Early one evening in 2004, Matthew Lord was in his dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, waiting to go onstage for his Met debut in Boris Godunov. His cell phone rang; it was the Heritage Foundation in Grapevine, Texas, where Lord and his wife lived.
“They go ‘Hey Matthew, the board approved it! We got the money and you’re doing the 3 Redneck Tenors!’” Lord recalls. “And I said ‘But it doesn’t exist. It was just an idea.’”
An idea whose time had come.
A Julliard–trained tenor whose credits included stints with the San Francisco Opera, Washington Opera, Cleveland Opera and numerous others, Lord had promised the folks in Grapevine that he would put together a benefit show for their foundation.
“I’d said I was thinking about doing something called the 3 Redneck Tenors, because of my hatred of the whole Three Tenor phenomenon,” he explains. “I love the original three guys – we always say Pavarotti, Domingo and the little feller – but you got your Three Irish Tenors, your Three Celtic Tenors, your three Mexican tenors, your Three Mo’ Tenors...
“And I’m a tenor, but there’s nothing more boring than three of the same voice types singing together all night. I told them the craziest thing I could think of was the 3 Redneck Tenors.
“And, I said, ‘We’ll kill one at the top of the show, and replace him with a baritone so we can actually make musical values out of pieces by doing cool harmonies and stuff like that.’ So we have a really high tenor, a lyric tenor and a baritone.”
Five years and change later, the 3 Redneck Tenors show is one of the most successful tours in the country. It stops at the Lucas Theatre Thursday, Jan. 14.
It’s a fully scripted theatrical production in which three bumpkins (Lord, Alex Bumpas and Blake Davidson) sit in lawn chairs outside their dilapidated Airstream trailer (complete with outhouse) and try to figure out how best to get to Carnegie Hall, or thereabouts.
The thing is, they sing like – well, like the professional opera singers they are. Bumpas has performed with the Dallas Symphony, the Russian National Orchestra and others, while Davidson has extensive credits in opera, on Broadway and musical theatre.
There’s dancing, groan–inducing jokes, and numerous flamboyant costume changes.
The saga is narrated by “The Colonel,” played by Dinny Moore, who not only served as Ringling Brothers’ wisecracking ringmaster for 20 years, but is a bass vocalist who sometimes joins his good ol’ boys for a song or two.
What you won’t see is the live five–piece band that backs the tenors for the duration of their wacky adventure (they’re behind the trailer onstage).
The script (written by Lord) takes the mullet–haired trio (Billy Bob, Billy Joe and Billy Billee) through all kinds of music – from “Nessun Dorma” and an a capella rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth, through “You Light Up My Life” and such off–the–wall chestnuts as the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and a hilarious TV theme medley that includes “Bonanza” and “The Love Boat,” among others.
Anything, they figure, that could potentially make them famous.
“I started out writing comedy, and then I went into musical theatre and comedy, which is where I met Dinny,” Lord says. “And then I got into opera, because that’s just where my voice went. Then I got into Juilliard – and you have to kind of go with it at that point.
“I had done that for 25 years, and this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Right off the bat, 3 Redneck Tenors was voted by Dallas critics as the Best Show of the Year at Bass Hall, the city’s toniest symphony house, beating out both Wicked and The Producers.
The goal, Lord says, is simply to be entertaining. However, he says, “I never fool myself. The thing that makes it funny is that the singing has to be second to none. We actually have to be better than the other guy.
“Because the eyes on us at the top of the show are ready for us to be these booger–eatin’ troglodytes.”
A series of appearances on America’s Got Talent sealed the deal (Sharon Osbourne absolutely loved them), and last summer the Tenors did a lengthy stint at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
Next month, Variety will profile the Tenors, emphasizing the fact that they’re one of the few acts doing good business in this tired economy.
Which pleases Lord no end, as he started the thing with his own money, back in the day, with investments from friends and business associates. “We just sort of jumped off the bridge to see if we would fly,” he says, “and now it’s become this big cult hit, this weird show that’s been on the road for four years.”
A TV–documentary deal is in the works (sort of an operatic hillbilly version of This is Spinal Tap), and in July the Tenors will take over the Oak Ridge Boys’ Branson theatre for six weeks.
They have two other touring shows, too, that take the characters into other musical comedy territory: An all–Christmas version and one called Broadway Bound.
Serious opera companies need not approach Lord with other offers. He says he’s already turned down roles in a pair of Broadway shows, to keep the Rednecks on the road (“and both of those shows have already closed,” he adds with a chuckle).
“I’m too deep into it now to consider quitting it,” Lord explains. “I still have a great time doing it. Financially, it’s been stressful at times – but this year, in the bad economy, we’ve been three–quarters sold to sold out every show we’ve had.”
Recent sellouts include Rutledge, Vermont; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; New London, Connecticut, “as well as Valdosta, Georgia, and in Florida and Texas. So it’s not what we call ”South Specific.”
All righty then – so what exactly is the audience for 3 Redneck Tenors? “We’re bringing in these new audiences, which is really cool,” he says, “people that would never go to theatre come to see it because it says ‘Redneck Tenors.’ So we get kind of the NASCAR crowd coming in.
“We just got a fan letter from Bellingham, Washington. We get these all the time: She said she had to absolutely drag her husband to come see it, and afterwards he said ‘I will come with you now every time they’re in town.’
“And we get the opera crowd that’s curious to see what the heck is going on.”
3 Redneck Tenors
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14
Tickets: $45, $38, $22. Gold circle seating ($55) includes a backstage reception with the cast
Phone: (912) 525–5050
Artists’ Web site: www.3rednecktenors.com