Local architect produces first rock opera

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

A new original musical will open at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre for six performances from July 22 to 31. Called 99 — A Rock Opera, the musical was written by local musician and composer Mark Baughman and directed by Jonathan Zuck, an award-winning film and stage director. It tells a story about two former soul mates who are reunited on opposite sides of a protest in a city park.

Pete, a bureaucrat from the Cleveland Department of the Environment, must manage a group of protestors (the “99-ers”) who have taken over a downtown park.

Their leader is Sarah, his college flame, and while he is thrilled to see Sarah again, she crushes him with a rebuke that he is “a sell-out.” Pete’s reaction to the 99-ers’ featured speaker, known as “the Gardener,” makes Pete wonder if Sarah might be right.

Meanwhile, Henry, who was living in the park by his own choice, is displaced by the very protesters who purport to defend him from the bureaucracy. The protest opposition leader, who goes by the name “Captain America,” sees an opportunity in Henry’s plight, and a square-off ensues.

The story is a commentary on the power of leaders to incite followers, for good and bad.

Baughman, 57, answers some questions about his work and the production.

Q: You’re an architect by profession, what motivated you to write a rock opera?

Baughman: Like a lot of people my age, I put my music career aside for a “real” profession. A few years ago I was encouraged by friends to play more, and I found that I was a much, much better guitarist at 50 than I was at 18.

So I started writing songs again and I found that they were much better, too. I found it was important to me to write about more complicated things in life than simple emotions or the ways we recreate. Lots of other people do that better than I ever could.

But my training as an architect made me want to think through a complete concept that had a philosophical underpinning, and it helped me to look at musical genres as part of the vehicle of telling the story. Good architects pull from an extremely diverse number of influences and make beautiful places that have a critical stance yet are accessible.

Q: As someone who is not a professional in the music theater business, how did you go about pulling this together for the upcoming performances?

Baughman: I started stringing together some songs and a rough story, and my friend Jonathan Zuck, an excellent filmmaker who should know better, told me he thought I had the makings of a really good musical and he wanted to direct it. At first I thought there was no way I had the bandwidth to do this, but I spent a weekend sitting in front of a blank piece of paper and then suddenly a real story appeared.

I had to re-learn what it was to be a musician and composer. It is so different than my time in Boston in the late 1970s, even if my music sounds a little like it’s from that time. I spent a lot of time learning how to use the computer to help me think through the writing process.

I’d build up a song recording track by track and eventually replace tracks with either better musicians or just better performances by me.

Over time, I fell in with a group of the most wonderful musicians you could possibly ever want to play with, and while we couldn’t be more different, we all found this project a kind of salvation for the things we go through at this time of our lives. We played it out a few times, and it became clear that I needed to present this in its most complete form.

I found nothing but encouragement, and the discipline and professionalism I developed as an architect over all these years was a huge help.

Q: What are you trying to say with 99?

Baughman: It’s a shock to find that those of us who grew up as idealists find ourselves being played by our leaders and their outlets. I’m still a hippie by nature, but I find myself and most everyone I know estranged from each other by this pressure to dive into a bunker and not really, really listen to and engage with each other.

It’s interesting to see that both political parties are being led by people who are despised by a large number, if not the majority, of the party members. It’s all about winning, not ideas. So many Americans like me have woken up to this horror. If you hear one truly thoughtful potential leader speak, your mind immediately asks how they could deal with this cable network or that special interest.

Q: What do you hope will become of 99?

Baughman: I started all this with my selfish goal — to play guitar in a band again. To my surprise it has become something else that means a lot to other people.

I’d love to see the play continue to develop as these other talented, creative people bring their ideas. It would be a real kick to gather a wide audience, a cult, for 99. I’d be thrilled to watch other people perform it, and I’d be thrilled to be in the pit band playing guitar.

Q: What is your next project?

Baughman: I’m nearly done with another rock opera called Release. It’s the story of a veteran with PTSD, an autistic teenager, and the disowned son of serious money who find each other in a clinic in Wyoming. 

They see that they are equally alienated from the world by their own circumstances, and they discover that together they can find their way back to the world the rest of us live in.

Performances of 99 will take place at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8642 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, Md., at 7 p.m. July 22, 23, 29 and 30. Also, there will be matinees at 2 p.m. on July 24 and 31. Tickets are $30 and may be purchased at the door, or in advance through the website, www.99rockopera.com, which also has demos of the music.