Southwest gets its Tommy

Rock opera years in the making debuts in February

WINDOM — The story of Paul Lyme was written, for the most part, in John Hile’s basement on a quiet, bungalow-lined street in Windom, just a stone’s throw away from Oak Hill Cemetery — which is appropriate since, when the story opens, Lyme is dead.

You can’t miss Hile’s house, not at night when the green bulb blazing above his front door lights up the street like someone left the lid up on the Xerox machine. If power failed at the airport, jet pilots could look for Hile’s house, bank west and touch down without a problem.

On Wednesday nights, the light guides a group of veteran Twin Cities musicians down to MonkeyTown Studios (Hile’s basement) where, for more than two years, they’ve been meeting first as two, then as five and finally as the full 13-member cast of “Dying to Make It,” a tale told in that most grandiose of musical traditions: the rock opera.

For a sense of the production debuting next month at the Southern Theater, combine the amplified bombast of The Who’s “Tommy,” the good-versus-evil story mechanics propelling Rush’s “2112” and the dramatic sweep of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Lyme is a striving, cocky young musician whose burgeoning career is cut short in a motorcycle crash and who then lands in Purgatory, where the battle for souls is waged with rock ’n roll.

The germ of the story developed in Robb Schwartz’s imagination a few years back, and it grew and changed as first Hile and then other musicians joined in the writing of “Dying to Make It” in beer-fueled jam sessions at MonkeyTown.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the stories of good versus evil and stories with the devil and signing away your soul — Robert Johnson stuff,” Schwartz said, referring to the legend that the bluesman sold his soul down at the crossroads.

The making of “Dying to Make It” is a pretty good story, too, one that begins around the time Schwartz lost his job.

No regrets

Schwartz said he’s the “opposite” of Paul Lyme, who he plays in “Dying to Make It.”

Like most of his cast mates, Schwartz has spent the past two decades playing in various Twin Cities bands, but he said he never felt that “all-encompassing desire for fame” that drives his character. He married Toni (a cast member and the drummer of their band, Famous Volcanoes), became a father and kept a regular day job through it all — at least until the financial crisis of a few years ago, when his 20-year career at “a generic corporate giant” came to a sudden end.

In the spring of 2008, with a severance package in the bank and a lot of free time on his hands, Schwartz rededicated himself to learning the piano — an instrument he never knew as well as the guitar — and started talking with Hile about forming a new band. That band never played a gig, but he and Hile did write the first song in what would become “Dying to Make It.”

Schwartz is now happily re-employed as a technology specialist for Edina Public Schools. Writing the rock opera’s script these past few years, he said, has been an interesting look back on a path never taken.

“For me, it’s almost a way to become that character that I never really was, and in a sense justify my decisions of 20 years ago,” he said.


Not long after Schwartz and Hile got serious about writing a rock opera, they brought in some help: guitarists Chris “Z” Johnson and Ted Martin and drummer Stu Walcott, who all previously played with Schwartz in a band called mini-bike. Dave Berg, the third member of Famous Volcanoes, was a frequent sit-in on acoustic guitar.

The “Dying to Make It” cast is like that; almost everyone is playing or has played in a band with someone else in the cast. Noting several have recorded albums at MonkeyTown, as well, Hile shrugs and adds, “It’s a small town.”

Hile seems uniquely qualified to see a rock opera through from basement rehearsals to the stage. For 17 years he produced and directed an annual “Jesus Christ Superstar” show at First Avenue, a show Schwartz and several other cast members performed in at one time or another.

Writing “Dying to Make It” soon became a group effort, with everyone crowding into Hile’s basement and contributing their own ideas — not just on how the rock opera should sound, but how they might actually be able to get it on stage. It was Martin who suggested Kickstarter, the website that uses crowd-sourcing to fund creative projects.

The rock opera’s Kickstarter page went live in early August, and reached its $2,000 fundraising goal Sept. 11. When the campaign ended, they’d raised $3,617.

“I was surprised,” Schwartz said. “I looked at a lot of the other Kickstarter campaigns and I knew it was possible. It was just a matter of believing it was possible.”

In MonkeyTown

An eccentric collection of doo-dads and decorations line the wood-paneled walls of MonkeyTown: NASCAR collectibles, a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker, American flags, a Batman poster. A Bowflex machine serves as a coat rack; flat surfaces are covered in bottle caps and percussion instruments.

There are 11 people crammed into the room, and all their instruments and amps and mic stands. Every mic stand has a bottle holder, and almost every one has a beer in it.

“On a normal night we have two more bodies in here,” Schwartz noted. “It’s a full house.”

They start from the top, and Greg Nesbitt, a big man with a short Mohawk and a booming, theatrical voice, kicks things off. Nesbitt plays Devin who, in the quirky cosmology of “Dying to Make It,” is more or less the devil’s A&R man.

From there they tear through the first act, propelled by “Z” and Martin’s chugging guitars. When they break around 9 p.m. and the smokers run outside, Schwartz lingers to discuss all the work that’s left to do before the debut just over a month away.

“Some of the busiest moments in our lives are so crazy,” he said. “But when it’s over I’m going to miss it.”

Go see it

“Dying to Make It” runs Feb. 17–18 at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S. Tickets are $15.