UCLA Center for the Art of Performance (CAP) at The Theatre at Ace Hotel

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Chapter I—1776-1836; 6:00pm—12:00am

Rebirth of a Nation

By Ross Altman, PhD

Taylor Mac 1
Photos by Reed Hutchinson/CAP UCLA.

Describing it as a “performance art concert” Stockton, California native Taylor Mac overturns your expectations about what a concert or musical theatre is, right at the outset. He doesn’t enter from stage right—or left—once the 24-member (one for every decade) orchestra sets the mood and tone of the grand opening he suddenly appears from the back of the theatre and makes a grand entrance dancing and twirling down the center aisle toward the stage dressed in the most flamboyant drag queen costume you will ever see.

To call him a human peacock understates the matter and effect of his extravagant attire. But it does give you a very good idea of what’s to come: every hour of his 24-hour performance (done in one continuous marathon epic when it opened in New York last year—now divided into four segments on different nights of six hours each) is framed with a screen obscured costume change into an “every picture tells a story” new drag attire for the hour scene to unfold—even the screens are glamorous and different.

Both the visual and musical elements of this show are ever-changing and filled with surprise~ it’s an intense musical/visual panorama of American history through its songs—“A History of America You’ll Never Learn in School”—and even though you will recognize many of the songs you have never heard them performed quite this way before. It’s an extraordinary one-of-a-kind artistic achievement that prompted New York Times theatre critic Wesley Morris to write, “One of the great experiences of my life.”

It opens with Amazing Grace, which is the great anti-slavery hymn penned by English slave trader John Newton (1725-1807) on New Year’s Day 1773 after his final trans-Atlantic voyage bringing slaves back to England—in which he had an epiphany and revelation that his life had been devoted to an evil enterprise which he thenceforth abandoned—and later described in the hymn as the moment of his conversion when he fell down on his knees and proclaimed, “I was blind but now I see.” The hymn is now a permanent part of American folk music both religious and secular—and has been a hit for both Judy Collins and Joan Baez; it was even sung by Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock. It was published in 1779—so a perfect choice to open Taylor Mac’s show with an exquisite rendition—however, sung to the minor key bordello tune of House of the Rising Sun. Following soon after is “the most patriotic song of all time—Yankee Doodle,” which he also turns on its head by showing how we stole it from the British.

His view of American history is told and sung throughout to emphasize the role and participation of excluded outsider groups—his unlikely heroes and heroines—that are uniformly marginalized in standard textbook versions—much like the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States puts them center stage. These include African-Americans, immigrants (in Part One the Irish and Scots—in Part III East European Jews), the history of the oppression of women, including prostitutes, and central to the entire piece the secret history of gays and lesbians, bi-sexual, transgender, queer and drag queens like the star and creator of the entire show, recounted in riveting and uncensored personal anecdotes. And like Zinn’s A People’s History, Taylor Mac begins before the American Revolution of 1776 with a look back to the Native Americans who were here when the Pilgrims landed—personified by Timothy White Eagle who is brought onstage with great ceremony at the beginning—a beautiful moment in a show filled with them. Taylor Mac has an extraordinary voice—it’s beautiful and expressive in many ways—with an operatic range of sonic capabilities. To supplement his own solo performances he has a great choir which he calls “The Dandy Minions”—both men and women.

Thematic elements are woven into the production in sometimes off-handed ways—as when he introduces the theme of blackness—to underscore African-American history from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement (in Part IV) where he will sing Nina Simone’s classic anti-Jim Crow anthem Mississippi Goddamn! But here in Part I, he introduces the theme and symbol of blackness indirectly—with a great love song adapted by Kentucky folk singer and folklorist John Jacob Niles, Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, recorded early on by Joan Baez. Only after he does the song does he comment on the color of her hair as representing more than meets the eye—it’s a wonderful interpretive connection that shows how original his storytelling can be. And most importantly, his performance of the song is anything but offhanded—it’s gorgeous!

Taylor Mac 2
Photos by Reed Hutchinson/CAP UCLA.

