The Success And Failure of the Mario Opera
To begin with, I want to show you where the Mario Opera, the world’s first rock opera based on the Super Mario Bros., ended up:
OK, let’s go back to the beginning.
I was four years old with a controller in my hand, sitting on the floor in a neighbor’s basement.
I was playing the original Super Mario Bros. and I was enthralled. I jumped up and broke the blocks, and then I was running along the top of the screen and feeling like I’d stumbled on something momentous. I’d uncovered an impossible secret.
It seemed like I wasn’t supposed to be up there — I was breaking the rules. I ran to the end of the level this way, and discovered the warp zone, and my 4 year old mind exploded. I found this. It was freeing. I could explore and I could discover. The whole world began to open up before me.
This memory is burned into my soul — it’s a fundamental part of who I am.
Video games became my favorite thing, and Mario was always my favorite game. I lived and breathed Nintendo. I anticipated the release of Super Mario Bros. 3 like it was the second coming. When it was finally released, it delivered on all it’s promises so spectacularly that my faith in humanity was confirmed.
Nintendo was my life and life was good.
Back then, video games were considered cultural garbage. They were nothing more than novelty knick knacks for kids. They had no value beyond amusement, they’d rot your brain and they certainly weren’t considered anything remotely approaching art. I was most definitely wasting my time playing them.
But I loved them.
I got a bit older and became too cool for video games. My mom sold my Nintendo and I started playing guitar and growing my hair out. Bob Dylan replaced Mario. I was a songwriter. An artiste.
In college, I suddenly became obsessed with the games I had played as a kid. I scoured eBay, re-buying every game I had once owned. I was addicted to the rush of nostalgia that accompanied seeing these relics again. I was transported back to that 5 year old boy and his feeling of autonomy, awe and wonder.
I was awash in emotion every time I picked up the controller. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about making songs inspired by games, especially Mario. It was all I could think about. It was more than nostalgia; I felt that Super Mario Bros. was incredibly important, to me specifically, and to our culture at large. I wanted to tap into that.
One day, I came across an article in Wired about Shigeru Miyamoto. I had never heard of him, but when I learned that there was a single mind behind my most treasured childhood memories, I started to freak out. I had only this vague sense of feeling connected to these games and suddenly: THIS GUY. Who was he? And how was he responsible for so much joy?
I started reading everything I could about him. I found out that he grew up rural, just like me. He loved to explore in the woods, just like me. I learned that he was driven by a sense of joy, by a desire to remain open to the wonder in the world. Everything I read resonated. Not only had he created all my favorite games, but he was someone I could look up to and idolize.
I found quotes like:
“What if, on a crowded street, you look up and see something appear that should not, given what we know, be there. You either shake your head and dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than we think. Perhaps it really is a doorway to another place. If you choose to go inside you may find many unexpected things.”
We were cut from the same cloth. I loved this man.
Miyamoto had a unique view of the world and created masterpiece after masterpiece that reflected that view. His passion for mystery, discovery and joy and awe and wonder — it had all come through loud and clear to me as a child. And now it was resonating even deeper with me as an adult.
I was discovering him at a time before it was a forgone conclusion that games could be art. I desperately wanted Miyamoto to be recognized for what he was: A true artist, one of the first of his kind. I was so enamored and excited by this idea that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
So, I wrote him a song. I tried to put into the lyrics everything I felt about him, and what he meant to my childhood.
They’re not just video games, they’re works of art
And I want the whole wide world to know
That everything he’s done has come from his heart
And so it’s no wonder
That he paints with more color
No, there is no other
I was existing in a nostalgia-fueled haze of old school video games. I didn’t want to grow up — I wanted to keep the Miyamoto-wonder alive for as long as I could. As such, I put off the real world and all it’s responsibilities in favor of the warm cocoon of grad school.
Within a week of arriving, all my feelings and thoughts about these old games formed into one single, shiny, outrageous idea: I was going to write a rock opera based on the Super Mario Bros.
I remember immediately doing a google search: It seemed so obvious, somebody had to have already thought of it. But no! All the results just pointed to famous Italian opera singers named Mario. It was up to me.
Over the course of my first semester at grad school, I feverishly worked on the songs. During that time, I went to a show in downtown LA to see The Minibosses and was blown away at how powerful it was to hear familiar tunes played live in a rock setting. I decided the opera needed to be original songs mixed with all Mario music. I was going to go for some deep cuts too, not just the stuff everyone knows. I downloaded every Mario track from VGmusic.com, put them on my iPod, and spent hours walking around campus listening to the songs over and over and over.
After a couple of months, I had 10 songs that comprised the first act. I recorded some demos and put up flyers looking for actors, musicians, a costume designer, set person and choreographer. I got a bunch of great people on board and before long we had a pretty decent show.
We performed over the course of 4 nights in May of 2005. G4 came out and covered the first performance:
We had no idea what we were doing, but damn if we weren’t having an amazing time. It felt great to be able to pay homage to my hero. Miyamoto created something that touched me deeply, and now I had created something of my own that reflected that.
Over the next year or so, I worked with my crew to put the on the show a dozen or so more times: We played clubs large and small around Los Angeles. We’d play anywhere that would have us. The biggest show we had was at the Knitting Factory, where we got to open for The Advantage. It was such an amazing night.
After that though, we started to lose momentum. It was a huge amount of work to stage the thing, a lot people were involved, and we weren’t making any money. We all had day jobs, or school or other commitments. There was also the ever-present idea that even if we were able to make it a viable thing, it seemed extremely unlikely that Nintendo would ever give us their blessing.
Eventually we disbanded, and I started a new project called GameJew (which is another story entirely).
8 years later, through a very strange set of circumstances, I was introduced to a producer who was interested in putting The Mario Opera on as a staged reading at Joe’s Pub in NYC. I hadn’t thought about the show in ages — I had just about given up on the idea of it ever really happening—but we booked the gig and performed for an enthusiastic, sold out crowd. It felt amazing to reconnect with the songs. Even though I’ve left the majority of my nostalgia-fever behind, it’s still possible for me to tap into the energy and passion I once had for old school games.
After the performance, we talked about ways we might bring The Mario Opera to fruition, for a true full run, maybe off-off-Broadway. There was talk of a Kickstarter. It seemed like it could work. But then, literally days after we had this conversation, the news came out that Nintendo had sqaushed a Metroid fan film that was funding through Kickstarter. That just about killed my ambition with the project for good.
I’m really proud of the Mario Opera — I think it’s a great show that anyone who grew up playing Mario will appreciate and enjoy, and there are moments that will give you genuine feels. I still love Nintendo with this totally irrational, gut level kind of love that I don’t feel for any other huge multi-national corporation (ok, ok, of course there’s Apple, too)
And I still look up to and love Miyamoto — so much so that I once tracked him down to sing the song I had written for him (which is ALSO another story entirely!).
I hope that someday Nintendo looses up the reigns and lets out the torrent of amazing art, music and films that would result. There’s already amazing things happening on YouTube.
But until then, here’s the entire first act of the Mario Opera, performed at Joe’s Pub on August 13th 2013, with love:
Of course, you can also follow me on Twitter: @songadaymann and Tumblr: http://jonathanmann.tumblr.com