Andy Prieboy breaks 25-year silence on cult-classic Axl Rose musical: “If anything in my life was like Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile,’ it was ‘White Trash Wins Lotto’”

Published On June 18, 2024 » By »



“I have a prepared statement. Hold on a second,” says Andy Prieboy, speaking via Zoom from his home in Malibu, as he clears his throat and reaches for his reading glasses.

“‘We had a very successful run for five years. I tried to take it to the next level, but there were contractual conflicts that could not be resolved, and I eventually lost the funding.’ … And that’s all I really want to say.”

As it turns out, the singer-songwriter and former Wall of Voodoo frontman has much more to say about his cult-classic musical, White Trash Wins Lotto, making up for lost time after not publicly discussing the project for 25 years. Our hour-long conversation takes place during the same week that another nostalgic rock musical, folk band Jamestown Revival’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, just won Best Musical at the Tony Awards. And in a perfect world/alternate universe, Prieboy’s production — a super-meta, super-satirical  “allegory about the majesty and manic energy of rock ‘n’ roll,” loosely based on the life of Guns N’ Roses legend Axl Rose — would have made it to the Great White Way and swept the Tonys as well. But White Trash Wins Lotto was just a little too ahead of its time.

White Trash Wins Lotto became the surprise toast of Los Angeles in the mid-’90s, when Prieboy had a weekly residency at Fairfax Blvd.’s original Largo club. However, grand plans to take the brilliant, bonkers comic opera to Broadway fell through (when asked if he was heartbroken, Prieboy simply fashions his hand into the shape of a gun and aims it at his temple), and Prieboy moved on. And so, until very recently, only Angelenos of a certain age, who were lucky enough to catch WTWL at Largo (or, later on, at the Roxy on the fabled Sunset Strip), knew of the show’s greatness.

In fact, for many years the only audiovisual online evidence of WTWL was a fan-uploaded YouTube clip of the cast singing the splashy “Good Evening, Guitar Center” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. (Prieboy was invited by O’Brien himself, after the talk show host was wowed by a WTWL performance at the HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen.) “If anything in my life was like Brian Wilson’s Smile, it was White Trash Wins Lotto,” Prieboy quips.

But then, a few weeks ago — out of nowhere and with little fanfare — Prieboy posted a free download of the full cast recording from WTWL‘s final 2000 run at the Roxy (along with a playbill and lyrics) on his website and streaming services, as part of the 69-year-old musician’s ongoing archiving endeavor to “honor the effort that my younger self put into all this music.” And so, just as WTWL initially amassed an audience entirely by word-of-mouth in the pre-social-media ‘90s (when Prieboy never proactively sought press coverage and even turned away a network news camera crew from the Largo door), the White Trash buzz is organically spreading once again.

Mainstream journalists probably wouldn’t have even known how to accurately describe White Trash Wins Lotto, anyway. Even O’Brien didn’t know what he was getting into when he was dragged by a friend to that HBO Comedy Festival showcase, later admitting to Prieboy that he’d protested, “No, I really don’t want to go see an Axl Rose musical.” But White Trash Wins Lotto was about so much more than W. Axl Rose. What started off as “just a joke” — a couple of operettas about the rise, fall, and disappearance of the GNR icon, as told by the show’s narrator/foil/antihero, a frustrated librettist portrayed by Prieboy himself — “became this vehicle to write about being in the music business in Hollywood. … [Axl] was the stick. He was the stick I could hit the music industry with, and the stick I could hit Broadway with,” Prieboy explains.

Prieboy moved to Hollywood in 1982, becoming just another struggling rocker working on Melrose Ave. (at the original Soap Plant, just down the street from Retail Slut, where GNR guitarist Slash acquired his signature top hat). He eventually found success as Stan Ridgway’s replacement in Wall of Voodoo and by penning the heart-rending AIDS ballad “Tomorrow Wendy” (which became a hit for Concrete Blonde), and he was already a grizzled music-biz lifer by 1986, as he witnessed the concurrent ascents of L.A’s hair-metal, indie-rock, and deathrock scenes. This was a time when, as Prieboy recalls, “Nobody knew what ‘the next thing’ was going to be. Is it going to be another Duran Duran kind of a band? Is it going to be a Sisters of Mercy band? Is it going to be rockabilly? Is it going to be cowpunk? Is it going to be glam? Is it going to be metal?”

