You’re tearing me apart: Taylor Mac

It was, for sure, a great “get.” Not only did the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) secure Taylor Mac’s A 24-Hour Decade History of Popular Music—hereafter TM24f or simplicity—as their cornerstone event for 2018, they got the full version, which Mac has only done in a few cities and for very limited engagements. 

In its entirety, it has previously been presented in a single 24-hour time block, which frankly frightened me off. (I’m a happy camper in the RuPaul sense, but not in the good-luck-finding-toilet-paper one.)

At PIFA, it’s done in two 12-hour blocks—noon to midnight—presented one week apart. Moreover, the scuttlebutt is that these two Philly performances will be the last time Mac does the marathon. From here on, it will be presented only in shorter sections.

All of this made it a must for me—and clearly also for a pretty glamorous assemblage that included most of Philly’s prominent theater and general arts denizens, as well as visitors who came from near and far. There was even a James Franco sighting!

I anticipated the shows with a mix of eagerness and nervousness. Veteran theatergoer that I am, I’ve never come close to 12 hours in a single sitting. Some brief calculations made me gulp.

In that time window, I could, for instance, see a Eugene O’Neill triple-bill: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, More Stately Mansions and The Iceman Cometh. Or three-quarters of a Ring cycle (leaving out only the shortest, Das Rheingold). Or the entire Big Mozart Quartet—Nozze di Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and Zauberflöte. (This is as good a place as any to point out that, while TM24is not by the usual definition an “opera,” in scope, grandeur, concept, spectacle, and even sometimes musically, it is certainly operatic.)

Another question that was on my mind was how the show, known to be an almost circus-like spectacle involving considerable interaction between audience and performers, would fare in the standard proscenium configuration of Philadelphia’s Merriam Theatre. (On the other hand, the Merriam—formerly the Shubert—has its own storied history, including first-ever performances of a host a Gershwin musicals, which makes it an atmospheric and appropriate venue.)

The show itself is cannily constructed as a microcosmic 24-hour slice of America at its best and worse. There is, to be sure, much political dissent and rage. “Colonialism,” “oligarchy,” “heteronormative,” and “bourgeois” are terms we hear often, and are favorite themes for Mac’s repeated (for my taste, too often) scorn. What he preached over and over in a positive sense is the need for “empathy.”

Mac frequently took the opportunity to harangue political regimes and ideas past and present, to what seemed to be universal audience agreement. (If there was a single Trump voter within five miles of the Merriam, I’d be surprised.)

Yet, like America itself, there is an unwavering optimism even in the darkness. TM24 is, overwhelmingly, a joyful experience. Mac, a gender nonbinary performer whose preferred pronoun famously is “judy,” here presents as a spectacular drag-queen, dressed, wigged, and made-up to the hilt, in a way that sometimes—but not always—suggests the specific historical periods and issues judy is taking on.

Like so much of TM24, the costuming (by Machine Dazzle, who also performs) is provocatively contrary: sometimes very much on-point, at other times, deliberate excursions into a fantasy realm that may well be clear to Mac but wasn’t always so to me. But even when the dialectic was opaque, the patter and delivery-style were solid gold.

Yes, judy is an ultra-fabulous, commanding presence—but Mac isn’t the whole show. Supporting TM24 are superb musicians, led by Matt Ray, including marvelous solo singers (Stephanie Christi’an and Heather Christian) and dancers (memorably, soloists from the Urban Bush Women).

Equally winning is Mac’s troupe of “Dandy Minions,” incorporating a number of prominent Philadelphia artists. They appear onstage as well as working the aisles of the theater, supplying the audience with props (apples, beer, ping-pong balls, etc.), reading material, and  instructions.

The DM’s are ultra-fabulous, too—as diverse a collection of people as one could imagine, individually and together a living demonstration of what it means to be comfortable in one’s own skin (and there’s a lot of skin on display, by the way).

It is that very particular tension—between angry political resistance, and gloriously sex-positive, buoyantly confidant celebration of queerness—that fuels TM24’s immense energy.

“But what is the show exactly?” I hear you asking. Well, that’s harder to explain, though Mac’s own description is as good a place to start as any: “This is not just a drag show, not that that wouldn’t be enough. It is a radical faerie realness sacrifice.” Later, Mac described judyself as a “bridge between the normative and the insane.”

