I’ve been a fan of Boston Rock Opera – long on hiatus – for many years. Ambitious beyond belief and a bit crazy – is there an audience that really wants to see long-form rock operas in a short-attention span age? – they’ve brought back, in live form, and with spirited, gutsy performances, seminal works of classic rock.
For several years, they kicked ass doing “Jesus Christ Superstar,” stripping it of shtick, employing sly humor and rock star-level performances. Extreme’s Gary Cherone, a one-time Jesus-turned-Judas, has been BRO’s biggest “name,” but the singers and musicians who put these shows together do “big’ well. Many or most were punks or alt-rockers – genres that eschewed this kind of grandiosity and pomp s – but this was also part of the landscape of music on which they (and I) were raised.
Which brings me to “Stardust to Blackstar – The Lives of David Bowie,” BRO’s return to performance and debut at Somerville’s ONCE club this coming Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 6 and 7). Expect BRO co-founder Mick Mondo (aka Maldonado, in photo) to pack a very Bowie-esque punch, along with many featured vocalists, Peter Moore, Gene Dante, John Powhida, Phil Aiken, Albino Mbie, Jess Jacobs, Andrea Gillis and Melissa Gibbs among them, with music under the direction of Either/Orchestra’s Russ Gershon.
We spoke (via email) with co-creator/co-producer (and yes Mondo’s wife) Eleanor Ramsay about BRO’s history and the history the hopes they have for this weekend.
JSInk: Tell us a bit about Boston Rock Opera’s history. When did you begin and what were your goals?
Ramsay: We founded Boston Rock Opera after doing some off-beat productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” for a few years with [Noise magazine publisher-guitarist] T Max. Those shows started primarily as a way to get people who wouldn’t normally work together, or go out see each other’s bands, to collaborate on something and get to know each other. Superstar was a show that a lot of people had serious affection for so the shows were full of love and energy and found an immediate audience. We realized we had enough talent here to try something else and instead of choosing something obvious like “Tommy” we chose “Preservation Act II,” by The Kinks. We needed a name so we became Boston Rock Opera.
You were aware, I’m sure, that the short-attention span world we live in wasn’t consciously craving full-length conceptual pieces from an era – at least to some fans – that might be a very distant past?
Since we started out during the shoe-gaze grunge era, we really didn’t fit in with what was going on at the time. It was hard to explain what we were trying to do. We saw ourselves more as a big rock band rather than a traditional theater company. Artist tribute bands and Album tribute nights were not as common as they have become. The idea of presenting a relatively unknown work like “Preservation,” or [Pretty Things’] “SF Sorrow,” and hoping an audience would trust you was probably a fool’s errand from the start but we kept surprising ourselves.
That said, I love what you have done, and do, and you’ve cranked up some great works – “Jesus Christ Superstar,” most obviously, but very much the Kinks “Preservation Act II.” Tell me about those two.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” holds a special place in so many old rocker’s hearts. It’s really a perfect piece of music. It’s a powerful opera, whether you believe in the story or not. Since we kept coming back to the piece, we had to keep upping the ante, keep making it better. We were blessed to have some of Boston’s bigger names, like Kay Hanley and Gary Cherone join us but the shows worked in part because everyone was a star, everyone put everything they had into those shows. We learned a lot about stagecraft.
“Preservation Act II” was an adventure. We were advised by our BMI representative that, since we wanted to stage it, we might need to arrange for the grand rights. That meant contacting Ray Davies directly and asking him. We were honestly just too excited about the idea and too naive to really think about what we were asking for. We did get in contact with him and later met with him and he was really enthusiastic. We also discovered that there was an audience for it. That lots of people loved The Kinks. We came back to “Preservation” a few years later, and worked on a staging of the whole work with more input from Ray. I think he liked what we were about and our motivations. He was actually appreciative of what we tried to do. The current state of politics had me thinking about “Preservation” again, so I was thinking about BRO a bit before Erica Mantone contacted me about reviving the company.
Your proudest moments?
