Boston Rock Opera’s S.F. Sorrow
Clad head to toe in bad-guy black, Mick Maldonado folds his towering frame into one of the 475 seats facing the stage at the Massachusetts College of Art’s Tower Auditorium and, looking into the lights, tries to explain what keeps bringing him back to Boston Rock Opera year after year. Is it the fame? (Local.) The money? (Little.) The hand-wringing? (Lots.) The time commitment? (Six weeks of rehearsals.) To answer these questions, he had to go back to childhood.
“I’ve been playing rock and roll since I was 10 or 11 years old, and I’ve always had a foot in the theater world [he has a degree in theater arts from Syracuse] and the rock-and-roll world. But the music and energy in theater and rock and roll are two separate things, and I’d always wanted to fuse them. I’m a big art-rock fan from the old prog-rock days. . . . I loved that era of Ziggy Stardust and Mott the Hoople, and I didn’t get to hear enough of it back then.” Maldonado was seduced by the ideas and the possibilities that visually inclined, theatrical-minded folks like David Bowie and Roxy Music (and of course the Who) presented. There had always been opera, and musicals. But this was something different.
“I looked around and I thought, this is great rock and roll,” he recalls. “Who else is bothering to do this stuff? Nobody?” Maldonado, who plays the dastardly dandy Baron Saturday in the current BRO production of the Pretty Things’ proto-rock opera, S.F. Sorrow, is also musical director of the production, which wraps up this weekend at Tower Auditorium. “I think that part of what drives BRO is the desire to play great music,” he asserts. “But also part of it is to take rock and roll out of the same old stinky clubs, bring it someplace else, and present it to another audience.”
It’s been eight years since a fledgling group of actors and musicians first staged an ambitious if somewhat, uh, inebriated production of the rock-musical warhorse Jesus Christ Superstar in the relatively modest confines of the Middle East upstairs. Noise publisher T. Max, who, two years after that production, would help found Boston Rock Opera with Maldonado and producer/director Eleanor Ramsay (he plays Sorrow’s dad and a reporter in the new production), remembers that first effort. “We had no costumes, and for props, Jesus would just stand on a chair. We did two shows that day, and before the second show, everybody got so drunk that we wound up having a drunk Jesus standing there, teetering on her chair.”
Once BRO became a bona fide nonprofit production company, in 1993, the scope, the scale, and the starpower — not to mention the sobriety — of productions increased. In both 1994 and 1996, for example, Extreme (and soon-to-be Van Halen) frontman Gary Cherone played the title role in Superstar, which proved to be BRO’s biggest commercial success ever, with 11 shows and 11 sold-out performances. BRO has also adapted conceptual works like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Kinks’ Preservation. But S.F. Sorrow, a psychedelic allegory of loss, isolation, and despair, is easily the least widely known and bleakest BRO subject to date.
What’s most remarkable about BRO productions past and present is that most of the actors, musicians, and singers have had little if any formal theater training. More often than not, they’ve just been rock-and-rollers who got curious about acting. But invariably they pull it off — even something as untested and unremittingly grim as Sorrow, a risk-taking production that’s as ascetic in presentation as it is rich in imagination. In BRO’s hands on opening night last Thursday, the cold, brutal fatalism of the narrative (which follows the life of one Sebastian F. Sorrow through all manner of turmoil and hardship, including love, war, and finally madness) was infused with poignant drama, and the sense that at the story’s center beats a still-striving human heart.
“What I like about this organization is that it’s got soul,” explains Sorrow director John Whiteside, who’s also the Huntington Theatre Company’s assistant technical director and has been with BRO since 1995. “The only reason we do this is because we love the material. We’ve got several actors who aren’t rock-and-rollers and some rock-and-rollers who aren’t actors, so there’s always going to be some unevenness. But because it’s rock and roll, a lot of the show depends on letting the audience respond, letting the spontaneity and the music carry the story along.”
