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Keep on Rockin’ in the Stage World: Neil Young’s Greendale at the Undermain

by Jerome Weeks 28 Mar 2008 7:47 AM

Kristen Campbell, Newton Pittman, Bruce DuBose, Kenny Withrow in Greendale Neil Young’s Greendale website — complete with town maps and family tree Glenn Arberry’s D magazine feature, click here. KERA’s radio story: Expanded online story: Announcer: Neil Young’s music is coming to North Texas in a way it never has been before — in a […]


Greendale cast. L to r: Kristen Campbell, Newton Pittman, Bruce DuBose, Kenny Withrow. Photo by Brian Barnaud

Kristen Campbell, Newton Pittman, Bruce DuBose, Kenny Withrow in Greendale

Announcer: Neil Young’s music is coming to North Texas in a way it never has been before — in a way it never has been anywhere. KERA reporter Jerome Weeks has more about how Dallas’ Undermain Theater is adapting Young’s music.

[Katherine Owens and Robert Winn talking onstage.]

The Undermain Theatre is in a tiny basement in Deep Ellum. Before a rehearsal starts, director Katherine Owens and set designer Robert Winn are debating what to do with a wooden dresser onstage. Space is crucial. The Undermain is trying to figure out how to squeeze into its little concrete bunker an entire rock opera by Neil Young.

[music segue: “Carmichael”]

Five years ago, Young wrote a series of songs about a small town and its deteriorating environment, about the Green family and a shooting by one member that triggers a media circus. With his band, Crazy Horse, Young turned the 10 songs into a rock opera called Greendale. It’s kind of like the play, Our Town – with grunge guitars. It’s about a lost, idyllic place in America, but also a place where the Devil himself roams the streets. Young has felt deeply about Greendale. He toured a concert version of the show, and then even directed a low-budget film with friends acting out parts while lip-synching his songs.

But when Bruce DuBose, executive producer of the Undermain, heard the Greendale CD, he thought it could use a full theatrical staging: sets, actors, props. Dubose says that’s because Young’s songs often tend toward drama. They call out to be staged:

Dubose: He’s got a way that he really tells stories, he does these dark ballads, where he has these characters in them and you’re never really sure exactly what the whole story is but he makes you think about it.

Rock operas, though, are odd ducks – more than a concert, less than a full-fledged musical. Few composers have written one, despite the huge success of the Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. So a rock opera by music legend Neil Young getting a world-premiere staging from the Undermain is a rare bird. It’s the first time anyone has performed Greendale without Young’s direct involvement. Until now, Young is the only one who has sung all the parts. This means that adapting Greendale has involved figuring out point of view, determining just who sings what. Katherine Owens explains.

Owens: If this person sings this, what does it say about what we’re saying about the dramatic action? We have not changed one note, one line, anything, nothing’s been changed. On a fundamental level, all we did was assign the parts. But that’s the whole issue.

Greendale has demanded a lot from the small but highly regarded company: eight months to get permission, assembling a sizable cast and band, even ripping out a back wall to expand the stage. It’s an ambitious, tricky project. With its basement space, the Undermain is not even a likely venue for a rock show. A band here could deafen an audience. The theater has a new sound system, but that’s not all that’s been required. As the band sets up, music director Kenny Withrow explains:

Kenny Withrow. Photo by Brian Barnaud

Withrow: It’s not a concert. This is a play so we’re having to re-think the way we would a show. Every word is a narrative. And so you don’t want to lose any part of the story because the second song may not make sense if you don’t know what happened in the first song.

Withrow is a member of the New Bohemians. For Greendale, he’s backed up on drums by Alan Emert from Brave Combo and Paul Semrad on bass from Course of Empire. To get such Dallas music pros, all Bruce DuBose had to do was give up his original dream of playing guitar in the show. Last December, Withrow came to the Undermain’s show, The Snow Queen, and read in the program that the theater company was going to stage Greendale. He called DuBose

DuBose: He contacted me and I met with him and he said I’m really interested in being the music director, and I thought, that’s great, because I was looking for a music director and I wanted someone who was more into the rock approach, rock band approach than, say, musical theater. And about a week later, he said, you know, I’d really like to play guitar on this. (Laughs.) And I just pretty quickly adapted to the idea and said yes, because he’s great.

[music segue: harmonica break from “Devil’s Sidewalk”]

DuBose still gets to play harmonica, though. That’s him now. As a rock opera, Greendale has its origins in radical environmental politics and in Young’s sense that something important has been lost in post-9/11 America. For its part, the Undermain’s staging of Greendale has at least one origin long ago in a live concert Bruce DuBose saw when he was 14.

Afterwards, he wanted to play harmonica — just like Neil Young.

Bruce Dubose. Photo by Brian Barnaud


For showtimes and ticket information on Greendale click here