One name says it all: Dion.
And even if you don’t know the name, you know the songs. “Running Sue.” “The Vagabond.” These songs defined the era of pre-invasion British rock, and they have lasted for over 60 years.
Dion is the subject of the new biographical musical The Vagabond, running at the Paper Mill Playhouse from March 24 to April 24, in anticipation of a Broadway future. Written by Charles Messina and featuring the timeless songs of Dion, the show tells the story of a Bronx kid who started singing under a street lamp and had a meteoric rise to fame. It’s a boundless affair, says Dion, which will also touch major turning points in his life: not getting on the plane that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper; his 15-year heroin addiction and struggle to get clean; and finding the faith and love that helped change her life.
Ahead of the race, Dion told TheaterMania about the “transcendent” experience of putting on the show.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How are the rehearsals going?
It’s miraculous. I hate to use the magic word because it sounds manipulative. I would use the word “transcendent” or I would say it takes you to a place of enchantment. I watch this stuff and I learned so much. I have become a believer.
It’s big for me. You know, I’m an easy-to-understand guy. I used to listen to Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams as a kid, and they took me to a place of fun and delight. All my life I’ve tried to pass that on to others and I can do that with a three-minute song, or a 70-minute, 90-minute album. This piece is two hours and fifteen minutes long, but I feel like it does the same thing, in a different medium.
Charles Messina, who wrote it, took the straw of my life and spun it into gold. He is a rhythmic author. The rhythm, the spirit that I have with music, he does it with words. The director, Kenneth Ferrone, is from Vero Beach, and I thought “How is this guy from Vero Beach going to know what the Bronx is?” But this guy had to take a chemistry course. He knows what makes people explode. He knows what makes them come in and not want to talk. He just has a gift for the dynamics between relationships. I’ve never seen my youth wasted in terms of choreography. Sarah O’Gleby, who does the choreography, she has these dancers and they’re almost like actors in the scene. If it’s dramatic, you’ll feel their pain as they dance.
How is it to watch your story unfold, particularly as portrayed by Mike Wartella, Christy Altomare and Joey McIntyre?
It’s lovely. I loved Mike the day I met him. I don’t keep notes — I’m not a singer like that. I am a rhythm singer. You could give me a rhythm and I could get it. So that’s where Mike is. Mike is a rhythm singer. He knows how to get into the song and make people feel it. It’s not technique; it’s just enjoying the song and getting into the song. There is something about him that struck me. I told him not to try to copy me, but he understood the essence of the songs.
Joey McIntyre, I’ll tell you the truth, you’re going to be very surprised by this guy. You have to come see the show and it will blow your mind. And Christy Altomare is lovely. Their work ethic, their talent, they are master craftsmen, these people. There’s something between Christy, Mike and Joey that permeates the atmosphere.
And not just them. Kingsley Leggs – he’s another guy, the way he sings resonates with me. I don’t know how else to say it. He could make people feel it. He could groove and he could communicate, you know? And Jasmine Rogers too. I don’t know if you’ve seen this girl before, but she’s a rock star.
You’ve been singing some of those songs – “Runaround Sue”, “The Wanderer”, for 60 years now. How does it feel to rediscover them as part of this show, rather than doing them on stage during a concert?
I watch the show and the thought comes to me, “No wonder people like my records.” They are good! On a personal level, Christy Altomare does an a cappella thing to “Teenager in Love” in the piece that totally broke my heart. I said to myself “I never knew what this song was about”. I’ve been singing it for years and never knew what it was until I heard him sing it. What madness it was. I sang it for so long, just jumping to the beat. I do not know. She reached my heart.
Does the show accurately describe the unique musical era you grew up in?
It does. He had to express himself a certain way. I grew up in one of the greatest musical generations of all time, and I feel that because rock and roll didn’t exist at that time. We invented it. It was Chuck Berry. It was Jerry Lee Lewis. It was the Everly Brothers. It was little Richard. We invited this teenage identity. When I was growing up, there was Frank Sinatra, but there was no teenage music. I was right there at the right time, and it needed to be expressed, and it does that well.
Did you expect to be a musical comedy guy after all these years?
Never. It just wasn’t on my radar. With rock and roll, you go out and play with people. It’s like a gang. There is solidarity in a group, but, you know, when the Beatles were successful, they all had different lawyers. It’s about 60 people in a room cheering and encouraging each other. Even with all of our human flaws and flaws, seeing this… You always hear this stuff and it sounds trivial, but to be in the middle of it is actually touching. And I don’t get hit that easily, man. It’s a good feeling to be among these talented people. If I had known it was this fun, I would have gotten involved in it a long time ago.