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Rock "Island"

Date: Feb 12, 2008


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By now most of us know what a "rock opera" is supposed to sound like: Jesus Christ Superstar, for instance, or The Who's Tommy.

But what's an "indie rock opera" supposed to sound like? So-called "indie" rocker Mark Mulcahy doesn't know, either.

"It's just a rock opera," he says of The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island, an intriguing new musical project at the Vineyard Theatre, with a story and design by the quirky alternative cartoonist Ben Katchor (best known for his comic strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer), and original music by Mulcahy, formerly frontman of the acclaimed but not huge-selling band Miracle Legion. "I came up loving Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Tommy and Quadrophenia," Mulcahy continues. "Those are rock operas, not 'indie' rock operas."

The "indie" thing, he reasons, is a generational and marketing label denoting post-1990 rock music that hasn't sold a jillion units. And if "indie" can be defined broadly enough to include Duncan Shiek (Spring Awakening) and Stew (Passing Strange), it might just be a harbinger of musical theatre success.

In any case, for Mulcahy, the theatre was a totally uncharted water.

"This is the first time I've written music for something like this," Mulcahy confesses. He recalls that Katchor, a longtime friend, handed him a script, and Mulcahy set about putting every word to music. Well, maybe not every word.

"I did a little editing, and I would try to sneak a rhyme or two in there if I thought they would work," Mulcahy said. The pair looked at Gilbert & Sullivan as one model, but made the choice to have the score be sung-through--i.e., non-stop singing. "I don't think either one of us is a fan of music theatre where you talk a little bit, then sing. We call it an opera, even though that's a slightly grand way to put it."

The story sounds both archetypical and extremely odd, at least the way Mulcahy describes it.

"It is a kind of love story," he begins, then starts again. "It's a complicated story wrapped around something very simple." Peter Friedman plays a lead character named Dr. Rushower, who's "kind of the center of the action in the first act," Mulcahy explains. Then, he says, the story focuses on a guy named Immanuel Lubang, who's "obsessed with reading instructional manuals," and who is funded by Rushower to go the Kayrol Island with Rushower's daughter, who then falls in love with a worker on the island named Samson.

Oh, we forgot one minor detail: Kayrol Island is a virtual sweatshop populated by exploited workers "who put four-ounce weights into appliances."

Say wha?

"It's absurd inside of real," Mulcahy half-explains. (Or maybe he means that in reverse?) He confesses that before the show was cast, he sang many of the lead roles, concert-style, and that certain details may have escaped him.

"Maybe I didn't notice the story that much because I was always in it," Mulcahy says, making a kind of sense. "When we played it at the Kitchen, we played it so that we didn't know the whole story; we didn't see the pictures that were projected. We did it totally seriously. Also, because I was playing so many different people, vocally, it was difficult to say what was going on exactly."

Representatives of Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre obviously saw something exciting in that Kitchen workshop. The Vineyard, which has something of a track record with offbeat musicals (Avenue Q, Eli's Coming, [title of show]), picked up Slug-Bearers and helped Katchor, Mulcahy, director Bob McGrath and choreographer John Carrafa shape it into a viable stage musical.

"It's a much different production," Mulcahy marvels as it takes shape. "It looks a lot better, and certainly the acting is a whole lot better."

For an independent-minded musician who's never been a huge rock star, Mulcahy has found the Off-Broadway world remarkably congenial, even familiar.

"Theatre is full of people who are very dedicated," Mulcahy says. "They're not making a great deal of money. It's amazing to see that kind of commitment. That's like where I am with music; I understand it at that level."

Does Slug-Bearers, with its enslaved workers and messianic leader, have a political point?

"It's unavoidable to think that, when you see a place like Kayrol Island where people are oppressed," Mulcahy concedes. "But it's almost accidental. I don't think Ben is trying to write any kind of political theater, but life is political; the world is political. Everything is going to be put in some box."

At the end of the day, Mulcahy insists, The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island is "complete fantasy. It's people with crazy names singing crazy songs. It's pure entertainment.

"I approach it all 100-percent deadly seriously, like it's 'Ave Maria,' " Mulcahy adds. "That's where the joke is."

For more information about The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island, go here.