“Preservation,” of course. Another meaningful moment for me was during our run of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It probably hadn’t been performed by anyone in a long time, if ever. The idea of celebrating great records from the past just wasn’t what people did, so we had to build our audience. Eventually, that show did sell out and I remember standing in the middle of the packed house during a moment where everything transitioned from activity to formation and the audience just went wild. Spontaneous standing ovation, everybody just connected for that moment. That’s why I do this stuff, I guess.
And, uh, maybe some things that didn’t work out as well as planned?
We did these over the top Nights @The Opera, where we’d present excerpts from new works, from shows we’d done and other concept songs. It was a chance for folks to feature their favorite artists. They always looked great on paper but the shows would become 4 hour-plus, unwieldly things. There were some magic moments, for sure, but we could have edited those a lot.
What made you decide to get back in the game with David Bowie? Did his death light the fire?
I’d been approached in December by Erica Mantone, who sings with a bunch of different Boston bands, about reviving the company to do “Hair.” She loves that show the way Mick loved “Preservation” and the way I loved “Superstar.” So she worked pretty hard trying to convince me to get BRO back together. We were just beginning to discuss doing a small summer show to test the waters when Bowie died. I was devastated. I think it was Susan Barnaby who texted me “BLACKSTAR” that day. I’d already been intrigued by a (bad) review of his play Lazarus. I thought he was on a creative roll but perhaps wanted his new work to happen through others. When he died, I knew we had to honor him.
What are your plans for this? It’s called – “Stardust to Blackstar – the Lives of David Bowie” so I’m assuming we’re getting a pretty comprehensive show spanning that era. But we know there were hits and misses there – “Ziggy,” “Aladin Sane,” “Diamond Dogs,” the Eno trilogy, all hits – but some of the into-the-superstar status stuff with Capitol rather generic. Obviously, there was a big critical comeback with his last two albums, “The Next Day” and “Blackstar.” What’s your plan for the presentation?
We are going to perform “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” in its entirety. Mick Mondo and his supergroup lead it. He’s not playing Bowie, but he is telling a story. We then perform the album “Blackstar” in its entirety. A premiere, I believe. Russ Gershon arranged it and has put together a crack band and chorus that will blow you away. The music is complex and the album is dark but there is a lot of humor in it too. Then, because we have to cheer up before we go home, we have a set of high energy songs chosen from the rest of his vast catalogue.
What role will theatrics play here?
We’re bringing in a light show and there are three different moods for the three sets. Ziggy will probably be the most theatrical.
You husband, Mick Maldonado, will lead the band, always a good thing. Can you tell me about how long it took to put this together in the right way and who some of the the singers you recruited are? What do they bring to the table?
We’ve got three musical directors for this. Mick leads “Ziggy Stardust,” Russ leads “Blackstar” and Matt Sullivan leads the tribute set. We started recruiting musicians in March. Each act has worked pretty autonomously. We have 37 performers involved. We’ve got folks who have worked with us before, such as Gene Dante, Peter Moore, John Powhida, Linda Viens and Joel Simches involved, but also performers like Rod Van Stoli, Andrea Gillis, Melissa Gibbs, Phil Aiken and Ron Murphy. Boston never fails when it comes to talent.
Does Boston Rock Opera have future plans? That is, are you a viable company moving forward or is this sort of a one-shot comeback?
Don’t know how viable we’ll ever be, but we’re already casting for “Hair” and crowd-funding to raise money for the production. The current political and social climate is such that perhaps this really is time to bring together a talented tribe of misfits again. The trick will be to do to “Hair” what we did with “Superstar.” Not just present a play but really get into the emotional story being told through the music. We’re going to shake it up a bit without changing the script.
Anything you wish to add about the production?
It’s going to be a love-fest. ONCE is a great space and the vibe is cool, so I am really looking forward to presenting something there.
Boston Rock Opera does Bowie … Saturday, August 6 and Sunday August 7 at ONCE Ballroom
156 Highland Ave, Somerville
For tickets and more information, go to BRO’s Facebook event pages.
https://www.facebook.com/events/608687072621286/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1060437317355749/