Linda Bean, a BRO regular who decided to audition for Preservation a few years ago, recalls, “It just sounded like a fun, cool thing to do.” Bean, who this year landed her first BRO lead (she’s Sally, “the girl next door,” in Sorrow), is the new bassist in the Boston band Orbit. Prior to that she had been with the now-defunct PermaFrost. “I had never acted before, but I thought, `Okay, it’s a rock opera. It’s not like real opera. I can do that. I can rock.’ ”
For Bill Bracken, who’s playing lead guitar in the six-piece rock band situated behind the stage scrim, Sorrow’s his first sustained foray into theater. “It’s kind of nice being in the background. I’ve always been out front in bands, as either a lead-guitarist or the singer, and with the theater gig, I don’t have to talk to anybody. Instead, I get to think about the whole big picture as a musician — the sounds, tones, and textures of a song, and which guitar I should use.”
One of BRO’s more prominent players is Count Zero singer Peter Moore, who had done some acting in high school but hadn’t pursued theater any farther until 1995, when a friend persuaded him to try out for BRO’s production of its original Crackpot Notion. Last year, Moore played the Tramp, Ray Davies’s autobiographical character, in Preservation (a production that, by the way, received Ray Davies’s in-person blessing); this year he’s Sebastian F. Sorrow. “I got bitten by the bug.” He enjoys being able to relinquish control — even now, he says, he feels that every production is ultimately about taking a chance on the unknown. “It’s weird when you marry theater and rock and roll. It can be very, very dangerous. It can be really great, but it can also suck. Because people want rock to be sincere and theater is all about pretension.”
True enough, putting the words “rock” and “opera” together can and often does conjure visions of prog-rock self-indulgence of Spinal Tap proportions — miniature Stonehenge props and druids and triple-gatefold albums with cover art of strangely sprouting mushrooms and endless jams in tricky time signatures. In large part this explains why punk happened. “It’s hideously uncool,” admits Moore with a sly grin. “I don’t mean to get on my high horse about it, but this is the dorkiest thing we could be doing. I mean, the cool thing is to get up there and turn your Marshalls up to 11, right?”
Apparently, even the creators of S.F. Sorrow would agree with Moore on that. When Eleanor Ramsay, who began shaping the stage adaptation of Sorrow last January, met with the Pretty Things a couple of months ago (they were performing at the Middle East), the group’s main concern was that the work be performed by a real rock band — not some watered-down approximation. To judge from the vibrancy and full-bodied musical dynamism on display opening night, the Prettys needn’t have worried. BRO finally convinced the group and the Prettys consented to the production. It’s the first time the band have approved an outside request to stage Sorrow. Previously they had pulled the plug on a dance company’s attempt to do the piece.
Nevertheless, Ramsay acknowledges that preconceived notions about what BRO is — and what it isn’t — pose some challenges for the company. “The rock community isn’t quite sure what to think about us, and the theater critics aren’t sure what to think about us. And I kind of feel they’re both missing something. So that’s been a hurdle for us. The nice thing about the level we’re at now is that we have total creative freedom and nobody’s pulling our strings. On the other hand, we have no money.”
According to Ramsay, BRO works with an annual budget of between $20,000 to $25,000, most of which is spent on technicians, lights, rent, and anywhere between 30 to 40 performers. “We’ve come a long way from those days at the Middle East, but to get to the next level is difficult. This is the point where you say you have to bust out to the next level or pull back. The goal is to at least break even and give everybody a little something for their effort. So far we haven’t lost a lot of money, but we lose a little every year.”
Whiteside agrees. “We need to get better at selling the concept. When we say we’re going to do a rock opera, people wonder, `What is that?’ I think a lot of the theater audiences don’t get it, and there are the rock audiences who think that rock opera is Tommy and say they already saw it on Broadway, or they saw the movie. Well, we don’t want to be the movie and we don’t want to be Broadway. We want to be true to the intent of the music.”
The Boston Rock Opera production of S.F. Sorrow finishes up this weekend, Thursday through Saturday (November 18 through 20), at MassArt’s Tower Auditorium, 621 Huntington Avenue. Call 628-5691.