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10. Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera

What do musicals and Southern rock have in common? Normally, a complete lack of subtlety. On the surface Southern Rock Opera fits the stereotype: three guitars, long passages of ranting narration, copious vocal twang, all entwined to retell the story of Lynrd Skyrnd. But beneath the cliches, Drive-By Truckers composed a nuanced musical narrative that is as much about postmodernism as it is about Ronnie Van Zandt.

At its heart, Southern Rock Opera explores the "duality of the 'Southern thing.'" Its story leaps in time and place, with songs sung from the perspectives of outcast Alabama teenagers in "The Three Great Southern Icons" to Satan himself in the next song, "Wallace." The results sound like the Allman Brothers, but tug at heartstrings like R.E.M. In fact the record strays so far from the mold of the '70s bands it so openly idolizes that it can be too subdued -- excepting "The Southern Thing," there is a lack of big, powerful guitar licks.

Southern Rock Opera borrows the appeal of Bye-Bye Birdie: It presents a sellable musical icon and image, as well as bombast in a familiar and realistic setting. It's easy to imagine Southern Rock Opera coming onstage with a talented ensemble cast in a wide age-range with a set composed of projector screens displaying real pictures of 1970s Alabama, the Swampers, and Lynrd Skynrd. Southern Rock Opera at its core is a celebration of the best aspect of the American South. Namely a willingness to rebel against conformity on one's own terms -- also the best aspect of modern theater.

The world has come a long way since the Who released Tommy in 1969. Tomorrow night, a stage adaptation of the Flaming Lips’ seminal 2002 rock opera Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots will premiere at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse. It’s not Broadway, but it is an indicator that the era of the rock opera could make a comeback. And this is the perfect time for a revival of the style.

The musical industry is hungry for material, but if Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark was any indication, musicals cannot draw from the same material movies do. Consider, on the other had, how well Rock Of Ages did, even if its filmic adaptation fumbled — there is an appetite for familiar music onstage.

Fortunately for Broadway, the music industry has produced a wealth of legitimately good rock operas (and hip-hoperas), most of which remain unadapted for the stage. And no, most of them are not what you would call “classic rock,” although some are. The relative self-indulgence of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Rush’s 2112 has ebbed, for the most part, in favor of coherent stories, and characters that develop with the plot.

Music and theater at their best stir something in an audience. There’s a swell of feeling produced in a live setting that can’t be replicated anyplace else. Here are the 10 rock operas most urgently in need of a stage adaptation, with some ideas for how such a production might be carried out. Make your case for My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade in the comments.

Comments (50)
  1. The La Jolla Playhouse on the UC San Diego campus. Quite a ways away from LA guys.

    • Ack! Totally my bad there. I have amended my error, thanks to you, my fact-checking cuz!

      • what about the voice of geddy lee?

        ok, that said, does grandaddy’s the sophtware slump count as a rock opera? i’d pay cold hard cash to see a stage rendition of that.

        ooh, and prince paul’s “a prince among thieves.” welcome to weapon world.

  2. Here’s all the facts about La Jolla Playhouse and “Yoshimi” musical you could possibly need: http://thefutureheart.com/exclusive-yoshimi-tickets

  3. Also, behind-the-scenes photos and ticket give-away at http://www.facebook.com/TheFutureHeart

  4. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” comes pretty close to being a film adaptation of Ziggy Stardust.

  5. 2112 self-indulgent? Self-indulgently AWESOME.

    And on that topic, a rock opera comprised of Cygnus X-1 Books I and II would be a broadway geek-out for the ages. Surely you know what I mean if Queensryche is on here…..\m/ \m/ \m/

  6. I can’t thank you enough for putting Genesis at the top of the list here. This band never gets the kind of credit they deserve. While I disagree that Lamb is their high point (A Trick of the Tail, the first without Peter, is pretty powerful, and it is one of my favorite albums of all time), you guys are pretty spot on with your reasoning behind the pick. This album is beautiful, weird, and dangerous. It needs to live again. Hopefully Phil gets better, and they play this album in full, as they have mentioned in the past they’ve wanted to do. So thank you again Stereogum, from the bottom of my heart.

  7. Wait, wait… Geoff Tate was fired BY Queensryche??!! When in HELL did I stop reading the interweb and miss that?

    • And according to Wikipedia, there appears to be two dueling versions of Queensryche out there right now: one fronted by Tate and with an otherwise new lineup, and one being the old band with a new singer. This is a coup for Queensryche fans, who now have twice the opportunity to see them live, I guess. I think we can all agree, however, that instead of settling their dispute over naming rights through the courts they should opt for a battle of the bands.

