Back in 2007, stage director Becca Wolff and composer Byron Kahr got to talking. They had just been to see Spring Awakening, the smash, musical Broadway reworking of the 1891 Frank Wedekind play to an alt rock-ish score by Duncan Sheik that had the New York critics scouring their thesauruses for new superlatives.
There was just one problem with this latest incarnation of the rock musical — it simply didn't rock. Or at least not in the sense of the danger, instability and raw immediacy that Wolff and Kahr found nightly in the live club scene.
Why, they wondered, do the musical theater's sporadic forays into rock 'n' roll invariably seem to exsanguinate the music they loved into so many anodyne show tunes? Certainly there must be a way to merge the two forms without losing the potency of each.
Their eventual answer would take two years and involve co-composer John Nixon, German Romanticism and two former British monarchs. They are calling it The Last Days of Mary Stuart: An Electro-Opera, and it opened this past weekend at Son of Semele Theater.
On paper, the team appears to have the requisite street cred. Wolff has the look and swagger of a punk rocker and is the artistic director of IAMA Theatre and a co-founder of Tilted Field Productions (the company backing Mary Stuart). And both Kahr and Nixon are veterans of the L.A. avant-rock scene in bands like City of Progress, Whqles and TONY.
The playwright they're setting to music is no slouch either — Wolff has adapted her libretto from Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart. That play, which opens with the Protestant Elizabeth I sitting on the throne and grappling with the fate of both the imprisoned Catholic Queen of Scots and of England itself, was a favorite of both Wolff's and Kahr's from their days together at Yale (Wolff was in the School of Drama, Kahr at Yale Law).
For Wolff, the question of moral certainty versus political expediency framed by Schiller seemed to speak directly to our own politically polarized times. “I found it really compelling,” she says, at the production's Boyle Heights rehearsal studio, “because I feel like in our world, that's the question too. It's like there're all these people who seem so sure of their correctness, on both sides of the aisle in our divided country, and I think that it's just lost, the art of considering things and doubting yourself but still going on.
“That's where it's really at,” Kahr agrees, “the struggle of can you know for sure what you should do or that your actions are justified? But it just never really gets resolved. … Ultimately, there's nothing that takes the place of knowing for sure what God wants or what's going to happen to you when you die or any of those things. It's a permanent state of the modern condition that it's never resolved. And Schiller, I think, was kind of aware of some of this stuff.”
Wolff says that one of first things upon which the collaborators agreed was that you can't rock sitting down. She excitedly unrolls her blueprint to illustrate how she's torn out all the seats of the Son of Semele Theater, transformed the audience risers into a stage and used the former playing area to create that most critical feature of any rock venue, a bar. (Saturday evenings also feature a guest band between the 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. performances.)
The next part proved a bit trickier — setting her libretto to music and actually creating a show that rocks. “One of the reasons that the kind of rock opera thing doesn't really work that well,” Kahr says, “is that it's really weird to have rock music and a band going and then have the drama not be the band.”
In other words, they quickly found that a musician turns out to be a different creature entirely from an actor. “Originally we had the idea that the band could be the chorus,” Kahr recalls, “and the band was part of the show, and the band acts. But that doesn't really work either — you can't really play music as fully or intensely and be acting and be interacting with the actors and blocking it. It's too distracting and hard to be fully focused in the music.”
The team also discovered that, for the purposes of a dramatic narrative, it is possible to rock too much. “When we first started out,” Wolff remembers, “it was much more rock 'n' roll, punk-influenced type stuff. So it was super-immediate. It was like you were sitting there and the sound was coming at you. … But in a small space like that it really was like you were completely ensconced in the sound, like, basically through the whole thing.”
Switching out the live drums for a drum machine helped somewhat to modulate the music for dramatic purposes. Equally critical, however, became the need to broaden their musical influences. It was a process that Nixon says is simply all part of making rock music. “In fact,” he adds, “the sounds reflect the things that we were doing in the different bands. But then as we've gone on and it's evolved, we've taken on new influences in what we're doing with our music, and that influence has in a really natural and surprising but really positive way come over to the opera too.”
The team describes the resulting score as rock but “rhythm no blues.” “It's got this krautrock thing,” Kahr offers. “And also the instrumentation — the drum machines, the synthesizers, the delay — it's indebted to rock music that verges into the electronic and dance music.”
“I'd say we're somewhere between,” Nixon interjects. “There's this early Kraftwerk base and there's like an early Island Records top — like that Grace Jones stuff we were talking about — and then filling in the middle in certain parts is early Detroit house.”
All finally agree to call it “electro-pop” in the mold of aughts electronic indie-rockers the Postal Service and built on a foundation of disco-era Jones and Brian Eno-esque ambience. And that sounds just about right — particularly if any of it means ear-grabbing pop hooks and melodies that soar on a jet-stream of Moog-accented keyboard harmonies and propulsive, ballistic rhythms. It's just the kind of lushly dramatic sound one might expect from what Kahr describes as “these two huge queens with these huge diva voices.”
Whatever the label, as belted out by the show's two stars — Wolff's childhood rocker pal Marianne Thompson plays Mary, IAMA co-founder Laila Ayad sings Elizabeth — the evening's collection of a dozen or so stirring ballads, melodic choral numbers and beat-driven power anthems packs a quotient of single-worthy tunes that would be the envy of any Broadway musical. The difference here is that Wolff, Kahr and Nixon actually rock.
The Last Days of Mary Stuart: An Electro-Opera plays at Son of Semele through July 20.