Highland Laddie

, the first of three songs by Robert Burns—beginning with the off-color but utterly charming Nine Inches Will Please a Lady, coyly sung by two guest stars a man to a woman, and finally the classic New Year’s Eve anthem, Auld Lang Syne—becomes the extended soundtrack to the story of immigration—from Ireland and Scotland to the New World. It’s a wondrous play-within-a-play that recounts the hope of immigrants for a new life at the same time it hints at the later harsh reality of “No Irish Need Apply.” The sheer scope of Mac’s storytelling within the history of popular song is astonishing—to use these songs as framing devices for each extended chapter without once diminishing their value as sheer music—demonstrates the power of song to illuminate, to inspire and to comfort.

One of the highlights is a choral rendition of the classic sea shanty Shenandoah, sung here as a favorite sentimental ballad to comfort the afflicted after the long voyage. I have never heard a more moving version—where Taylor Mac is the shanty-man song leader and his thrilling choir embodies the crew of sailors who lift the song to the heights of sustained beauty~ pure magic~ one of the show’s finest hours.

As central as music is to the entire effort, however, one is remiss in not appreciating the visual role of costume designer Machine Dazzle (né Matthew Flower) who creates the magical dresses and headdresses that do literally bedazzle the audience throughout—“24 Decades~ 24 Costumes.”

Musical Director Matt Ray fills out the central cast—he is at the keyboard from beginning to end—and has arranged each song for both voices and instruments in the orchestra. The conceit of 24 Decades is carried through to the orchestra as well—each hour culminates in the departure of one instrument—the tuba was the first to go—with a great performance to underscore the voice of each instrument~ another beautiful touch. As each successive instrument departs, one begins to gravitate to the one un-played instrument hanging on the stage-left wall~ the acoustic guitar that won’t come into play until later in the four-night production—most likely the final night when all the other instruments will have disappeared—for the folk and rock-and-roll era from 1956 to 2016. I, of course, hope to be there for that too. From the shape of the pick guard it looks—not surprisingly!—like a Taylor.

But with all of these synchronous elements working in perfect harmony—they remain only half the story. For what distinguishes Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music is the equal role of the audience to the cast, orchestra and choir. This is what makes the musical play so representative of democratic ideals—no one is left out of the story—most notably those who are seated in the glorious Theatre at the Ace Hotel. At every point in the unfolding epic that Taylor Mac has constructed the audience is involved as a part of the improvisatory cast. Volunteers are brought up on stage to role play in various scenes—such as a woman who becomes the love interest of Taylor with a huge key he holds in his hands to play off of the equally huge lock she demurely places in front of herself. It’s erotic and richly symbolic all at the same time—and the audience member who fully held her own against the star—an amazing improvised encounter.

There are qualities so surprising one would only expect to find them on Broadway—such as the thrilling scene in the third hour when Taylor Mac is hoisted on invisible strings of the scaffold to fly like Mary Martin as Peter Pan halfway up the proscenium, sing and tell the story of the War of 1812—when the British, having lost the American Revolution in 1776—come back to try again. Only after they have lost the second war of the revolution is it manifest that, as Mac puts it with an ironic nod to the current president, “America is here to stay—at least until 2018; after that, we don’t know,” to a rising and rousing round of applause from the liberal and very blue-state audience—even as Trump is visiting his fellow billionaire benefactors uptown in Century City—an exquisitely comic touch.

But the fifth hour reminds us of the seriousness of Mac’s underlying purpose; for in it he passes out blindfolds to the entire audience to put on for the hour. It represents both the invention of Braille in France at the time—and symbolizes the thematic center of the show—Amazing Grace—“I once was lost, but now I’m found/Was blind, but now I see.”

The second show was this past Saturday, March 17 (Chapter II~ 1836-1896);

It will be followed by two wonderful nights—Thursday March 22 (Chapter III~ 1896-1956); and Saturday March 24 (Chapter III~ 1956—Present); go see it!

With many thanks to UCLA-CAP’s Holly Wallace for the golden press pass. Holly came through with a left-aisle seat so I could take notes during the evening and not disturb my fellow audience members~ for I am a lefty in more ways than one.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com