Last Friday, we went to L.A. to visit with friends, many of whom we had not seen for many years. The specific occasion was the opening of Kurt Weil’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the L.A. Opera. It starred Patti Lupone and Audra Macdonald and was directed by an old schoolmate, John Doyle. You may remember John Doyle from his winning the Tony last year for Sweeney Todd, also starring Ms. Lupone.
Mahagonny is supposedly the pinnacle of the brief but fruitful collaboration of Weill and Bertolt Brecht, which also produced The Threepenny Opera. Brecht’s theory of theatre was basically political. He wanted you not to be involved emotionally with the characters of his work, but to be completely alienated from that attachment and to think about the ideas he was putting on stage, all of which were Marxist.
Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t. It works best when, against his will, he gives you characters to care about and root for and then breaks out of that framework to force you to examine their moral/political situation.
Mahagonny was not one of these times. Originally a set of poems about a completely immoral pleasure city where the only sin is to be poor, it has little plot and such a total inconsistency of character development that there’s precious little to be alienated from. Weil’s music is not especially tuneful, though I found it to be mostly interesting.
L.A. Opera struggled mightily with the piece. Singers were topnotch, as was the orchestra. Set, costume, and lighting design were first-rate. Direction was consistent, but not illuminating. In fact, I have never seen such a static production ever, and I watch opera for fun. It didn’t work.
We knew all this going in. We skipped the preshow lecture, because, after all, we have degrees in theatre. We can verfremdung with the best of them. What we were hoping for out of the evening was something new that would force us to pay attention to the ideas. We did not get it.
Afterwards, what does one say to a world-famous director when the show sat there like a lump in one’s stomach?, John said that the hardest thing was getting the political content to shock, which it definitely had not. I suggested that the biggest problem with the piece altogether was that the ideas are no longer shocking: untrammeled capitalism is not a good thing, the poor are economic victims, tomorrow is not another day. We know these things to be true; they are part of the popular culture, and trotting them out as terrible simply no longer works.
Case in point: the next day, as Mike Funt was driving us pell-mell down Laurel Canyon Blvd, Bailee Desrocher laughed at how the hill residences (perched precariously on their mud-slides-to-be) reminded her of the cartoon show The Oblongs, in which a deformed family lives at the bottom of the hill, and the pollution from the rich above them sinks down to them. (Her point was that on smoggy mornings, you could see where the smog stopped; the rich live above that line.)
But there you have it. When Brecht’s ideas are part of a friggin’ cartoon show, how can you hope to pretend that they are shocking? And if they’re not shocking, and the script in question is no more than a set of polemical texts, and the music is not pretty on the surface, then what do you have to work with? I guess I would try to dazzle the audience with elaborate directorial choices, so at least they could say my efforts were interesting, entertaining, or even pretty. But John, for whatever reason, did not do that.
I would have made the stage smaller, too. So there.
What does this all have to do with us? More tomorrow.