Ironing Out the Kinks
Post-Spinal Tap, it's all but impossible to think of rock opera without cocking the dreaded raised eyebrow of irony. Such words as portentous, grandiose and bombastic come to mind when one thinks of Age of Aquarius relics like Tommy, Quadrophenia and Jesus Christ Superstar.
But Ray Davies is no Pete Townshend or Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Infernal Bridegroom Productions' revival of the Kinks' 1975 comedic A Soap Opera promises to be pretty much the opposite of pompous. No leprechauns clogging around tiny Stonehenges here.
"Ray Davies' theory is that everybody's in show business -- everybody's a star," says Jason Nodler, IBP's artistic director. "To prove his point, he decides to find the most ordinary, mundane man he can find [an accountant named Norman] and make him a star. So he presumably swaps places with this ordinary man and lives his life for a little while so he can dramatize it and make him into a star. So he moves in with his wife and works in his office, and in the end there's this question whether he was ever the Starmaker, maybe he was an ordinary man all along."
The plot's a bit of a mess, but the mod-wigged, glittery-caped Cary Winscott plays the Starmaker/ Davies/accountant character convincingly, especially when he sings Davies' songs. Winscott has the querulous tenor down pat. Tamarie Cooper co-stars as Norman's mousy, good-heartedly boring wife, Andrea.
Norman and Andrea's dialogue is delivered in the Queen's English, a nod to realism that violates a long-standing IBP taboo against using foreign accents. "We tend to not do English plays -- but this would be straightforward dramatic stuff, like a Pinter, for example," says Cooper. "If you go see a serious drama like that, most of the time you're just thinking, 'Wow, their accents are really good' or 'Wow, their accents are really bad.' "
Or so Nodler told a roomful of University of Houston students in a recent lecture. "So Jason says all this at UH and then a week later he tells us, 'Oh, we're gonna do the accents.' And I'm like, dude! We just said publicly a week ago that we don't do accents, but this is so not It's different. So this is the first time we've done that."
It's also the first time anybody's staged A Soap Opera since the Kinks themselves did it back in '75. While the actual live rock opera played to mixed results, the album -- shorn of dialogue and visuals -- is considered by some critics to be the Kinks' worst ever. Watching a run-through of the show, it's hard to agree with that assessment. The IBP band (under the direction of Anthony Barilla) is tight, and the songs seem like they could stand alone, though a lot of them do sound pretty similar to other Kinks songs from the late '60s. It's also hard to figure out why it's taken this long for somebody to get around to reviving the live show.
"I don't know that people know it's available," says Nodler. The idea to stage A Soap Opera was presented to him by Kinks fan and IBP supporter Keith Krumwiede in the waning hours of a party. An intrigued Nodler set about researching the matter on the Internet. The Boston Rock Opera had staged Preservation, Act One, another of Davies' works, and Davies' Schoolboys in Disgrace was once performed by a high school troupe, but so far, A Soap Opera had been collecting dust.
Nodler then got in touch with the Kinks' label, Sony, and after jumping through a few hoops, he won permission to stage the play. The problem now was, which version? The Kinks never performed A Soap Opera the same way twice. Nodler had several bootleg audio tapes and one video from the tour (which he got from Kinks fanatics on the Web), the studio album and a filmed BBC version from which to draw up a script. "It's not in a straightforward play format," says Cooper. "We don't have a full script, so we've transcribed different bits of dialogue from a bunch of different versions. It's different in every single concert version. So he took all four of the bootlegs and the videos and took what he liked best, pretty much, and created our little script."
"Little" is right, in every sense of the word. Unlike most rock operas, and contrary to what the title may imply, A Soap Opera concerns itself mainly with normal people doing normal things and trying to make themselves "stars" whenever (such as when they go on vacation) and however (when they drink themselves giddy in the pub after work) they can. Don't let the title lead you to expect rich people cavorting under the sheets with other rich people who are not their significant others. That's the American soaps. In England, soaps are about working stiffs like Norman and Andrea. They're not any better-looking than you or me, their jobs are no more glamorous nor well compensated, and they cheat on their spouses no more or less than their audience. Well, maybe a little more -- after all, it's still TV -- but Brit soaps are veritable Shaker colonies compared to the bed-hopping antics of Dallas or All My Children.
Cooper says the workaday plotline -- especially the pub sing-along "Have Another Drink" -- plays well with the semiprofessional IBP cast. "The opening lines of that song are 'Has everybody got problems? Are you stuck in a dead-end job?' We all walk around in the breaks singing that and going, 'Yeah!' "
Winscott takes comfort in the fact that Davies, despite never working a traditional job, could obviously relate to the rest of us. Perhaps rock stars are not so different after all. "Ray Davies has never had a nine-to-five in his whole life," Winscott says. "And as great as being a fuckin' rock star is, it's probably not all it's cut out to be."
Evidently it isn't. Why else would so many rock stars have written rock operas in an attempt to be taken more seriously than their cohorts? The very existence of the genre speaks to rock and its practitioners' unnamed yearning for mainstream respectability.
The Who's Tommy is a classic example. Though not the first rock opera (that honor goes to the Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow), it is among the most famous. According to British author and music business mogul Simon Napier-Bell, Tommy was the brainchild not so much of Pete Townshend, but of the Who's vengeful manager, Kit Lambert. Kit's father, Constant Lambert, had been a classical composer whose last substantial work was panned mercilessly by the London critics, and according to Napier-Bell, the elder Lambert drank himself to death six weeks after its disastrous opening. "For Kit, the Who doing Tommy at the Met was some sort of revenge with the traditional music establishment," Napier-Bell wrote Racket via e-mail from London.
To a certain extent, the rock opera movement was an expression of rock's postadolescence. By the late 1960s, rock had moved beyond simply doing whatever it took to piss off and/or terrify old people and started trying to beat them at their own game. It took the punk movement of the mid-'70s to bring rock back to its "hope I die before I get old" roots. By that time, the likes of Pete Townshend were singing a very different tune.
For Napier-Bell, what we call "rock opera" is a misnomer. For him, Tommy and A Soap Opera and Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar belong in the same musical tradition that gave us Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. "What was really worthy of the name 'rock opera' was any of the classic live performances by the great rock groups of the '70s," he writes. "A live show by Led Zeppelin was something far more worthy of being called 'rock opera' than was Tommy, as were any of the Who's live performances, or shows by Queen, or Guns N' Roses, or Iron Maiden. No! Perhaps they were 'rock circus.' "
And once you get to Iron Maiden, we're back cocking our eyebrows at the jitterbugging elves and hulking druids again. Lucky for us, then, that A Soap Opera is not a true rock opera.
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