Author’s note: I attended two different “versions” of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at The Curran on Sunday September 24 and at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on Wednesday September 27. This review compares the two audience experiences of “Chapter IV” and “Abridged Version” respectively.
What makes a piece of theatre a phenomenon? What turns it from instance to event? Driven by conscious and subconscious hope that their art goes the analog equivalent of viral, artists create art everyday from fine to pop, traditional to technological. Artistic organizations do this, as do artist teams. Most of it never becomes an event. Theatre that does may do so incidentally, and in cases like the Broadway productions of ANGELS IN AMERICA, RENT and HAMILTON, deliberately.
Taylor Mac’s A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC recently returned to the now-refurbished Curran after its initial stop in early 2016 as part of the Curran: Under Construction series. (If you haven’t been to the reopened Curran yet, you’re missing one of the country’s great new performing spaces.) HISTORY was developed and designed to be an event. It accomplishes that and more. It is a phenomenon, and it is phenomenal.
Mac’s pronoun is judy, and judy began building this 24-hour “radical faerie realness ritual” performance some seven-plus years ago. Lest anyone think that moniker is merely camp, be warned: there’s camplitude and hella fierce at work and play here, not least of which is judy’s vision and ferocious intelligence. Each hour of stage time explores ten years of American history, counting the decades from 1776 forward, with Mac performing and scrutinizing the period’s popular music through stories about the lives and times of its makers, from Stephen Foster to Sleater-Kinney. And those lives and times are, in turn, performed and scrutinized through music judy–and sometimes the audience–chants, screams, whispers, shouts, and sings.
The curating of HISTORY–which includes Matt Ray’s musical direction, Machine Dazzle’s astonishing costumes, and much, much more–culminated in a one-time-only, continuous performance in New York City last fall. Wesley Morris, the New York Times critic and one of the lucky ones who got to sit through the entire show, called it “one of the great experiences of my life.” Here in the Bay Area, the Curran producers stretched the show out in four six-hour-long chapters over several days. You could attend all, some, or one. Stanford Live then brought a two-hour abridged version of the show to the stage of the Bing Concert Hall.
Regardless of the “version”, if you’re in the audience at HISTORY, you’re invited into it–it’s a ritual and rite, after all– and that keeps the Dionysian energy going in the longer versions as the action stretches into the late hours.
But judy isn’t after trend-chasing immersive theatre. The piece illuminates subjects, themes, details, and corners of American life and history through song, play, and participation. In the decade set in the early 1980s, we shouted a hallelujah chorus to the accelerating accompaniment of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” while Jazzer-exorcising our self-identified personal demons. Later that “decade,” with the help of a colorful posse of coutured and coiffed Dandy Minions, the audience wrangled a giant inflatable hammer-and-sickle Soviet flag balloon penis from the back of the balcony, over the railing, then the mezzanine, and down to the orchestra, where it had a literal cockfight with its counterpart American dick. It was the radical-queer version of the crowd-tossed beach balls sometimes batted about at other concerts.
Phenomenons–like plants, pets, and prodigies–need proper love and care, which means that a theatre phenomenon doesn’t just need an audience–it needs the right audience. Sometimes it gets the right one, and sometimes not. Once, amid a post-Christmas New York City thunderstorm, I was at a Sunday matinee of an immersive show. I couldn’t imagine a worse audience for the interactivity the show demanded and deserved. Mac got the audience judy’s HISTORY needed at The Curran, and then some. The audience was dressed to the nines for the unfolding extravaganza, and threw themselves into the action at the slightest invitation. Glitter and energy abounded from orchestra to balcony. When the performance wrapped its final hour, with judy alone on stage movingly, plaintively singing and playing the piano and ukulele, the event came to a fitting, delicate close.
In comparison, the Stanford audience had to thread through the worst traffic in the region on a weeknight in the first week of the school year. It wasn’t the ideal set-up for a show like Mac’s, and judy knew it. Abridged, the Stanford version managed to cover just enough of the whole to tease me about what I’d missed in the first three chapters at the Curran. Because times and moments and lives and presence are major components of HISTORY, judy called out the differences to the audience. They weren’t always ready to have it (much), to the detriment of their own experience, but if the energy flowed and ebbed along different vectors than at the Curran, the quality of judy’s voice did not. Mac was in fine vocal form, and judy’s sometimes torchy, sometimes plaintive tenor added to the aura of melancholy that settled over the Stanford show. Which went on, despite the audience and its lack of energy. I’ll call some of the listlessness out myself–the couple to my left barely moved the entire show, and hardly cracked their expressions (I watched). I have to wonder: what brought them there? Were they checking off some unknown bucket list of cultural experiences? There because it was Stanford, and anything offered there had to be worthwhile? Interested in Pulitzer Prize nominees? Surely not everyone at the New York marathon performance enjoyed it as Morris did; not everyone loved the eventfulness of HAMILTON.
In any case, it’s too bad that the Bing show gave Taylor Mac the last audience the show got here in the Bay Area. Fortunately, judy et al will be bringing 24-DECADE HISTORY to other urbs, ‘burbs, and exurbs in the not-to-distant future, including Los Angeles next spring. The Curran published a graphic showing how far-flung those coming to attend were. It’s not too soon to start planning your pilgrimage. I’m planning mine.
NOTE: Taylor Mac allows and encourages the taking and posting of audience photos as a part of their experience, all photos in this article are courtesy of Jerome Joseph Gentes.