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Mick Jones, founding member of the rock group Foreigner, is photographed at the Elgin Theatre rehearsal space on Feb 5 2018. Jukebox Hero The Musical, based on the band's music, will be touring in select Canadian cities this summer. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Anyone who listened to rock radio in the early 1980s should be able to recall the star-eyed protagonist of the hit Foreigner song Juke Box Hero. Just one guitar, slung way down low, was his one-way ticket – the only way to go.

Decades later, classic rock as a chart-topping genre is a spent force. One guitar (even if slung more ergonomically) no longer offers much promise. High-school guidance counsellors are loath to recommend rock-starring as a viable career choice. Not that there isn’t a market for olden, golden ensemble rock music. Four of the six top grossing North American tours last year featured men in their Carlsberg years: U2, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Roger Waters.

So, the jukebox hero lives on, not only in arenas, but in staged musicals. Rock of Ages, which takes its name from a Def Leppard song and which features the music of Journey, Foreigner and other 80s rock staples, ran on Broadway for a whopping 2,328 performances. And now, coming to a theatre near you (if you live in Alberta or Toronto), is Jukebox Hero itself.

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The rock musical, featuring the anthemic romantic ballads and more rugged fare from the Foreigner canon, begins previews on Friday (through Sunday) at Calgary’s Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, before moving to Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium (Aug. 16 to Aug. 19). Jukebox Hero, a production of Foreigner and Calgary-based Annerin Theatricals, is set to make its world premiere with a four-show run at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre, beginning on Feb. 21, 2019.

Although a Foreigner-based jukebox musical seems like an odd choice, the idea for it didn’t arrive completely out of the blue. It actually came from, of all people, Diana Ross.

“I was travelling, when my flight was delayed,” explained Mick Jones, Foreigner’s architect, guitarist and chief songwriter. “I went to the airport lounge and there was Diana Ross. I’d never met her before, but we got on like a house on fire.”

The former Supreme suggested to Jones that Foreigner’s music belonged in a movie or a stage production. The meeting happened in the 1980s, but it set in motion the notion that the soaring, semi-spiritual theatrics of something such as I Want to Know What Love Is was tailor-made for a musical. “It was 10 or 15 years before I began to think about it seriously,” said Jones, who spoke to The Globe and Mail in Toronto during auditions for Jukebox Hero. “But she put that seed in my mind.”

Years later, an initial treatment for a Foreigner musical was worked up, but nothing came of it. Eventually, Calgary producer Jeff Parry joined forces with Foreigner manager Phil Carson to get the ball seriously rolling. Carson, a former senior executive at Atlantic Records and record-business legend, had previously worked together with Parry on Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience.

The veteran British writing duo of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (whose history together spans the mid-1960s sitcom The Likely Lads to Julie Taymor’s Beatle-song musical Across the Universe from 2007) was commissioned to write the Jukebox Hero book.

“I suggested we start with I Wanna Know What Love Is, end with Waiting For Girl Like You, and all we had to do was fill in the middle," La Frenais said with a chuckle. “The funny thing is,” cracks Clement, “that’s what we’re doing.”

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In fact, stringing together a jukebox musical isn’t as simple as it sounds. The lyrics to Blue Morning, Blue Day, for example, were altered to address the plight of a struggling Pennsylvania steel town. For a story about two brothers (one a rock star; the other a veteran), popular songs were dropped because they didn’t further the narrative.

Judging from a video clip of the title song on director Randy Johnson’s website, Jukebox Hero will be a concert-like experience. The appeal will be the well-known songs; that the band Foreigner won’t be singing them shouldn’t be an issue at all. Unlike many of its peers, the British-American group was never a personality-driven act and, according to the band’s manager, its material is more recallable than the band name.

“Even with all the hits, Foreigner is not up there in the public perception with the Eagles and Journey and Fleetwood Mac,” said Carson, known for his associations with Yes, ABBA, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Speaking from New York, Carson said people will often tell him they’ve never heard of Foreigner. It’s not until he rattles off the names of a few hits or hums a few bars of Feels Like the First Time that the recognition kicks in.

“It’s the bane of my existence,” quipped Carson, good-naturedly frustrated that the name of one of the top-selling rock bands of all time isn’t on the tip of everybody’s tongues.

Foreigner’s Jones isn’t as concerned. His band tours successfully today with only one original member – himself – and sometimes even he doesn’t make the gig. “I believe our music is timeless,” he said. “Kids show up to our concerts and they know all the words.”

Kids, mind you, who might not even know what a jukebox is. But the hero? He (or she) lives on.

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