NEW YORK — Steven Van Zandt has dreamed of reuniting The Rascals for more than 30 years.
While The Rascals’ short, hit-filled career — which includes smashes such as “Good Lovin’” and “Groovin’” — may not be remembered by many outside those who got to see them in the late ’60s, to Van Zandt, the band was nothing short of inspirational.
So if Van Zandt, best known as Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist in the E Street Band and Silvio from “The Sopranos,” had to write a Broadway show to get the band together and keep them together for a while, he’s going to do it.
“They were a very big part of my influences, and I wanted to say thank you to them,” Van Zandt says. “They also appealed to my sense of history because people remember their songs, but they didn’t realize the depth of their musicality. They were an album group — the same way The Beatles, the Stones and The Byrds were. They should be talked about in that same sentence.”
Part of the struggle, though, was that The Rascals — singer Eddie Brigati, keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli — didn’t exactly want to be in the same sentence with each other, following a tumultuous breakup in 1970.
When The Rascals reunited last year to perform Van Zandt’s “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream” to see if the show would move to Broadway, the quartet hadn’t played a full concert together since the breakup.
“I felt if I could do something all four Rascals would sign off on and be a part of, that alone was an accomplishment,” Van Zandt says. “Getting these four guys to agree on something was a challenge in itself. They haven’t been hanging out for 40 years.”
Van Zandt was up to the challenge. Not only does “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream” open on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre this week, but it will stand as a new form of Broadway musical — one Van Zandt calls a “BioConcert,” for its combination of live music by the original band and documentary clips and video re-enactments that tell the band’s story and put it in a historical context.
“It’s not an oldies concert,” he says. “It’s a true theatrical experience.”
It’s also a true labor of love for Van Zandt, 62, who credits The Rascals with inspiring him to form a band when he first saw them in 1965 at a skating rink in Keyport, N.J. That Battle of the Bands was Van Zandt’s first concert and, it turned out, Springsteen was at the show as well.
“They were like a hurricane,” recalls Van Zandt. “They were more exciting to me than the Stones, actually.”
The Rascals — at that point, the Young Rascals — had become a sensation throughout the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, through near-constant performing of what would be known as “blue-eyed soul” after they formed at the East End club The Barge. Van Zandt and Springsteen saw them just before their popularity exploded with their first No. 1 hit, “Good Lovin’.”
“For me especially, and a lot of my generation, I was just not the least bit interested in solo performers,” Van Zandt says. “Then, here come The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all of these great groups, and these guys are communicating friendship and cooperation and family and community and all those great things that a band communicates that a solo performer doesn’t.”
Van Zandt says The Rascals made him feel like he could do what they did. “The Beatles opened the door, but they weren’t accessible in the least,” he says. “They were just too good, too sophisticated. You couldn’t possibly be deranged enough to think you could do that. You couldn’t be in that much denial. What saved the day was the Stones coming four months later, making it look easier. The Stones got me thinking that I could do it, and then seeing The Rascals live cemented that. It was an amazing turn-on that affected me forever.”
Van Zandt says the creation of “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream” has also permanently changed him, saying that when the show first played at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y., in December, it was “an epiphany like no other.”
“It was the most exciting night of my life,” he says. “I’m not exaggerating. This was sort of an idea and an experiment. We weren’t sure what was going to happen … I’ve spent my life engaged in live performance, but the first time they laugh at something you wrote or, by the end, cry, man, it is a different feeling than even performing.”
Helping his childhood heroes The Rascals get their due also makes the show feel extra special for Van Zandt.
“By breaking up in 1970, they became sort of mythological, with legendary status,” he says. “Unfortunately, they were forgotten by a lot of people and not a lot of people got a chance to see them, which is a shame. Now is sort of a chance for people to catch up with what they missed back then. It’s good on a lot of levels.”