The long, winding, and hugely successful if slightly bumpy road that has been Dennis DeYoung’s life found him one recent morning on the fourth floor of the Broadway Theater Center in Milwaukee.
It was a large room filled with a dozen people, some in costumes and all in masks. The music came from the piano in the corner and vocals from some of the cast members of the Skylight Music Theater’s upcoming production of DeYoung’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“Of course I’m excited, are you kidding?” said DeYoung, wearing a white mask the color of his hair and a black leather jacket. “The nature of this collaboration, all these young talents…to see it come together is a rare pleasure.”
He lives in an apartment near the theater in this artsy and trendy neighborhood of Milwaukee known as the Third Ward with his wife Suzanne, his childhood sweetheart to whom he has been married for 52 years. They have two adult children, Carrie Ann, owner of a design company in Florida, and Matthew, who lives in Orland Park and is a lighting designer who provided the lights for “Hunchback”.
The DeYoungs, who have been living for a long time in a nice house in the western suburbs of Chicago, have been here for weeks and will stay until the show opens on Friday and possibly throughout its run.
“It’s so nice to get out of the house,” Suzanne said. “We’ve been more or less locked up for two years.”
You probably know DeYoung as a founding member of one of the most successful rock bands in history, Styx. He and It sprang from the Roseland neighborhood over half a century ago, first called Trade Winds, then TW4 before settling on Styx. Comprised of DeYoung and teenage buddies, it would become one of the biggest bands of the 1970s and 1980s. Lady”, “The Grand Illusion”, “Come Sail Away”, and more.
During these years, DeYoung was interested in acting. Indeed, some of Styx’s albums and concerts have taken on a theatrical feel, especially the later albums “Paradise Theater” and “Kilroy Was Here”. When he was not on the road, performing in front of millions of people, he frequently attended the local theater. In 1993, an assistant producer at his sister-in-law’s wedding invited him to play Pontius Pilate in a touring production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” When the show played in Chicago, Tribune reviewer Richard Christiansen praised how “DeYoung cleanly explodes Pilate’s limited role”. It was while on the road with this show that DeYoung began writing songs for what would be “Hunchback.”
As he embarked on acting and a successful solo recording career, Styx began to fall apart. Some will tell you it was because of personality clashes during the band’s 1996 and 1997 tours, after DeYoung returned after a few years away; band member Tommy Shaw disparaging DeYoung in interviews; the death of original member drummer John Panozzo; a controversial Styx episode on VH1’s “Beyond the Music”; and DeYoung’s struggles with a rare condition that caused severe sensitivity to light and fatigue.
Band members James Young and Shaw created a new Styx and continued without him. He remains active, with a new album and upcoming tour dates, including a June 4 gig at Tinley Park. On the band’s website, Young says, “Dennis led the charge to the top of the charts. He’s an amazing singer, a driven writer who wrote great lyrics and a very strong keyboard player. He just didn’t want to be part of a democracy. We really wish him good luck. We’ve done an amazing job together, but there’s no reason we should work together again.
So okay. DeYoung was in Milwaukee, chatting with Michael Unger, artistic director of Skylight, director of “Hunchback” and longtime fan.
Unger grew up in Highland Park and says he helped paint the basement walls where the Steppenwolf Theater was born. “And I was a huge Styx fan. The first time I saw them was when I was in seventh grade and they were playing in Alpine Valley,” he said. nearly 30 years for this show to hit the stage.”
Then he explained how he met DeYoung on the sidewalk after a Steppenwolf show in the mid-1990s. He was invited over to DeYoung’s house to hear him perform and sing the whole “Hunchback” show. He would visit several times, returning once in the company of Gary Sinise from Steppenwolf.
“‘Hunchback’ was never the right choice for Steppenwolf but I loved it,” Unger says. “I then told Dennis that if I ever had the chance to run a theater, I would do his show.”
