Before the appearances on television and radio, the European tour with the Rolling Stones, the sexual abuse, the failed marriage, the heartbreak of alcohol and drug addiction — before all the notoriety of a career in rock and roll, she was a frightened little Polish Jewish girl, Genyusha Zelkovicz, escaping from the Nazis and coming to New York with her parents and older sister.
Little could anyone have guessed that someday she would reinvent herself as Genya Ravan (pronounced “raven”) and become a seminal figure in the history of rock and roll. Blending punk rock and power pop, Ravan became the lead singer of Goldie & the Gingerbreads (the first all-girl rock band in history), and then the first female music producer to be signed by a major label. And then, battling first substance abuse and then lung cancer, falling out of the limelight into near obscurity.
And now her star may rise again with “Rock and Roll Refugee,” a musical play about Ravan’s remarkable life and career, directed by Chris Henry and based on Ravan’s tell-all 2004 autobiography, “Lollipop Lounge: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Refugee” (Billboard Books, 2004). Ravan’s character (played by Dee Roscioli as a girl and Katrina Rose Dideriksen as an adult) recollects her immigration to the United States, her singing stardom and her subsequent work producing The Dead Boys, Ronnie Spector, and other artists. The play ends with “202 Rivington Street,” a song about Ravan’s childhood on the Lower East Side.
“Rock and Roll Refugee” follows other recent biographical musicals about Jewish songwriters, including the still-running, hit Broadway show, “Beautiful,” featuring songs by Carole King, and “Piece of My Heart,” the 2014 Off-Broadway show about the 1960s pop music pioneer Bert Berns.
By all accounts, Ravan, 75, has had a remarkable career; at her peak, she was described as virtually a force of nature. As music critic John Gabree put it in “Our Lady of the Sorrows,” a 1978 profile of Ravan in New York magazine, “On a stage she is a fire that miraculously does not consume itself, one of the few women performers — Tina Turner was one, Janis Joplin is another — who can give the kind of high-energy show we expect from the best male rockers.” One can see this fieriness enacted in the 2013 film “CBGB,” starring the late Alan Rickman as the owner of the legendary punk music club; TV star Stana Katic plays Ravan.
In an interview, Ravan told The Jewish Week that “You name it, I’ve survived it all. Andrew Loog Oldham [the manager of the Rolling Stones] called me a ‘female Rocky.’” But she insisted that she “wouldn’t have made it so far if I weren’t Jewish. I love being Jewish more and more each day.”
Her father’s partner in his candy store, an African-American man whom she called Uncle Louie (DeAngelo M. Kearns in the play) came every Friday night to Shabbat dinner in their home on the Lower East Side. “He brought me my first record player,” she recalled. “And then I glued my ear to the radio to listen to Ornette Coleman,” the great saxophonist who reinvented jazz in the late 1950s.
Her success stemmed, she said, from an indomitable will to succeed. “Some radio stations said that this hard rock and roll was too hard for a chick to do. But before there was a Pat Benatar, I paved the road.” Sometimes it’s better to be a follower, but it’s not in my nature. I redefined what a woman rocker could be.”
Henry had never heard of Ravan when the singer approached her four years ago to write and direct the play. But Henry found her story compelling, partly because Henry, who was raised in a nominally Christian family in rural Maine, found out less than a decade ago that her biological parents were Jewish. Ravan’s story of taking her Jewish background and transmuting it into art, led Henry to ponder the loss of her own Jewish roots; giving her up for adoption was, she said, a “primal wound that destroyed my family and led my grandmother to have a nervous breakdown.” Similarly, Ravan struggled mightily to transcend a traumatic childhood, which continued even after her arrival in New York, where she ended up as doing topless modeling as a teenager; her most recent album, released in 2013, is entitled “Cheesecake Girl.”
The story of this cheeky, phenomenally talented musician, Henry said, needs to be told. “Without Ravan, there would be no Madonna and no Lady Gaga,” she insisted. “There are a core group of people who know her music and a lot of people who don’t; it’s time for her music to be heard again.”
Scott Benarde interviewed Ravan for his book, “Stars of David: Rock ’n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories” (Brandeis, 2003). “Being a Holocaust survivor has set the tone for everything else in her life,” he told The Jewish Week. Many of the singers he wrote about were the children of survivors. “A lot of them had really weird childhoods,” he said. “Their parents were so paranoid and afraid of every little thing.” Ravan, he noted, was a good example. “She’s a bulldog who just went out there with nothing to lose.” But her Jewishness became even more important to her after she survived cancer. “She told me that she considers every song to be a prayer.”
That Ravan did not become better known, he said, could be due to a number of factors. Goldie & the Gingerbreads hit it bigger in Europe, where they performed and appeared on TV, than in the United States. Then again, Ravan “didn’t care about fame,” Benarde observed, “but only about doing the work.” Finally, “the PR machine wasn’t as well-oiled as it is now. And she kept changing her name from her original name to her stage name and back again. If you weren’t a hard-core fan, then you didn’t necessarily know that it was the same person.”
“Rock and Roll Refugee” runs through Feb. 16 at Royal Family Productions, 145 W. 46th St. The schedule is irregular; for information and tickets, $18, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit royalfamilyproductions.org.