Rock Opera Brewed For Many Years

Young Troupe Promises Laughs, Gore And 15 Songs In 'Gr?ndleh?mmer'

August 16, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,

First, take a bunch of recent college grads with an interest in fantasy, horror and heavy metal.

Mix in an indeterminate amount of beer.

Let rise for several months.

Garnish with a couple of umlauts.

Then brace yourself for an original rock opera called "Gr?ndleh?mmer," currently in the early-rehearsal phase and scheduled for a premiere in October at a Charles Village venue. The project is nothing if not ambitious - five acts, 15 songs, a seven-piece band, a cast of about two dozen and the promise of lots of violence, heroics and humor.

"It started as a joke," says John DeCampos, who has contributed to the music and script for the show.

Originally he and Aran Keating, who have known each other since elementary school days in Baltimore, proposed making a stage version out of Brian de Palma's 1974 offbeat horror/musical, "Phantom of the Paradise." "Then we started throwing around the idea of creating our own rock musical and put the film idea aside," says Keating, a co-writer and director of "Gr?ndleh?mmer."

By early 2008, other friends, all in their mid-20s, joined in the discussion. Along the way, they decided they would go beyond being just the plain old "bros" they had been before graduating from local colleges and would become "BROS" - the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

"It was more of a drinking society at first," says Keating on a humid evening at SkyLofts Gallery, a studio and event space in Highlandtown where the group rehearses. Cans of brew are opened by several of the participants. "Beer is an appealing element to a lot of the people involved," says songwriter Dylan Koehler with a smile.

Back in the day, suds-enhanced society members kept talking about that rock opera concept.

"If you do that long enough" Keating says, "you either stop doing it or you take it to the next level." That next level turned out to be "something with a big vision, something intense, with crazy sets, ridiculous gore, blood, monsters and makeup," he says.

"Gr?ndleh?mmer" puts a distinctive spin on a basic, medieval good-and-evil story.

It all takes place in "the mythical land of Brotopia." Decent folk are oppressed by the Dark King, Lothario, who is guarded by minotaurs and partakes of "some really oddball S&M."

There's also a ravenous monster known as Gr?ndle who plays a mean guitar called the Gr?ndleh?mmer. His playing disarms his victims.

The downtrodden Brojans embrace a young lad, Benedon, who gains sufficient guitar wisdom to stand up against the enemies of the people, using the force of "old time rock and roll." By the final curtain, there is a significant body count.

Bass player Tyler Merchant sees the action as "a modern interpretation of a fairy tale. It's archetypal in many ways, with a boy who saves the kingdom. It has dark parts and gets really heavy, but there's also comedy you would never see in a fairy tale," Merchant says.

DeCampos calls the story "ridiculous and very Shakespearean." And from Keating: "We're making fun of the epic plot, but we're totally in love with it."

There's a bit of fun with the title of the piece, too. Germanic touches are not uncommon in the rock world (the name of the band M?tley Cr?e is said to have been inspired by an umlaut-spiced German beer name), and the bros were thinking Wagnerian thoughts as they hatched their project.

Rock operas, since The Who's groundbreaking "Tommy" in 1969, have been known to tell unusual tales, as the bros' creation does. One recent entry in this niche genre, The Decemberists' "The Hazards of Love," even has a fantasy plot involving a fair maiden, a demon and a forest queen.

Most rock operas emerge as albums - audio-only fusions of music and continuous story line - and, in a few cases, subsequently get turned into stage vehicles. "Gr?ndleh?mmer" was envisioned from the start to be staged.

The challenges of creating a full-fledged production with music and spoken dialogue doesn't seem to have fazed the "Gr?ndleh?mmer" gang in the slightest.

"It was a rather long creative process," says Koehler. "We would be in a room together and someone would get an idea of a scene and I would write a song. The music and plot grew at the same time. Half the songs were written spontaneously."

Styles in the score range from hard-driving metal to folk rock ballads.

"Once we got into it deeper, we were writing for characters, getting into their heads, which can be easier than writing for yourself," DeCampos says.

Once the bros had the script and music down, their early 21st-century version of the venerable let's-put-on-a-show tradition moved toward reality this summer.

A spot for the premiere was located - the 2640 Space. The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts gave the bros a $500 grant. A fundraiser was held last month at Brewer's Art; another one is scheduled later this month at Load of Fun Studios.

"What I like is seeing everyone collaborating," says Koehler. "It's sucking up all the talent in Baltimore and putting it into one boiling pot."

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