Name That Tune!

09/20/2017 05:43 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2017

Ask any American to describe The Great American Songbook and you'll find yourself with a lot of wild guesses and and quite a few misfires.

While it's easy to sort popular songs into genres such as show tunes, rhythm and blues, folk music, country, and gospel, what's often missing from the catalog of music that constitutes The Great American Songbook is their sociopolitical context. Although curators and musicologists have their hands full trying to analyze the importance of various strains of music, recordings and film footage rarely give these songs the same vitality that they achieve when performed before a live audience.

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For this past five years, Taylor Mac, along with his costume designer (Machine Dazzle'), musical director (Matt Ray), and co-director (Niegel Smith), have been workshopping a massive performance art project entitled A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. In January of 2016 I attended two workshop sessions at the Curran Theatre (which was still under reconstruction) during which the audience sat onstage facing the musicians, performers, and a dark, empty auditorium.

Since then, Taylor Mac has realized his artistic dream of presenting the entire song cycle (more than 240 musical numbers with one hour devoted to each decade) in a 24-hour marathon in New York modeled after a Radical Faeries realist ritual. His return to the Curran this month breaks the project down into four six-hour-long performances in a full theatrical setting with set design by Mimi Lien and some phenomenal lighting by John Torres.

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco&#39;s Curran Theatre in <strong><em>A 24-Decade History of Popular Music</em></strong>
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Although opening night focused on the decades from 1776 to 1836 (with a few pre-Revolutionary songs for historical background, the six hours were devoted to the project's first chapter: "The American Revolution from the perspective of the yankee doodle dandy, the early women’s lib movement, an epic battle between drinking songs and early temperance songs, a dream sequence during which the audience dons blindfolds, and the heteronormative narrative as colonization."

What emerges is a retelling of American history but (as Machine Dazzle explains) "as seen through a gay, queer eye. It's the history that was never told. It just wasn't there. It's not in any of the books, so we're re-imagining that. There are all these creatives in history who might have been looked at as being crazy. There have always been people who think differently, and I feel like we're representing them."

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco&#39;s Curran Theatre in <strong><em>A 24-Decade History of Popular Music</em></strong>
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Taylor Mac's early goal was "to make a work about communities building themselves as a result of falling apart. A Walt Whitman poem had a different meaning three years ago than it will today, but that’s the fun of the room," he says. "What hasn’t changed is the cycle of oppression in our country. Sure, the way of oppression changes, the intensity changes, but it’s the same oppression. Tactics that were used in the 1780s to keep women down were also used to stop Hillary Clinton from getting elected.”

While the music from each decade can range from songs of woe and political unrest to English ballads like "Johnny's So Long At The Fair," the overall experience is a mind-boggling exercise in deliciously wretched excess. After singing a popular 18th-century song about how people hate Congress, the performance may turn to "a workshop of a workshop for a backers' audition for a heteronormative jukebox Broadway musical about colonization that will go on to win an Oscar."

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco&#39;s Curran Theatre in <strong><em>A 24-Decade History of Popular Music</em></strong>
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco&#39;s Curran Theatre in <strong><em>A 24-Decade History of Popular Music</em></strong>
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music
  • Segments that feature audience participation include ping pong balls, a game of musical chairs, blindfolded audience members trying to find each other's mouths in order to insert apple slices, and communal exercises in flirting, The audience gets brought up to date on the social significance of a dandy.
  • In between recollections of some jaw-dropping sexual escapades while hitchhiking and bawdy tales about people who have no boundaries whatsoever, Taylor uses his show's format to explain how cultural appropriation becomes a handy-dandy way of whitewashing indigenous and queer culture (especially if money is at stake.
  • In between instructing members of the audience to play dead, pretend they're rowing a boat, and join in the singing, he captivates theatregoers by showing what can happen when "mythology meets melody."
Taylor Mac changing costumes onstage at the Curran Theatre
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Taylor Mac changing costumes onstage at the Curran Theatre

Whether as a playwright (The Lily’s Revenge, HIR) or performance artist, Taylor Mac's work stands head and shoulders above the crowd for its searing strength and the phantasmagorical fearlessness of his artistic vision. An ambitious artist who is willing to push the creative envelope as far as possible in order to shake up the status quo, he stresses that "Perfection is for assholes." In addition to being an engaging storyteller, a compelling singer, a defiantly delicious drag artist, and a performer with seemingly endless stamina, his work achieves a great deal of consciousness raising with regard to gay, trans, and other gender-related issues. As he explains:

"I believe whole-heartedly in craft. I believe craft is essentially a commitment to learning the past, living in the present, and dreaming the culture forward. I try to see more theater than anyone else I know in a variety of venues, styles, genres, and forms and it’s made me a better director-producer-playwright in the process. I believe that, as a theater artist, I'm not a teacher; I'm a reminder. I'm just trying to remind you of things you've dismissed, forgotten, or buried.”
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco&#39;s Curran Theatre in <strong><em>A 24-Decade History of Popular Music</em></strong>
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

For many in the audience, the most obvious display of craft can be seen in the costumes (one for each decade) that Taylor wears during the show. "For me, the drag is not a costume -- I think of it as how I look on the inside, something I'm exposing that I would normally keep hidden. I found this wonderful artist who understands what I look like on the inside. We've worked together for so long that I'm able to trust him. I feel we have a kinship. I'm wearing both how I feel I look on the inside and what Machine sees inside of me."

