'RING' on the Range Take Wagner, add country-western, get 'Das Barbecu'

January 09, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

He composer has done a revue called "The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist." The playwright has written something called "Rock 'n' Roles from William Shakespeare."

The director once staged a play called "Buzzsaw Berkeley." Put these three together and what do you get?

If you said Richard Wagner, you've probably already heard of "Das Barbecu" -- a country-western version of the composer's "Ring" cycle that opens at Center Stage Wednesday.

In this version of Wagner's masterpiece, the Rhine Maidens are synchronized swimmers, the giants are construction workers, and at Rancho Gibich the Texas ranch hands are firing up the barbecue in preparation for a double wedding.

"Das Barbecu," written by composer Scott Warrender and librettist Jim Luigs, is becoming the most-produced new musical in regional theaters this season, and the show has also been optioned by New York producers for a possible run there.

The show debuted at the Seattle Opera in 1991 and subsequently received a workshop production last summer at the Goodspeed Opera House's Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut, under the direction of Christopher Ashley, who is also directing at Center Stage. Separate productions are also scheduled at the Dallas Theater Center and the Asolo Theatre Company in Sarasota, Fla.

As peculiar as the show sounds, its genesis came about as unexpectedly. It was the fall of 1990, and Warrender was walking his dog in Seattle. "My dog started playing with another dog, and that dog happened to belong to Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera," Warrender says, adding, "I didn't know who he was. I went on this rampage about the Seattle Opera."

Warrender also mentioned he had a show running in the area. Jenkins, apparently not offended by the rampage, saw the show and shortly thereafter asked Warrender to write a companion piece for the Seattle Opera's production of the "Ring."

While Warrender had often written both music and lyrics, he called on Luigs, with whom he'd worked on several revues.

At first, Luigs says, he was hesitant. "Neither of us knew anything about the 'Ring,' other than that it loomed as a great chunk of Western culture that we had avoided our whole lives." Not only that, Luigs says, "I'm not an opera person by training or by inclination."

However, he says, "Scott seized the commission as an opportunity to create a new, small musical."

"Small" might sound antithetical to Wagner, but it was a stipulation of the commission, which limited the cast to five and the length to 90 minutes. Setting the show in Texas was Warrender's idea -- even though Luigs grew up there.

"I'd always heard that so many opera fans liked country music too," explains Warrender, who, during a recent conversation with him, Ashley and Luigs, happens to be the only one wearing cowboy boots. "I also felt that it gave it a point of view musically. It was country music; it wasn't just generic musical theater music. And it also seemed very accessible to everyone . . . And, if you have country music it seemed suitable that the story might go someplace like, well, I don't know, Texas."

Luigs says he found the Texas setting particularly appropriate to the source material because of "the grandeur of the landscape and the size and scale of the people."

Both concluded their initial unfamiliarity with Wagner and the "Ring" cycle was to their advantage. It has helped them make the show understandable to a broad audience.

"There's bonuses if you know the whole 'Ring' story inside out," says Ashley. "But we're aiming for . . . the 'Ring'-ignorant."

Adds Warrender: "[Luigs] made a great comparison at some point, saying that . . . 'Das Barbecu' was to the 'Ring' as 'West Side Story' is to 'Romeo and Juliet' -- that if you know the story of 'Romeo and Juliet,' there's something a little bit extra about it."

The three men vehemently oppose having the show described as a spoof, parody or send-up. "That implies you have to know the source material," Warrender explains.

As to the show's tone, he admits with a laugh, "Originally, my mind was all super-campy. 'We'll just set it in a bowling alley -- Valhalla Lanes! It'll be really simple! Go for it, Jim!' How hard could it be? . . . And I had said that the giants were, like, doing a remodel on the bar or something. You know, just really trashy. And months later, what came out was just quite lovely and much more than I had even ever dreamed of."

Luigs says he wanted to "make the play my own. I just went straight back to the libretti, and I would read them. And then I swooped down on family, . . . and so I just wrote it about two warring, extended clans -- basically, Wotan and his clan, and Alberich and his. I figured if we were going to make it accessible, everybody came or at least wanted to come from a family."

Ashley says most of the rewrites have focused on increasing accessibility. They've included four new songs since Seattle, and "clarification work on who the characters are and what they need," he says.

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