'Bat Out of Hell' hits the stage: An album born in Cleveland is now a musical (photos)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Most record industry executives surround themselves with awards – the gold and platinum records that brought them power and prestige.

Steve Popovich always took pride in the rejection letters. There were many, a big unruly pile of them, and the late founder of Cleveland International Records derived a devilish glee from them.

To Popovich, who passed away in 2011, they were a testament to believing in something – in music above all -- even if the industry he worked in his entire life couldn't care less. They also underscored his endless energy and tireless tenacity to make something happen, even in the face of indifference.

He was hell-bent on making “Bat Out of Hell” a hit. Yes, because he loved the music, but also to show the big bosses that a working-class maverick from Cleveland could do it -- even if the music biz thought he was crazy. It did, but that didn’t stop him.

Story by John Petkovic, The Plain Dealer

CBS Records

One phone call after another and sometimes two calls at once, because he often worked two phones at the same time, Popovich called in every marker he had.

At first, the response the same: An overweight guy singing mock-operatic rock ’n’ roll rhapsodies ain’t gonna make it on the radio. 

William Branner, Andrew Polek and Tyrick Wiletz in Bat Out of Hell -- The Musical. The Off-Broadway musical adapts the album "Bat Out of Hell." (Little Fang Photo)

Were he still alive, Popovich would no doubt be laughing wildly and with devilish glee at the news that “Bat Out of Hell – The Musical” has just opened in New York City Center. 

The off-Broadway adaptation of the 1977 Meat Loaf album, released on Popovich’s Cleveland International label, is hitting the States after successful runs in England and Canada. 

Courtesy Bat Out of Hell -- The Musical

Featuring text, lyrics and music by Jim Steinman, “Bat Out of Hell – The Musical” transports Peter Pan-like themes into a post-apocalyptic future, where a rebellious protagonist, Strat, falls in love with Raven, the daughter of a tyrannical leader. The musical rolls out songs such as “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” – hits that turned “Bat Out of Hell” into one of rock ‘n’ roll’s best-selling albums of all time, with more than 50 million copies sold worldwide.

An undated photo of Steve Popovich, Cleveland International Records president and founder. (Ray Matjasic, The Plain Dealer

It also brings the long, twisted odyssey of “Bat Out of Hell” full circle.

“There are a lot of rock albums that have been turned into musicals,” says Andrew Polec, who plays Strat in the show. “But this was a musical before it became a rock album.”

No doubt – which goes a long ways toward explaining why Popovich had so much difficulty selling it as a rock album when it first came out.

Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection

“’Bat Out of Hell’ came out of left field – a rock opera?” Popovich told The Plain Dealer in 2002. “Every major label passed on it before Cleveland International picked it up and no one even wanted to play it on the radio at first.”

They also didn’t know what to do with Meat Loaf, a burly singer with a big voice and a penchant for operatic anthems who enjoyed his first breakthrough on the stage with “The Rocky Horror Show” and the 1975 movie adaptation, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“It was the day and age of the wimpy-looking Peter Frampton-types,” said Popovich. “Then here comes Meat Loaf, this huge guy with an amazing voice.”

Popovich badgered stations to play the album, slowly, one by one. Listeners responded, forcing more and more stations to jump on board. 

Andrew Polec in Bat Out of Hell -- The Musical. (Little Fang Photo)

“My dad played me ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ when I was a kid and I was I loved it right away -- it’s this operatic Wagnerian rock song,” says Polec, 24. “It’s hard to believe that so many people at the time could’ve passed on what is now considered one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums.”

Cleveland International Records, via Plain Dealer Historical Photograph Collection

“Bat Out of Hell” was always a misfit, going back to 1968, when Jim Steinman, a college student, developed what would be the core idea for the album. He had imagined a musical featuring nuns on motorcycles, feral kids and pain rituals called “The Dream Engine.” By the mid-1970s, Steinman was working with Meat Loaf and singer Ellen Foley on what would ultimately become “Bat Out of Hell.”

Somewhere between disco and punk, there was… Well, no-man’s land, at least for Steinman’s opera.  

Cleveland International Records

"Bat Out of Hell" went on to become one of rock's most unlikely stories -- going from the album that every record label had rejected to one of the biggest selling albums of all time. It also became the calling card for Cleveland-based Cleveland International Records, which went on to release albums by an eclectic array of artists, from polka king Frankie Yankovic to country bad boy David Allen Coe to Grammy-winning polka-rock-roots outfit Brave Combo to rock ‘n’ roll legend Ian Hunter.  

Steve Popovich and friends. From left: John Belushi, Meat Loaf, Popovich and Karla DeVito, who toured with Meat Loaf and appeared in the "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" video. Photo courtesy of Cleveland International Records

“'Bat Out of Hell' has such universal appeal – these are fun, wild songs and they tell a beautiful love story,” says Polec. “It’s like if ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Peter Pan’ got together and had this rock ‘n’ roll child.”

Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington in Bat Out of Hell -- The Musical. (Little Fang Photo)

To some, Polec looks like a child compared to Meat Loaf.

“I’m six-foot and 160 pounds, so some people were saying, ‘I can’t believe this kid is playing Meat Loaf,’” says Polec, who landed the role despite not having any formal training in theater. “This isn’t a tribute act doing a show; it’s a story that Jim Steinman brought to life.”

Scott Shaw, The Plain Dealer

Yes, a long story one with many twists and turns that Cleveland help bring to fruition. 

“It’s amazing to think how it has managed to connect with millions of people around the world,” he says. “It’s all thanks to Cleveland and the Cleveland man who helped make it happen.”

Christina Bennington and Andrew Polec in Bat Out of Hell -- The Musical. (Little Fang Photo)


What: A theatrical adaptation of the 1977 hit album “Bat Out of Hell.” Text, lyrics and music by Jim Steinman. Directed by Jay Scheib. Starring Andrew Polec, Lena Hall, Christina Bennington, Bradley Dean, Avionce Hoyles, Danielle Steers and Tyrick Wiltez Jones.

Where: New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan.

When: It runs through Sept. 8.

Tickets: $49-$249. Go to nycitycenter.org.

Photo of the back cover of 'Bat Out of Hell' by C.H.Pete Copeland, The Plain Dealer


Released in September 1977 on Cleveland International Records. It was  distributed by Epic Records, which had rejected releasing the album outright when it heard it. 

Popovich swooped in and picked it up. By the end of 1977, it had sold less than 150,000 copies. But Popovich continued to work radio contacts he had established while working in New York City,  in the promotions departments of Columbia Records and Epic Records. 

He adopted a regional strategy to promote 'Bat Out of Hell,' picking up one radio station after another, including WMMS 100.7 FM, in Cleveland. It had also received a positive response in Canada, Great Britain and Australia. 

As stations in America started to add it to playlists -- to great responses from listeners -- CBS Records (the parent company of Epic) was forced to get on board. The album proceeded to spawn three hit singles that remain staples of classic-rock and oldies radio:  “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad" and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light." 

"Paradise by the Dashboard Light"  was released a full 11 months after the album came out. The 45 clocks in at 7:55, unheard of for a pop single. Even a radio edit, trimmed to 5:32, was an outlier. 

A video for the song was made and 35mm prints of it were distributed to movie theaters to play before midnight screenings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which features Meat Loaf. It went on to become a staple on MTV, when the network hit the air in 1981.

A 2005 photo of Steve Popovich in his Cleveland office by Scott Shaw, The Plain Dealer

It's success vindicated Popovich's crazy belief that "Bat Out of Hell" could connect with a mass audience. It underscored his belief in music, but also his tenacity in fighting for in the face of indifference, says Ian Hunter. 

“Steve was totally in love with music and was a man on fire,” said Hunter, in a January interview with The Plain Dealer, via phone from his home in Connecticut. “I remember going to the Columbia Records office. And then I walked into Steve’s office and found out why: He had a phone in each hand carrying on, talking into both phones while smoking a cigar or a cigarette. I don’t know how he was able to do it.” 

Courtesy Steve Popovich Jr.

Cleveland International Records will always be associated with Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” the third best-selling album of all-time. (Popovich, in the back row second from right, is shown here celebrating with Meat Loaf backstage at Blossom Music Center after a 1978 concert.)

A Billboard magazine story on Popovich's landmark cases against Sony

In 1995, Popovich and his former partners sued Sony for unpaid “Bat Out of Hell” royalties. The case was settled out of court for nearly $7 million.

As part of the settlement, Sony was required to place the Cleveland International logo on reissues of “Bat Out of Hell.” When Sony failed to do so, Popovich sued the company again. A jury awarded him an additional $5 million in damages in 2005.

After the second ruling, Popovich cried in the hallway outside the courtroom and hugged jurors.

“They send in their Harvard lawyers. What do I have?” said Popovich at the time. “One year in college and my hard work.”

Cleveland International Records

Cleveland International ceased operations when its founder Steve Popovich passed away in 2011. It was relaunched this year by Popovich's son, Steve Jr.

The new Cleveland International's release is 'Cleveland Rocks,' a reissue of a 1995 compilation album originally released by the label.  It features the title track by Ian Hunter, a rock classic that has become Cleveland’s unofficial anthem. 

“Cleveland Rocks” also includes tracks by Ronnie Spector & The E Street Band, Southside Johnny, the Rovers and Euclid Beach Band. And, yes, it also features "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."

Cast of 'Bat Out of Hell -- The Musical.' (Little Fang Photo)

The centerpiece of "Bat Out of Hell," it was way too operatic and no doubt way too long for the three-minute hit radio format. But it did -- and now it's the centerpiece of a musical that was based on an album that was meant to be a musical all along.