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco&#39;s Curran Theatre in <strong><em>A 24-Decade History of Popular Music</em></strong>
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

There are some notable changes from the workshop events in 2016. Local performer El Beh now shares a tender duet with Taylor Mac and, following each decade, the costume Mac has been wearing is placed on a mannequin in the Curran's basement hallway so that members of the audience using the downstairs restrooms can examine them up close. Nobody is required to sit on the floor now that the Curran's reconstruction is complete and a song written for someone who is tone deaf has been dropped.

The decade from 1816 to 1826, which features songs popular with the blind (and has most attendees blindfolded), has been crafted to help the audience get in touch with their other senses. Despite Taylor's encouragement to treat their discomfort as a "bourgeois crisis," this segment still causes the show to lose momentum. When my blindfold became uncomfortable, I found great solace in removing it and focusing my attention on the magnificently hazy visuals created by lighting designer John Torres.

Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco&#39;s Curran Theatre in <strong><em>A 24-Decade History of Popular Music</em></strong>
(Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Taylor Mac performs at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

I also discovered that, like many murder mysteries (The Mousetrap, Deathtrap, Sleuth) or dramas that rely on a major reveal (The Sixth Sense, M. Butterfly), the thrill diminishes the second time around. Some of this could be due to the fact that, when I entered the theatre at 4:30 p.m. I was already feeling tired from not having slept well. However, as my friend pointed out, it could also be because I was sober (a man sitting two seats away from me was ecstatically tripping throughout the evening). It was also interesting to note that whenever I stepped out and left the auditorium to go to the men's room, there was a sizable throng hanging out at the lobby bar who were glued to their smartphones.

This does not in any way diminish my admiration for the amount of talent and effort that went into the production. I remain in awe of Taylor Mac's artistic vision and commitment to his art and continually find myself marveling at the lush beauty of Matt Ray's musical arrangements. Here's the trailer:

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While many of the songs highlighted in Taylor Mac's exploration of popular music from 1776 to 1836 reflect the sentiments of America's early (and primarily white) settlers, as one plows through American history up to and including the 21st century, the contributions of African-American artists become increasingly important to our culture.

David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), Paul Williams (James Harkness), Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin),
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), Paul Williams (James Harkness), Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), and Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph) in a scene from Ain't Too Proud

Following the explosive 1981 premiere of Dreamgirls on Broadway, jukebox musicals became extremely profitable vehicles for showcasing music from the 1960s and beyond. From 1998's The Boy From Oz (Peter Allen), 1999's Mamma Mia! (ABBA), 2002's Movin' Out (Billy Joel), and 2005's Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons) and All Shook Up (Elvis Presley) to 2009's Fela! (Fela Kuti), 2010's American Idiot (Green Day), 2014's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and 2015's On Your Feet! (Gloria and Emilio Estefan), jukebox musicals have proven to be box office gold.

Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph), Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.) and Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) in a scene from <strong
(Photo by: Carole Litwin)
Melvin Franklin (Jared Joseph), Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.) and Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) in a scene from Ain't Too Proud

The newest arrival recently had its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In all honesty, I have never seen a spit-polished out-of-town tryout so well-prepared to transfer to Broadway. Even at this early stage of its life, Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations should be considered a "shovel ready" project as soon as an appropriate theatre becomes available (possibilities for 2018 point to the Walter Kerr, Neil Simon, Al Hirschfeld, Nederlander, or Hudson Theatre). As Tony Taccone (Berkeley Rep’s artistic director) explains:

