The Boston Rock Opera
By Debbie Catalano
The pure energy and passion that is live rock music spliced with the exhilaration and dramatics of theatre and the opera and… there you have it, the Boston Rock Opera, one of the most innovative organizations in the arts today. The talent on stage and behind the scenes of the Boston Rock Opera is comprised of consummate professionals, individuals that are actors, dancers, singers, local rock band members – some only known in their hometown and some Bostonians who have experienced nationwide or worldwide success. But wherever the talent may lie, wherever it has originated or traveled, the true essence of the Boston Rock Opera is rooted in a genuine love for music and the stage. Revitalizing classic rock music; introducing forgotten, unknown, or brand new productions; raising money or awareness for a good cause, the Boston Rock Opera has, since 1993, injected this town and the local music scene with an admirable dose of artistic originality.
Keeping with its naturally unpretentious demeanor, the BRO has maintained in the last seven years a kind of subtle strength – as a whole it is low-key in that it’s not flashy, yet some productions – most notably their productions of Jesus Christ Superstar – have garnered the organization high media praises. For those readers who are not familiar with the Boston Rock Opera, allow me to raise the curtain and fill you in a bit: The Boston Rock Opera is a nonprofit organization that merges the local music, dance, and theatre communities to produce renditions of well-known rock operas, story-like songs, and original creations by local composers. The BRO was formed by Eleanor Ramsey, Mick Maldonado, and T Max – Eleanor is one of the primary behind-the-scenes forces behind the BRO, and though everyone appears to wear many hats in all the productions, Eleanor principally produces and directs the shows, while Mick Maldonado often serves as Musical Director, along with being a big part of the performances – as a vocalist, guitarist, actor. T Max, who is known mainly in the Boston scene as publisher of The Noise, also lends a great deal of his talent and expertise both on stage and off. Jane Bulger and John Whiteside are two other individuals who have significantly contributed to the BRO behind the scenes. Through the years, the Boston Rock Opera has gathered together a diverse array of talent – the group is tight in that there are performers who are faithfully in every production, yet open-minded in that new artists continually come in and out of the various shows and productions. To list everyone would somehow be a disservice to anyone inadvertently left out – yet all deserve recognition for their impassioned, stirring, and stimulating performances. One can’t help but walk away from a BRO production feeling inspired.
It was a production of Jesus Christ Superstar that led to the eventual formation of the Boston Rock Opera. Though certainly the fact that in 1994 Kay Hanley’s (Letters To Cleo) role as Mary Magdalene and Gary Cherone’s (Extreme, Van Halen) as Jesus were significant to drawing attention to the Boston Rock Opera, their contributions by far proved more than just “name lending,” as anyone who saw their heartfelt performances can attest to. Following the success of Jesus Christ Superstar, the group took on Preservation Act II by The Kinks. Other BRO productions include: Crackpot Notion (a new composition by Tim Robert), The Who’s A Quick One While He’s Away, an original staging of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which raised money and awareness for The AIDS Action Committee), “Night @ The Opera” in 1998 and “Another Night @ The Opera” in 1999, both of which were celebrations, compilation style, of rock opera songs and “story songs” (like songs by Queen, The Who, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, The Beatles, The Kinks, Jethro Tull, Kate Bush, etc.) and more. Last year alone, the BRO also presented the rock fable Happiness Stan by Britain’s Small Faces, which was for Somerville’s ArtBeat Festival and S.F. Sorrow a full-length rock opera by The Pretty Things, originally released in 1968. This year, the BRO pulled together for Mikey Dee and presented “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Dee” an evening that honored Mikey, a BRO performer and supporter, and that contributed to raising money for Mikey Dee’s medical expenses and trust fund (please see page 42 for a live review of this show). For a better idea of the Boston Rock Opera’s history, pay a visit to their website: http://www.rockopera.com, where you’ll find links to previous shows, including photos and complete programs. Better yet, go to a Boston Rock Opera performance, as that is the best way to truly understand the experience that this hardworking, dedicated group of individuals offers to you.
For more insight, I recently posed some questions to Eleanor Ramsey:
Boston SoundCheck Magazine: What inspired you (and your cofounders) to start the organization? Eleanor Ramsey: It grew out of the Jesus Christ Superstar Middle East Noise shows. After that had seemingly run its course Mick wanted to try Preservation Act II by The Kinks. We managed to get Ray Davies’ permission to do it and put on a pretty great show of that for the first time in July 1993, so suddenly we were a theatre company and thus, Boston Rock Opera was born. BSM: So that was the first BRO production… what did you learn from it? ER: We learned a lot about stagecraft on that show and that Ray Davies was nice. We also realized that there was a whole genre of music, which was worth exploring out there and that people really wanted to see more. BSM: How did it grow from there? ER: Well, Boston Rock Opera put on Jesus Christ Superstar at Easter 1994 with Gary Cherone as Jesus. That show raised the bar again and, of course, Gary brought a lot of attention to it. It was still this scruffy raw show at the Middle East but they were talking about it on MTV. BSM: Do you feel the BRO has enlightened audiences/the general public to both the rock opera genre (for lack of a better term) and the truly classic, timeless rock music artists and songs? ER: I think so, maybe a little bit. The casts are comprised mostly with people in local bands or who used to be in bands which play many different styles of music so there’s a real range of musical tastes by the participants. We always hope that open-mindedness will encourage others to check out what we’re about. We think that there is a lot of great over-the-top music and good stories out there so there’s no reason not to present this music for today’s audiences. It’s also fun, and it rocks. BSM: How much preparation time does it take to put on one of your productions? ER: It can take a long time to adapt a show or set it up but the active production cycle for a show is about two months. BSM: I’ve always been impressed with the topnotch talent of the musicians and singers and crew involved – what qualifications are necessary to be part of the BRO? Do you audition often? ER: Talent, creativeness, dedication and a sense of humor. We do audition and we approach people who we think might be good for a part. A lot of it is word of mouth and recommendations. But we’ve had a bunch of people in the shows who just walked in cold to an audition. BSM: I love, too, how the cast includes “famous” as well as the “not-so-famous” artists and I notice that everyone is treated the same promotions-wise – along with the fact that there never seems to be any ego problems or issues on both ends… are my observations pretty much on with this? I believe it lends to the credibility and sincerity of your shows and Boston Rock Opera in general. ER: Yeah, that’s always been something that’s been important to us. As I mentioned before we run the productions as professionally as we can and in turn everyone involved can really give their all to their role. People do the shows for the love of it so we seldom have any ego problems. I’m always impressed by talent and we have a lot of fun. We try to promote the shows as a collective effort. Everybody’s a star. BSM: What are your future plans for The Rock Opera? ER: We’ve got Jesus Christ Superstar coming back this November with Gary Cherone in the role of the red-haired betrayer [Judas] this time and a cast that will include both previous and new performers. We’re still looking for people. We’ll probably do a club show at Lilli’s when they open this summer also. We are always looking for new people and behind the scenes folks, too. There’s a lot of ways to get involved..
Again, for more information on the Boston Rock Opera visit their website at www.rockopera.com.
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