unlikely stage—on Broadway.
The reunited band will play 15 performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre beginning next month (performances start April 15), a show combining live performance, video reenactments, archival concert and news footage, op-art backdrops and psychedelic lighting.
The quartet—singer Eddie Brigati, keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli—left a rich legacy of songs including "It's a Beautiful Morning," "How Can I Be Sure," "People Got to Be Free" and "I've Been Lonely Too Long."
"The musical depth is astounding when you get into it," says Van Zandt, who runs his own record label and hosts a radio show. "The Rascals are something else. They're up there with the Beatles, and Stones and Byrds. That level of musicality."
The show has some 30 Rascals songs but also finds time to explore their influence on more than music. The band was known to fight discrimination by demanding that a black act appear on the bill at each of their concerts.
Van Zandt, who shares directing duties with visual designer Marc Brickman, says the show marks a new phenomenon for Broadway: not a musical like "Jersey Boys" and also not a concert by, say, Frankie Valli.
He calls it a "bio concert" and thinks it could be the wave of the future. "This could be a new form and a new industry," he says. "We got 'Jersey Boys' with the Four Seasons in it."
Brickman, who has worked with Pink Floyd and The Black Eyed Peas and on the opening and closing ceremonies for two Olympic Games, has built a 50-foot-by-25-foot LED screen that draws in the audience.
"Stories are more important than they've ever been," says Brickman. "So now we're able to have a story told by the band about the band and they're standing right there in front of you as they play. There's an amazing synergistic quality that happens."
Getting The Rascals—The Young Rascals dropped the adjective from their name when they ditched their schoolboy outfits, knickers and knee socks—back together has been a labor of love for Van Zandt.
In 1982, after he had success reinvigorating Gary U.S. Bonds' career, he was approached to try to see if he could get The Rascals back together. It was a dead end.
"They were not ready to reunite. And I wasn't in the frame of mind to really go through all the incredible, complicated machinations to figure out why they weren't ready," he says.
Van Zandt kept in touch and in 1997 his efforts to get them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame paid off. In a humorous speech, complete with a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, Van Zandt brought down the house: "To sound that black, you had to be Italian," he joked.
The band may have inadvertently kick-started Van Zandt's acting career. TV writer David Chase happened to watch the speech and thought Van Zandt would be great on his new show, "The Sopranos."
"You can't make this stuff up, can you?" says Van Zandt. "So I have two reasons to be thankful for The Rascals."
The push to really reunite The Rascals began three years ago when Van Zandt and his wife, Maureen, were being honored at a cancer fundraiser. He wanted to do something special, and Maureen suggested he reach out to the band.
"It turned out to be the right moment," he says. "After people throwing money at them for years and them turning it down, I think the idea of coming together for a cancer benefit appealed to them."
It turns out that Van Zandt, who is filming the second season of "Lilyhammer" and planning to join Springsteen's tour after The Rascals show opens, has a knack for navigating old hurt feelings.
"It's just a matter of having the patience and the time and being able to dedicate your focus on them individually, get the whole story, figure out what the differences are between the stories and analyzing the situation," he says. "Therapy and psychology and psychiatry is all part of being a record producer."
Before the benefit, the four members of The Rascals had just three days of rehearsal—the first time they'd played together in decades—and Van Zandt was blown away.
"Oh my God, I'll never forget that as long as I live. The minute they started playing it was like 'Oh my God. Wow. It's real, that chemistry thing.' You always hear about that chemistry thing. There it is. It is like magic. I was astounded at rehearsal."
Hoping to keep the momentum going, Van Zandt conceived of the current show. In December the four original Rascals performed it for six sold-out shows at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y.
For Van Zandt, keeping them together for Broadway was his expression of gratitude. "How do I thank them? Well, reuniting them was not enough in the end," he says. "It was like, 'OK, that's a miracle.' But not miraculous enough for me."
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