As Unger continued to shape a laudable career in acting, “Hunchback” had its world premiere in 1997 at the Tennessee Repertory Theater and in 2008 was staged here by the Bailiwick Theater.
I saw this production and I was not the only person to be impressed. My colleague Chris Jones, reviewing the show for the Tribune, wrote of DeYoung’s “powerful, brooding ballads”, “throbbing melodic lines”, “infectious musical passion” and continued: “Very few composers can write such attractive hooks. And the theater needs them all… [DeYoung] could help put Broadway back in touch with some of its hardest-working customers.
The musical won a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Mid-Range Musical in 2008, an accolade DeYoung said he “cherished as much as anything I’ve ever won.”
This was followed by his joining, as a composer, the creative team of “101 Dalmatians”, a musical that had nothing to do with Walt Disney’s famous film version of the story. It was directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks and toured the country to generally favorable reviews.
“My first and last love will always be rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “I started playing the accordion when I was a kid and it started to make The Beatles dream. Theater fascinates me and the challenge of writing for it is a challenge that all songwriters would love to explore.
He continued to make music, becoming a top chart-topper in Canada and releasing “26 East, Vol. 1”, which refers to the address of the two apartments he grew up in at 26 East 101st Place. stayed in touch with Unger who, after being named Artistic Director of Skylight in 2019, told DeYoung he would open his inaugural season with ‘Hunchback’ But then came the pandemic and life and acting were put on hold .
There was palpable excitement and easy camaraderie in the fourth-floor rehearsal room in Milwaukee. Among the performers was Unger’s wife, Janet Metz, an accomplished actress who plays Mahiette in “Hunchback.”
She was joined by Alanis Sophia, a 21-year-old who was a finalist on “American Idol” in the 2021 season. She will play Esmeralda, while Ben Gulley, a formidable physical and vocal presence, will play Quasimodo.
“It was always my intention to air this show locally,” Unger said. “We had over 700 people audition for the seven roles on the show.”
The biggest name in the cast is longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member Kevin Anderson, most recently seen at the 2017 world premiere of Tracy Letts’ “The Minutes,” whose Broadway production was recently nominated for a Tony Awards.
Anderson plays the lead role of Frollo, archdeacon of Notre Dame and adoptive father of Quasimodo. Born and raised in Gurnee, he now lives nearby. Perhaps you saw him in Steppenwolf’s now legendary ‘Orphans’ in 1985 or later on Broadway as Biff in ‘Death of a Salesman’; on television as Father Ray in “Nothing Sacred” or in the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy” with Julia Roberts. He’s a good actor but less known as a singer, although he played Joe Gillis opposite Patti LuPone in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ in 1993 in London.
“I wasn’t sure at first if these songs were in my wheelhouse, but they sure are,” he said. “These are great songs and I can’t believe this show hasn’t been on Broadway. Dennis is a great songwriter and his music with Styx got me through my young adulthood.
DeYoung often smiles when he hears such memories and he often hears them, the pleasing result of having sold over 30 million albums as part of Styx and on his own. He looks back on his rock ‘n’ roll years with no regrets. “Being a rock star is the best job in the world,” he once told me. “And the reasons are simple: it takes the least amount of talent, makes the most money and has the most enthusiastic fans.”
He is still performing and is expected to hit the road later this year.
But “Hunchback” is now firmly his goal. He is enthusiastic, full of hope. Any criticism of previous productions tended to focus on the musical’s book, which is the non-musical script. As Jones said, “The book is barely a book…in this simplified version of Victor Hugo’s novel.”
DeYoung took those criticisms to heart and head.
“Michael and I have been working like crazy for two years,” DeYoung said. “The musical is a complicated beast, so many pieces have to fit together. I think we fixed some issues, fixed some things that left the audience in the dark. It now has the potential to be as good as anything I’ve ever done.
Who knows? The road continues.
“Hunchback” opens Friday and is scheduled to run through June 12 at the Skylight Music Theater, 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee; 414-291-7800 and www.skylightmusictheatre.org