On a summer night at a roller rink in 1966, two teenage Jersey boys bought $2.50 tickets to their destinies. • One was named Bruce. The other was called Stevie, seeing his first big-name concert. The band that night was then named the Young Rascals, riding their No. 1 hit, Good Lovin'. • Decades later, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt covered Good Lovin' in a concert of their own. • "If you listen to the music closely you can trace the E Street Band, especially on this tour, straight back to the Rascals," Van Zandt, 62, said by telephone from a recent stop in Denmark. "It's a very, very direct line."
No one cherishes that link more than Van Zandt, Springsteen's guitarist since Born to Run and one of Tony Soprano's colorful associates. Van Zandt is a longtime crusader for the Rascals' posterity since the band was a comet compared to rock 'n' roll's constellations, lasting only five years before flaming out.
"We finally got them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was great, but that wasn't quite enough for me," said Van Zandt, who gave the induction speech. "I just felt their place in history needed to be a bit more secure. This was the way to do it."
"This" is a unique stage show titled Once Upon a Dream, a multimedia hybrid of Rascals reunion concert and chronicle of the band's tumultuous era. Van Zandt wrote, directed and co-produced the show that debuted at a Port Chester, N.Y., theater in December. By April it was packing the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. Now it's traveling the country, showcasing 28 songs defining the 1960s, including Groovin', You Better Run and People Got to Be Free.
Once Upon a Dream is remarkable for two reasons: All four Rascals are still alive and kickin' out the jams, and reuniting them harmoniously was impossible a few years ago. After decades of helping to mend their relations, strained by legal wrangling over using the Rascals name and song catalog, Van Zandt talked the band into playing at a cancer benefit in 2010.
"It was just the right time for all of us," said Rascals drummer Dino Danelli, 68. "It just all made sense … We looked at one another and said we're nuts; why haven't we been doing this for years?"
The answers are still points of contention the Rascals prefer "left under the table, not spoken about," according to singer and organist Felix Cavaliere, 70. One thing he and the other Rascals openly agree on is that none of this resurgence — certainly not a full-fledged reunion — would've happened without Van Zandt's perseverance.
"The lengths that he has gone to — personally, time-wise, financially, dedication-wise — is pretty amazing," Cavaliere said recently from his Nashville home.
"We've had a lot of people in the past who tried to do this and it never worked because they had to be someone that's respected, trusted and credible, and he's all three of those things. He's got a real talent and a real gift for bringing people together, there's no question about that."
For Van Zandt, it all came down to making the music matter most.
"Musically it was not really a problem at all," Van Zandt said. "The minute they get on stage they're just like they used to be. It's amazing how that magical chemistry that wakes up fans still exists, you know?"
The Rascals were the quintessential American rock band, led by the Songwriters Hall of Fame duo Cavaliere and lead singer Eddie Brigati, 67, and propelled by guitarist Gene Cornish, 69, and Danelli's showmanship on the drums. Songs ranged from aggressively heartbroken (I've Been Lonely Too Long, I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore) to hippie-era carefree (A Beautiful Morning), with the occasional People Got to Be Free displaying a socially conscious side in an era of Vietnam and civil rights demonstrations.
"They're kind of their own genre, in a way," Van Zandt said. "The roots are obvious — R&B, soul, big band, rockabilly — but how they transformed them into their own songs is really quite unique. Which is why I put 28 songs in the show, probably half of which you're going to recognize ... songs like Sueno and Mickey's Monkey that aren't too well known but they knock you out (when) you hear them live."
As a fan, Van Zandt said creating Once Upon a Dream surpassed his expectations of seeing the Rascals perform again, and reminding the world of their musical importance. Yet it also resonates on personal levels he didn't expect.
"Seeing the expressions on the faces of (the band's) children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews, most of whom had never seen them play, that's a wonderful little bonus," Van Zandt said.
"But the thing I'm proudest of is that the show's message transcends even the Rascals. Their music is very much the music and the story and the idealism of the '60s that gave us so much hope in those days.
"You come out of the show feeling, like, why do we live with all this negativity constantly in our lives? In those days it was nothing but optimism and hope and love, and that's all in their music. You come out of the show feeling that idealism, that optimism. Putting smiles on people's faces is not easy these days, so I'm really proud of that."
Could it happen again? Van Zandt's already lobbying the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to induct the progressive rock band Procol Harum (A Whiter Shade of Pale), another treasured memory of his musical youth. But don't count on Procol Harum becoming his next reclamation projection on the scale of Once Upon a Dream and the Rascals.
"I'm not sure I'll ever do it again," he said. "It's a lot of work. I don't do that many projects, so when I do something I tend to do it all the way. But I do believe we've set a new template that could be the next evolution of the concert experience.
"Everybody has a story to tell — you know, the older groups — so why not tell it? It could work for the Eagles, the Who, the Temptations, you name it. Brian Wilson. Literally anybody who has a history it'll work for.
"The regular concert experience has been the thing for 50, 60 years. This could be the next evolution. ... I think that is what we've created here."
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-9365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.