Wall of Voodoo’s alternative-leaning label, I.R.S. Records, was already moving away from “R.E.M. spinoff bands, all these synth bands, and all the art bands,” much to Prieboy’s disdain, and it was amid this circa-‘86 “great mélange of styles” that the seeds of White Trash Win Lotto were first planted — when Prieboy’s friend Morley Sobo, who worked in MCA Records’ classical department, turned him on to an entirely different type of music.

“It hit me as hard as when you hear somebody talk about the first time they ever heard Bob Dylan, or John Lennon talking about the first time he ever heard Elvis Presley,” Prieboy says of his unlikely inspiration: a cassette of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado featuring Eric Idle, gifted to him by Sobo. “I could not put that tape off for years. I kept thinking, ‘This is so beautiful, and it’s so cruel and exact in its perceptions of humanity.’ I remember at the time thinking, ‘If only somebody could write music like this now, where it’s this beautiful and yet this heartlessly observant…’”

Roughly eight years later, Prieboy set about to do just that. No L.A. cliché went untouched or unscathed in WTWL’s motley crew of characters, from the bean-counting “Old Boys Club” record execs on the hunt for “The New Duran Duran”; to the “Heavy Metal Stripper Chicks” bankrolling their deadbeat hair-rocker boyfriends’ pay-to-play Strip bands; to unknown guitarist Jeff Isbell spelling out the Iggy/Ziggy-inspired stage name “I-Z-Z-Y,” Village People-style; to the posers and partiers congregating at Axl’s “Mansion Full of Pussy and Drugs” and “At the Throne of the Lizard King” (i.e., Jim Morrison’s Père Lachaise gravesite). And thus, Prieboy created a startlingly original rock ‘n’ roll “oratorial” that, despite opening with a big, blustery Broadway number about a flagship Guitar Center, featured “absolutely no guitars.”

“The best way to depict the rock life, if you will, is through comedy, because to do it serious always gets overplayed,” explains Prieboy. “As I said, it’s an allegory. So, if you use electric guitars to talk about the majesty of success, where’s the contrast? But if you make it sound like classical music played really loud… it sounds like Mozart played at 10. That’s what I was going for. … The thing is to never make the music cheap. Make the music as beautiful as you can make it.”

Prieboy’s surprisingly highbrow approach to a lowbrow subject allowed the “gallows humor” of his cautionary tale about the Sunset Boulevard of broken dreams to really hit home. Maybe it even hit too close to home on “We Can Do What We Want,” which depicted a boardroom of smug male record executives screwing over poor “Vicky Harrison.” (This was an obvious reference to early GNR manager Vicky Hamilton, although in the song she was referred to by the C-word — an unfortunately relatable and realistic moment that Prieboy says regularly elicited gasps of acknowledgment from female music industry employees in the Largo and Roxy audiences.)

“There’s the part [in “We Can Do What We Want”] where the A&R representative sings, ‘By the stroke of a pen, we send her to oblivion. All her days condemned, condemned to dream what might have been.’ Well, that’s really the story of most of us in Hollywood: condemned to dream of what might have been,” muses Prieboy. “So many of us have come close. So many of us have lost those opportunities. I wanted that moment to really bring the musical down, bring the comedy down to that harsh reality. And then, boom — go back to the comedy.”

That line sadly proved all too prophetic, because White Trash Wins Lotto never totally fulfilled its own promise. The production and its buzz continued to grow, with a cast that included comics (who often improvised the show’s funniest bits) like Paul F. Tompkins, Greg Behrendt, Blaine Capatch, and Kids in the Hall star Dave Foley, along with voice-of-a-lost-angel Brian Beacock (the only actor who actually officially auditioned for WTWL) perfectly cast as a fresh-off-the-bus Axl. The HBO Comedy Festival and Conan appearances then spread the show’s hype beyond L.A.

