Neil Berg.

Neil Berg has made his mark in the theatrical world. He has composed The Prince and the Pauper, The 12 and Grumpy Old Men: The Musical—and he’s translated his love of music into various entertaining and educational concerts.

Two of those shows are coming to the McCallum Theatre, for two performances each: Neil Berg’s 102 Years of Broadway (Tuesday, March 22, and Wednesday, March 23), and Neil Berg’s 50 Years of Rock and Roll Part 2 (Wednesday, March 23, and Thursday, March 24). The Independent spoke to Berg over the phone recently, primarily about his 50 Years of Rock and Roll Part 2 show.

“In Part 1, we covered the entire history, as I call it,” said Berg. “Most people think rock ’n’ roll started in the ’50s, but I go back to the ’30s. I do a whole little preface—kind of the influences and progenitors of rock ’n’ roll—and then we take it up to where MTV came in. That’s kind of the first 50 years.

“When we originally did the show, we didn’t call it Part 1, but there was such a high demand for us to do more. We realized we couldn’t even skim the surface; there was just too much music. We’d have to be there for a week, and have it be a whole Woodstock festival to do it properly.”

In Part 2, Berg focuses on important acts that weren’t in Part 1.

“We’re doing the same years, but totally different songs and different artists, except for a few,” Berg said. “… Every one of these songs in Part 2 could easily have been included in Part 1. We’re picking up all the artists that people couldn’t believe we didn’t have time to get to in Part 1. For example, in Part 1, we did Fleetwood Mac and Queen, but in this one, we get to pick up Styx and Heart, who were incredibly big during that time. … It’s just great rock ’n’ roll. They’ll still hear Elvis; they’ll still hear the Beatles, but we just get to do a whole different selection of songs for some of the artists that we feel just have to be there.”

Berg has assembled an impressive roster for his 50 Years of Rock and Roll productions.

“The cast is an all-star cast,” Berg said. “It’s a full rock band, and my guitarist—I call him the ‘Encyclopedia of Rock’—is the guitarist for the hit Broadway show Tina, about Tina Turner. His name is Mike Wilson. We have Jeremy Beck playing second keyboard, who’s involved with Hamilton, and he’s also played with Bonnie Raitt and Kool and the Gang. The singers all straddle the line, and all of them have starred in hit rock ’n’ roll Broadway shows. They are phenomenally gifted in not only singing and being authentic to the type of music we’re doing, because we’re covering a lot of territory, but they also know how to deliver it, and deliver the story with each song. … People always say, if they’ve never seen one of my shows, ‘Oh my God, I was not expecting that kind of talent, and that kind of story.’”

I was curious to learn how Berg developed an interest in the history of music.

“I always tell people at the beginning of the show: It’s half rock ’n’ roll concert, half Broadway storytelling, because for me, I always love knowing the history,” Berg said. “When I go see a show, the more I know, the more I’m invested in what I’m seeing. Anybody can play the songs, but this show really covers the connective tissue, and tells the history as well. I narrate from the piano, and I kind of connect all the dots—how it got from all the way back in the late ’20s and the Delta blues, to Buddy Jones, to country music, to rock ’n’ roll, to swing and jump jive. I did Broadway for years, and I’m a Broadway composer. Broadway is just another word for storytelling, and that’s what I specialize in.”

Both of the shows Berg is presenting at the McCallum are the direct result of the two sides of his career dovetailing.

“I always tell people at the beginning of the show: It’s half rock ’n’ roll concert, half Broadway storytelling, because for me, I always love knowing the history.” neil berg

“I started off as a rock ‘n’ roll touring musician, playing with Joe D’Urso and Stone Caravan,” Berg said. “They needed somebody who could talk both languages on the tour—somebody who could read music, as well as play rock ’n’ roll authentically. During that time, I also was trying to break in as a legitimate Broadway composer, so I was writing musicals.

“I’ve had musicals produced in New York since 1992, and won awards for shows I’ve written. … From the time I was in college, I was writing, producing and creating concerts all around the world. I put together concerts for the fanciest places in the world, for companies like Goldman Sachs and IBM, and for presidents and kings and sultans. Twenty years ago, I had already done these Broadway concerts at such a high level, but I wanted to take it to the people … so everybody could see it, not just an exclusive company and crowd, so I partnered up with a brilliant man by the name of Adam Friedson, who had already been touring what was called Ballet Folklorico, which was a big dance company out of Mexico. We teamed up, and 20 years ago, presented our first 100 Years of Broadway. … We’ve been doing that successfully for 17 years, and the idea now was that I needed to do something new, and the venues wanted something new. … That’s when I put together the 50 Years of Rock and Roll, and I’m happy to say it’s exploded.

“We’re now predominantly doing our 50 Years of Rock and Roll show, but there are venues like the McCallum who know what we do, and we’re actually doing two shows of each the Broadway and the Rock and Roll. They have nothing to do with each other—meaning you should certainly, if you love music, come to Broadway one day, and the history of rock ’n’ roll the next night.”

Berg is already preparing more projects that fit under the umbrella of edutainment.

“I’m writing two new musicals as we speak,” Berg said. “One is being commissioned by the Penguin Rep Theatre in New York, and the other one, which I’m writing with one of the writers from Saturday Night Live, is a musical about Pete Rose. … I also do a tribute to Elton John and Billy Joel, which I’m very passionate about, because that’s what I learned growing up to play. The next one I have planned is a history of funk music.”

Neil Berg’s 102 Years of Broadway will be performed at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 22; and 2 p.m., Wednesday, March 23; and Neil Berg’s 50 Years of Rock and Roll, Part 2, will be performed at 7 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday, March 23 and 24, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets to each show are $35 to $75. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...