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‘Helldrivers of Daytona’ rocks ’60s camp films

Danny Herman directs a scene from "Helldrivers of Daytona," during a rehearsal at the Royal George Theater on August 24, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

When Berton Averre and Rob Meurer met more than two decades ago at the Lehman Engle Musical Theater Workshop, little did they know they were about to enter into a partnership that would take their careers in a new direction. It was a given that they had a common love of musical theater, but there was more.

‘Helldrivers of Daytona’

When: Sept. 8-Oct. 30

Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted

Tickets: $55-$65

Info: ticketmaster.com

“We discovered we had similar tastes in comedy and music,” Averre said, adding with a laugh, “Plus we had the same favorite Prokofiev classical piece and the same favorite Lesley Gore song. Not to many people are going to have such like minds.”

They also each had backgrounds in rock music that sealed the deal. Averre is the lead guitarist of The Knack (he co-wrote the hit “My Sharona”) and Meurer is Christopher Cross’ writing partner. Since that meeting, they’ve written a handful of musicals, among them “Jungle Man!” and “Setup and Punch.” Their latest effort, “Helldrivers of Daytona,” with a book by Mark Saltzman, is set for a world premiere production at the Royal George Theatre.

“Helldrivers” revolves around the story of country boy Lucky Stubbs (James Nedrud), whose aim is to win the big race and secure his future with the prize money, and innocent but perky Pepper Johnson (Samantha Pauly) who hopes to meet a glamorous international racecar driver. Of course, Lucky get in her way and things go off-course.

Danny Herman directs a scene from the upcoming production of “Helldrivers of Daytona” during a rehearsal at the Royal George Theater on August 24, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times
Danny Herman directs a scene from the upcoming production of “Helldrivers of Daytona” during a rehearsal at the Royal George Theater on August 24, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“It’s campy fun — loud, vulgar and sexy,” Nedrud says. “Right now, I think people need a good laugh and this show offers a romping good time.”

“Helldrivers” takes inspiration from 1960s camp movies like “Spin Out,” “Palm Springs Weekend” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” It also relies heavily on inspiration drawn from the ’60s pop and rock music Averre and Meurer grew up on. But at first, Averre admits the duo steered clear of any rock influences.

“Rob and I had really bent over backwards to write legitimate scores because we didn’t just want to go rock,” Averre recalls. “At the time, rock musicals were pretty bad and we thought that wasn’t really doing musical theater any favors.”

It was Saltzman, a playwright and multiple Emmy-winner for his work on “Sesame Street,” who convinced them that rock is just the starting point, much like klezmer was the starting point for “Fiddler on the Roof” and vaudeville the starting point for “Gypsy.”

“Mark’s explanation just made sense,” Averre said. “I mean writing a ’60s score using all of our favorite styles of music, that’s right in our wheelhouse. We’re ’60s children so that part of it was like a kid in a candy store.”

The next question — What’s the narrative? — was answered when Saltzman suggested a spoof pairing those aforementioned movies with the music of the era. Rock ‘n’ roll movies, car movies, beach movies were all up for grabs.

“These are some of the worst movies ever made,” Saltzman says with a laugh. “The sexual revolution was beginning and these movies, made by an older generation, had this strange repressed sexuality. ”

Saltzman offers the example of actress Ann-Margret who, when she danced and sang in movies like Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas,” “was this sexed up vixen but as soon as the music ended she went virginal,” Saltzman says. “Helldrivers” plays on that idea via Pepper, Saltzman adds: “She’s just unaware of how effusive she is when she sings and then she goes back to being the squeaky clean girl next door. So we’re playing with those kind of tropes from the movies.”

As for the music, it’s a mash-up of ‘60s styles — girl group type numbers, Beach Boy and Four Seasons’ inspired harmonies, for the bad guy number the jumping off point was Kurt Weill and, of course, there’s the inevitable car crash ditty.

“Berton and Rob really understand pop songs,” Saltzman says. “It’s like a stack of records at a ‘60s party. Each time a record drops, it sounds like a hit song.”

Averre admits that writing musical theater is not a natural offshoot for a rock musician. The Lehman-Engel workshop taught them to be disciplined and to understand what makes a musical work.

“Frankly, I think if rock musicals don’t do well, it’s probably because the genre is not really well suited to musical theater without tweaks. You have to be aware why musical theater is a wonderful way to spend an evening and then make sure your music supports that and doesn’t get in the way.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.