A more mundane but perhaps clearer explanation—in a 24-hour period, Mac goes decade by decade, presenting a history of America through a sampling of its favorite music. The show begins in 1776, so hour one is 1776-86, hour two 1786-96, and so on. By judy’s count there are a total of 246 songs, which on its own sounds like a lot, but doesn’t capture the astonishing scope of its musical world, much of it presented in a richly symphonic style.

A happy surprise to me was the high quality of Mac’s rangy baritone, distinctive and often beautiful, capable of considerable power as well as haunting soft effects. The stylistic range is even greater, and at times judy is a master-interpreter, making something wonderfully individual, for example, of the familiar “Daisy Bell,” which is offered near the end of Part I.

Sometimes, a single song is used to invoke an entire epoch. The show starts inspiringly with Amazing Grace, which along the way becomes (to paraphrase Tony Kushner) “a fantasia on national themes,” and is particularly moving when a pair of Native American “Dandies” offer a consecration and a kind of forgiveness.

At other times, Mac will offer several songs on a related theme. Some units are less about specific events than a more general profile of aspects of American culture.

Hour three, for example, ostensibly about 1796-1806, is really a suite on the theme of drinking, and surely one of the most successful sections. There’s an amusingly outraged temperance choir warring with Mac, who predictably advocates for the pleasures of drinking and its loosening effects. This becomes an opportunity for judy to really work the room, eliciting cheers of delight.

In most sections, history and music are clearly linked and bracingly, provocatively worked through; at other times, less so. Some sections (like the drinking hour) feel like detours. Mac makes no attempt to justify or explain inconsistencies or lapses of fact, instead reveling in judy’s adorable capriciousness.

At one point, dressed like a collage of Marie Antoinette and William Kentridge’s Lulu production, Mac points to judyself and winkingly asks the audience, “Is there something about this that suggests Wikipedia to you?”

Twelve hours of this is, of course, a rollercoaster ride—twists and turns, ups and downs. Here are a few moments that particularly stood out:

Crowd high point: From a musical standpoint, probably Mac’s delivery of “On the Banks of the Ohio,” a plaintive folksong I know well from Joan Baez’s gorgeous recording, but here delivered with sardonic punch and passion as a Mac solo. It brought down the house and also marked an exceptionally sly and brilliant piece of dramaturgy: this was a “murder ballad,” evolving in a sequence that began with a lullaby, and in so doing defined a female character’s growing sense of herself as person of stature and agency.

Musical high point: A jam session including “Calico Pie” and “Turkey in the Straw” that marked the Trial of Tears sequence—the only unamplified music of the evening—had a marvelous poignancy that made me think of the Carter Family or Woody Guthrie. Simply beautiful and heartrending.

Most awkward audience participation moment: Spitting ping-pong balls at someone I’d never met, who was tasked with catching them. (As you’ve probably guessed, this was an approximation of beer-pong in the drinking sequence.)

Good idea that dragged on too long: An audience-judged “smack-down” between Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman for the title of “Father of American Song” began uproariously, but the longer it went on, the less point it made. Yes, Foster wrote some embarrassing minstrel songs, and of course, yes, Whitman remains one of the great balladeers of America. But it was reductive, a point made by Mac duetting gloriously with Heather Christian in Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a song that more than earns Foster a place in the pantheon.

Funniest musical moment: “The Poor Little Gypsey,” a piece of melodramatic (not to mention racist) Victorian-era kitsch, was repurposed by Mac into a bawdy ballad about prostitution, liberally interrupted with hilarious riffs about sex.

Moment when I felt most guilty: Sneaking off to pee when the abolitionists were rallying.

Biggest fail: A sequence devoted to the 1880s and focusing largely on orientalism included a parody of The Mikado. It’s certainly no surprise that this work is a poster child for problematic cultural appropriation, a fact Mac pointed up by resetting it on Mars and thereby cleansing it of racial insensitivity (except, I guess, to Martians). But the resulting bit played like a not very funny sequence from Mystery Science Theatre or a hyperextended SNL sketch. Not only was Marskado a trial on its own, it was also a missed opportunity to rethink Mikado more interestingly. It is indeed a source of fascinating racial tension, including here in the U. S. where it showed up reworked with a black cast as Hot Mikado.

Ah, but Hot Mikado hit Broadway in 1939—and TM24 Part I ends more than 50 years earlier. Perhaps we’ll still get it in Part I—which reminds me that we’re really only halfway through the journey. It’s been mostly thrilling, sometimes frustrating, but genuinely unforgettable.

And I’m ready for more.

Photos: Teddy Wolff