Speeding Motorcycle - The Rock Opera

Photo by George Hixon


Conceived and Directed by Jason Nodler
Songs and concepts by Daniel Johnston


This out-of-this-world rock opera takes its inspiration from cult figure Daniel Johnston, a singer, songwriter and artist who first gained recognition in Austin during the 1980s. Anyone whoís ever enjoyed Johnstonís music or drawings will want to catch this exuberant celebration of his unique creativity. The quirky love story coupled with Beatles-inspired music was a hit at Houstonís Infernal Bridegroom Productions. The New York Times said ďAt a recent performance of ďSpeeding Motorcycle,Ē scores of people were turned away at the door. Many moped around outside, hoping someone just might leave at intermission!Ē

Zach Scott Theatre
Austin, Texas
February 14 - April 13
Music Direction by Anthony Barilla
Choreography by Andrea Ariel
The Captain America costume is designed by Marcia Yingling.

February 14 - April 13
Kleberg Stage
ē Featuring

Read the Austin American Statesman's Review

Read the show's feature coverage in

Listen to songs performed by the cast on KUT's Aielli Unleashed

Watch other performances from the show on ZACH's YouTube Channel

From the Director

In 2003 Tony Barilla, the music director for this production, approached Daniel to see if he was interested in creating a rock opera. Daniel said heíd been waiting more than 20 years for someone to ask him that. For about a year and a half they met weekly at Danielís house in Waller to flesh out ideas. As I had been a longtime fan of Danielís and had worked on plays with Tony for years, I followed their progress with interest. As it turned out, things were not progressing as well as theyíd both hoped and Tony brought me in to talk with Daniel. The meeting went well but as the deadline approached Daniel got sick and was unable to write the show, so I was brought in again to pick up where heíd left off. In listening again to Danielís songs I realized that he had already written the show. In fact, he had written it many times over. All that was left to me was to put it in order. The story, which appears in one way or another in more than 100 of Danielís songs, is this: A boy loves a girl but she already has a boyfriend Ė an undertaker. She marries the undertaker and has his baby and goes to work in the funeral home with him, but the boy never gets over her. And he realizes that the only way he can ever be with her again is to die, as she will be the one to prepare his body for burial. So he does die and she does prepare his body.  The story of the boy, the girl and the undertaker is largely a true one. Daniel did love a girl named Laurie and she did marry an undertaker.

But this isnít the story of Daniel and Laurie. That story played out in private many years ago in West Virginia. This is the story of Joe the Boxer, a character that often appears in Danielís songs and artwork as an alter ego of sorts. Itís not the story of what happened; itís the story of how it felt. And itís a story thatís about all of us because itís about love and loneliness and happiness and sadness and the struggle to hope. And every one of us knows those feelings.

Speeding Motorcycle is, perhaps, not especially easy to follow as a narrative; neither are Danielís songs or drawings. The Ďlogicí of it, in as much as there is any, is akin to the logic of dreams. The events are not chronological Ė they exist at all times, as memories of lost love always seem to do. Joe is played by three different actors, though at some point almost everyone in the show plays him. This decision was made to underline the universality of the character Ė he is not an otherly being to be observed and commented upon; he is all of us. And we are him. And his pain and loneliness is such that sometimes he has only himself to talk to and only his own thoughts and inventions to comfort him.

There are several unusual images in the show, each taken from the mythology that populates Danielís songs and art. Joeís head is open at the top, as though itís been cut off and hollowed out. Only Daniel can say for sure whatís meant by that, but Iíve heard it said that it represents his openness and sensitivity to and lack of protection from outside forces, bad and good, and thatís a good enough explanation for me. Yours may be different and thatís fine too.  When Joe needs to be comforted, angels might appear; when he needs to be rescued Captain America does. The devil appears to tempt and taunt him and sassy nurses appear to entertain him here and punish him there. As in a dream, characters appear in this play when they are needed by the dreamer to perform some important function. And, as in a dream, they are all created by Ė and, in fact, all are Ė the dreamer. 

Let Danielís songs wash over you. Let his images bewilder you.  Donít trouble yourself over whatís happening or whatís real Ė it all is and it all isnít. How does it feel? 

Speeding Motorcycle is a lot of things because Daniel wanted it to be a lot of things and because Daniel is a lot of things.  Itís a musical, itís a rock opera, itís a variety show, itís an amateur talent hour, itís a love story, itís a show for children of all ages, at times it even has to me the feel of a ballet. (One day I hope it will be a cartoon too; I know Daniel would like that.) But more than any of that itís a story about why and how, in what so often seems like such a loving, happy world, so many of us sometimes struggle to participate in it, to feel happy or loved. And itís about why that struggle is worth it.

When I first spoke to Daniel about the show, I asked him what ideas heíd had in the time heíd been talking about it with Tony. He told me he had just seen the film version of the musical Chicago. He said he thought it was ďfun and funny and really excellent.Ē I asked again to let me know his thoughts on the rock opera and he said, ďIíd like it to be like that movie. Just really fun and funny and excellent.Ē We did our best, Daniel. We hope you like it.

Ė Jason Nodler