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The Making of a Modern Rock Opera

The only time you can sing the word “regicide” in successive harmonies.

As if visionary youths didn’t already have enough on their plates, what with the whole 99% economic crisis, their life-long missions to save the reputations of pit bulls, and these newfangled cat-shit toxins stealing their free wills, upwardly mobile young people have also taken to revitalizing America’s favorite pastime. Yup, THE ROCK OPERA! Broadway took a break from its decades of AIDS-related plays and just brought back the world’s most cursed and doomed show ever produced with their new rendition of Carrie, which had originally flopped within a week back in the 70s, left to languor in Scandinavia, with the only known cast recording completed in a Danish high school gymnasium (so many synthesizers!). I own it. Seriously, there just aren’t enough staged musical adaptations of Stephen King’s work out there—I’m looking at you, creepy clown from It, or should I say wicked killer vocal soloist clown from It!


Anyway, Broadway’s always been a bigger fan of those high-class idiocy fests called “musicals,” while L.A. seems to have found its niche in the way-cooler “rock opera” cousin. (Rocky Horror is not actually a rock opera and is indeed a musical, no matter how many outsider trans characters it contains, because RHPS is totally a giant wink and nod with no real plot structure or sustainable tension, and we’ll leave it at that). To carry on this tradition, the theatre company, Tilted Field, helmed in this instance by director Becca Wolff, took on the story of slutty Queen Mary Stuart and her rivalry with supposed-virgin Queen Elizabeth. With an actual historian on crew to supervise and police the story for any accuracy inconsistencies, The Last Days of Mary Stuart is some serious shit.

At an early dress rehearsal, I showed up hung over, while my photographer was a little buzzed on brunch mimosas, and we watched the band hunt down a ghost buzz from one of the amps for about two hours, while people taped every movable object with reflective pink adhesive and discussed whether or not a box filled with sexy lingerie should be brown or painted black. The theater (theatre?) was only about forty seats, and the lead was a woman with an intensely sexy Susan-Powter-meets-Roxette vibe who spoke with a Swedish accent, who was apparently on True Blood. Note: always cast the sexy-Susan-Powter-meets-Roxette, because even if everything else flops, the audience will still feel a moment of nostalgic recognition and walk out with either “It Must Have Been Love” or “Stop the Insanity” in their heads, and if you’re lucky: both.


The story of Mary Stuart, as I saw it, was that Mary was totally a power-hungry whack-job, but also pretty badass, and she wore a lot of interesting undergarments. A very tall man found a crown in her underwear drawer, and then Mary had a lot of esplainin’ to do to Queen Elizabeth, who had to kill Mary to appease all the retarded subjects of her kingdom, because she apparently had no choice over who she had to sentence to death. When I talked to Wolff, she said she was most interested in the political implications and the total impotency of figurehead offices when it comes to the demands of the ill-informed citizen mob. (Ahem, Tea Party.) While musicals get to take serious issues and turn them into whimsical fun for the whole family, like the Doris Day classic, The Pajama Game, which turned tense labor relations into a romantic romp through a textile factory, rock operas get to take weird stories and turn them into dramatic representations of the absurd. One word: pinball. Plus, rock operas are afforded the luxury of taking the musical production just as seriously as the story, logically co-evolving both in the writing. Most criticisms of rock operas actually incorrectly describe what we call a “musical,” or the confusing “rock musical”(?), and reference the lack of importance in musical integrity. I will say this again: ROCK OPERAS ARE DIFFERENT FROM MUSICALS. And I have no idea what a rock musical is, but it sounds lame.


For Mary Stuart, John Nixon and Byron Kahr wrote the music in conjunction with Wolff’s story adaptation, and I was a little surprised at the tropical, almost-Vampire Weekendish flavor. I’ll venture to call it Werewolf Workweek, though, because it was a little heavier than Cape Cod parties. Both musicians, and their bands, are familiar faces in the L.A. music scene and decided to take their secret high-school musical theatre past out of their dreams and into Wolff’s car, if you will. Months of back-and-forth went into paring down the words to find some concise repetitions that could catch audience attention and fill them in on the deets, and even through the dress rehearsal processes I saw, songs were whittled down and reconstructed in the moment, putting most rock and electronic bands with firm set lists, little room for improvisation, and no bitchin’ light shows to shame. I was promised strobes and fog machines to simulate a beheading, and it was bequeathed unto me. God, if only The Pajama Game had featured a scene of Doris Day’s severed head dangling on the factory floor as a warning to the labor union…

Hey, guys! Rock operas can be fun! Have you seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch? Go watch that shit with thirty of your closest friends. And if you’re feeling feisty, get those friends together and figure out how to write the story of a lonely occupier whose only friend is a rescued pit bull with a bad reputation. Hell, make the villain your old Jimmy John’s boss if you want. Just remember that in a sea of supposed dissenters, rock operas will always be there as the one medium that may actually provoke half of your forward-thinking, progressive friends to be like, “Really? Rock operas? Uh, that’s pretty bold of you.”

Thumbnail picture taken by Elena Gomez and text pics taken by Polly Barrowman