“In 1959 Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, part of a musical revolution that would eventually sweep the country. Mixing soul music with pop, Motown created hit after hit after hit, hoisting bands from The Miracles to The Four Tops to Martha and the Vandellas into the national spotlight. Berry wasn’t just building a label. He wanted his artists to cross the racial divide in America, to be embraced not only by African Americans but by all Americans. And no group was more important to his efforts than The Temptations.”
Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) plays a new song for The Temptations in <strong><em>Ain&#39;t Too Proud</em></strong>
(Photo by: Carole Litwin)
Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) plays a new song for The Temptations in Ain't Too Proud
“You couldn’t come of age during that time without hearing them on the radio, singing along with them, or damn well wanting to be them. They were the definition of cool, decked out in those tight suits and flaunting those tight dance moves. Bad-ass dudes who were crooning their way into the hearts of the girls and giving the boys all kinds of ideas. Years passed and the hits kept coming, the band weathering changes in music, fashion, and politics to forge a place in history. They never sought to create an immortal legacy, but as they morphed into the most successful Rhythm & Blues group of all time, The Temptations became a touchstone of our larger cultural heritage. Their story is a reflection of not only Motown but also the city of Detroit, the Civil Rights Movement, and the aspirations, failures, and triumphs of our society right up to the present day. This music is wildly addictive!”
Caliaf St. Aubyn as Dennis Edwards in a scene from <strong><em>Ain&#39;t Too Proud</em></strong>
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
Caliaf St. Aubyn as Dennis Edwards in a scene from Ain't Too Proud

Whereas Taylor Mac wants audiences to approach his performances understanding that "perfection is for assholes," the opposite applies to Ain't Too Proud. From the moment the audience enters the Roda Theatre and sees the gleaming, symmetrical doors to the Fox Theatre in Detroit to the band's final playout, Ain't Too Proud has been fine-tuned to perfection by its set designer, Robert Brill, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Howell Binkley, sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy. director Des McAnuff (Big River, Jersey Boys) and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Memphis, The Addams Family, On Your Feet! and A Bronx Tale: The Musical).

With a lean libretto by Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau, the creative team has found a way to locate the sweet spot between trying to cram a whole lot of personal history and a wildly popular song catalog into a storytelling format that holds the stage while creating an atmosphere of fast and furious fluidity. Much of this is accomplished by keeping physical scenery to a minimum and letting Peter Nigrini's projections paint the passage of time. However, the secret to the production's success lies in its floor plan: a downstage conveyor beltthat allows for quick entrances, exits, and scene transitions coordinated with two concentric turntables located immediately upstage.

Derrick Baskin's determined Otis Williams serves as the evening's narrator, whose strained relationships with his wife, Josephine (Rashidra Scott) and son Lamont (Shawn Bowers) form a small part of the personal tragedies that haunt the singing group. Jeremy Pope portrays Eddie Kendricks as a lean crooner whose eyes flash with feral intensity. Other members of the original quintet include Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. as Elbridge "Al" Bryant, James Harkness as Paul Williams, and Jared Joseph as Melvin Franklin (Nasia Thomas has a delightful cameo as Franklin's fearsome Mama Rose).

Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) tells the story of The Temptations in <strong><em>Ain&#39;t Too Proud</em></strong>
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin) tells the story of The Temptations in Ain't Too Proud

As the hot-headed David Ruffin, Ephraim Sykes introduces diving splits into the group's choreography. Caliaf St. Aubyn appears as Dennis Edwards (who replaced the temperamental Ruffin in 1968) and E. Clayton Cornelious portrays Richard Street (who eventually replaced the ailing Paul Williams).

The group's artistic growth is steered by Jahi Kearse as Berry Gordy and Jeremy Cohen as Shelly Berger, the Jewish manager who takes over the group's day-to-day responsibilities. Christian Thompson initially appears as songwriter Smokey Robinson (he later replaces one of the group's singers) while Candice Marie Woods portrays Diana Ross (with Nasia Thomas and Taylor Symone Jackson providing backup as The Supremes).

Taylor Symone Jackson, Candice Marie Woods, and Nasia Thomas appear as The Supremes in a scene from <strong><em>Ain&#39;t Too
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
Taylor Symone Jackson, Candice Marie Woods, and Nasia Thomas appear as The Supremes in a scene from Ain't Too Proud

Because Ain't Too Proud and Motown the Musical both focus on career arcs heavily influenced by Berry Gordy, it's important to note a key difference in the storytelling technique that shapes each show's narrative.

  • Although the narrative for Ain't Too Proud is driven by the personal passions of its singers, the narrative for Motown: The Musical (whose book was written by Berry Gordy) is essentially driven by a relentlessly entrepreneurial ego with a dominant and manipulative masculine personality.
  • Whereas the score for Motown: The Musical offers a rapid sampling of nearly 60 musical hits reduced to quick snippets of music, Ain't Too Proud gives more time to each of its 31 musical numbers (which are sung with fervor and sweetness while being performed with muscle and sweat). Harold Wheeler's orchestrations coupled with Kenny Seymour's music direction and vocal arrangements do The Temptations proud with a vitality and sheen that will keep this show running for a long, long time.

Ain't Too Proud is very much an ensemble show populated by a high-energy cast that makes the old "triple threat" nomenclature (actor-singer-dancer) seem woefully inadequate to describe their strength as performers. Performances of Ain't Too Proud continue through November 5 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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