  8. I’m working on Hospice by The Antlers.
    Peter Silberman owes me lots of money.

  9. Personally, I think the hardest part about doing Lamb Lies Down on Broadway would be staging the part where Rael gets (temporarily?) castrated by the doctor, then has his “manhood” stolen by a raven…

  10. I’m in for the Archandroid, though I’d hardly say there was unfulfilled musical potential on that album. A lot of Suite III could have been left off, but Suite II is thrilling. Commercially, whatever, but musically no way.

    How about Dr. Octagyencologist?

  11. A “David Comes to Life” play/movie would be awesome!

  12. Hazards of Love!!!

  13. say anything… is a real boy.

  14. It’s not rock but The Streets’ album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free needs to be adapted for the stage.

  15. drive-by truckers’s southern rock opera album is not a rock opera. only conceptual.

  16. Top 10 Rock Operas That Don’t Deserve A Stage Adaptation

    1) American Idiot (alas…)
    2) Kilroy Was Here (Paradise Theater though? Shit Yeah. I’ve got some dope choreography ideas for “Too Much Time on my Hands.”)
    3-10) The Coheed and Cambria discography

  17. came here to say WHERE IS BLACK SHEAP BOY?

  18. Josiah already made reference to this, but The Antlers’ Hospice TOTALLY deserve a stage adaptation, and probably a novelization by Cormac McCarthy. That may be the most underrated album of the last 10 years (even though it’s fairly highly rated….)

    • DEFINITELY. My favourite album of 2009 by a considerable distance. Seriously the only album to have me on the verge of tears every time I listen to it all the way through. So depressing in a strangely uplifting way, you definitely feel like you’ve been through some kind of catharsis by the end.

  19. I know it ain’t the same, but The Musical Box does Lamb pretty meticulously. They have the original stage sets and costumes, and they even have access to the master tapes.

    I would definitely go watch an opera based on Owen Pallett’s Heartland.

  20. I’m just happy that it is finally to come out of the closet and say that i like both Qeensryche and R.kelly. today is a good day, i’m going to go gt drunk.

  21. Kendricks new album could easily be adapted to a movie…oh wait, its was…Boyz n the Hood.

  22. I’m going to be slightly pedantic and say that Janelle Monae’s Suite 1 EP needs to be included along with The Archandroid for story purposes. Great EP/mini-album too, incredibly underrated even compared to the full length.

  23. I know it’s not a rock opera, but I would love to see a stage adaption of the Hold Steady mythos.

  24. Decemberists’ “Hazards of Love,” anyone?

    And OK, I’ll be the one to make the case for “The Black Parade.” Two words: Liza Minelli.

    Also, let’s throw Smashing Pumpkins’ “Machina” and Princess Superstar’s “My Machine” in there, too.

  25. You know what? I fucking love The Black Parade.

  26. Operation: DOOMSDAY the musical, starring Forest Whitaker as DOOM.

  27. Operation Mind Crime actually made me go, “hmmm”. Other than the fact that the arrangements are dated, that one might be interesting.

    The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway…. huh. I don’t know. It was kind of a performance piece as it was, and the music was an important part of the show. Not sure how that would work without a bunch of guys on the stage making the music in front of you.

    • It was originally written to be a stage production, so…

      Diamond Dogs, too.

      • Hmm, I know it’s a concept album (a pretty deeply detailed one at that), but didn’t know it was intended to be performed any way other than the way they did it. Having seen so much of it performed with Peter Gabriel already in costume with the band on stage with him, for me, it would be weird to see it done differently. Not saying it wouldn’t work, because I’m sure it would. There’s just a lot of preconceived notions it would have to work around.

  28. Madvillianry – MF DOOM and Mad Lib. I’ve always dreamed of seeing this thing played in its entirety.

  29. Pure cheese factor, but Avantasia’s The Metal Opera and The Metal Opera II. 2 acts!

  30. This isn’t a rock opera, but In The Aeroplane Over The Sea might turn out to be some experimental masterpiece, but it might work better as a film.

  31. For the record, that’s not the Protomen you have pictured under their listing, that’s Random Encounter.

  32. Zappa’s “We’re Only In It For the Money” would be swell.

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