WTWL playbillBut maybe White Trash Wins Lotto was a bit too inside-jokey L.A. to ever translate to Broadway audiences. Unlike another, more mainstream Sunset Strip-centered jukebox musical that premiered a few years later, Rock of Ages, WTWL was never going to be the kind of “sanitized” Sunday matinee that, as Prieboy puts it, “your mom and dad are going to go see and Grandma’s going to see it and say, ‘Oh, that was a real toe-tapper!’” Eventually Prieboy’s Broadway deal “fell apart,” which he confesses was “very, very hard” for him.

“[White Trash Wins Lotto] was not born out of me sitting down going, ‘I think I want to write a theatrical piece about Axl Rose and the metal movement.’ It started off as a joke in a club. And I think that’s where it thrived,” admits Prieboy, who says it was “such a joyous experience” to stage the original show at Largo. “To take that to Broadway and to script it, we’d lose that immediacy. And you can’t get millions of dollars to put a show on and say, ‘Yeah, well, we’re going to make up the dialogue.’ They’re not going to give you that money unless you’re somehow proven. What should have been done is to put out the record 25 years ago and then tour it once a year in places like Wiltern- or Roxy-sized theaters across the country. I think Grandma would love it if she’s surrounded by a bunch of rock scumbags [in a nightclub]. But if she’s in a theater and they’re going to go get Chinese food afterwards? I don’t think so.”

But now the WTWL record is finally out, 25 years later, which not only marks a comeback of sorts for Prieboy, but coincides with the real-life triumphant comeback of Rose, who at the time of WTWL’s ‘90s workshopping had become a Chinese Democracy-obsessed recluse. WTWL was “accidentally prescient,” Prieboy notes, because “in the finale, Axl is saying, ‘I’m leaving to get the one elusive pleasure that’s left.’ He has conquered the world. He has cheated death. ‘Yet there is one pleasure of which I’m bereft.’ … The whole crowd onstage is wondering, ‘What is left, what is left, what is left?’ And he says: ‘The one thing I lack is a big fucking comeback!’ … And he did it.”

Prieboy says White Trash Wins Lotto, while lampooning practically every other person and rock ‘n’ roll trope in Hollywood, was never intended to actually ridicule Axl Rose (who, to Prieboy’s knowledge, never had a problem with the musical and certainly never tried to stop it). On the contrary, Prieboy respects Rose as a fellow rock ‘n’ roll survivor.

“What Axl chose is he chose to get old. He chose the brave thing to do. He did not choose to do the cowardly thing, which is to die young and leave a beautiful corpse. He chose to get old and face old age and face his own mortality,” says Prieboy. “I really admire him for that, for this incredibly successful [Guns N’ Roses reunion] world tour and for getting up there. Maybe he doesn’t look the same as he did at 21. Neither do I! Neither do any of us. And that’s the brave thing to do, the courageous thing to do: to live your life and work in honor of your gifts, and to serve the music. God bless him for that.”

Throughout our interview, Prieboy jokes that “the lines are open” and he’s “taking offers” if “somebody wants to put it on Broadway right now,” and he more seriously reveals that he’s considering performing a stripped-down White Trash Wins Lotto concert “without the production and the dance stuff, just sitting there on stools and singing the songs.” But whether or not WTWL ever returns to the stage, be it on Broadway or in some scumbag-packed Hollywood club, Prieboy is finally at peace with the show’s legacy, and he’s thrilled that the original WTWL reached as many fans as it did.

“It was such an honor. It really is,” marvels Prieboy. “That’s the nice thing about getting old. When you’re like 22, you’re like, ‘Yeah, that was kind of cool.’ But when you’re an old man, you’re like, ‘You know what? That was a real blessing. That was truly blessed.’”

Watch Andy Prieboy’s full White Trash Wins Lotto interview in the split-screen video above.

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