“I want to protest the tools of reduction,” Taylor Mac says. “So I want to take more time to make my art — and more time to think about the ideas, and more time to express the ideas, and more time to share with the audience — than less. I don’t want things to be as cute and reductive as a tweet.”
This is the underlying premise that knits together all 1,440 minutes of Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a massive drag musical that outlines the Whitmanesque “barbaric yawp” of the ongoing American project from its 1776 inception through 2016. Having performed it in various combinations — eight three-hour segments, two 12-hour segments, and a 24-hour supernova with a few breaks to eat, guzzle water, and use the restroom — Mac will bring it to the Curran Theater in late September for four six-hour performances.
Its sheer vastness is as dizzying as a map in a story by Jorge Luis Borges. Compare the number of years that Mac’s magisterial “durational concert” (240) encompasses against the number of characters allowed in a tweet (140), and you end up with nearly a two-to-one ratio. And Mac’s implied criticism of Twitter as an imperfect medium is less a slam at Jack Dorsey than at the prolific tweeter whose election coincided with the last year of the show’s chronology. But for all his reckoning with the contradictions and exuberance of the United States, Mac professes an arm’s-length relationship with political art.
“I think the work is of this moment because it’s very alive, but I allow the ‘alive-ness’ of it to take care of the moment,” Mac says. “I spend a longer time working on the art of it, rather than try to get it out so that it doesn’t become dated the next week, which is what political art tends to be. … I recognize the use for it, but I don’t think of it as satisfying, artistically.”
A 24-Decade History is not the dispositive interpretation of the Great American Songbook, refracted through a Downtown Manhattan lens. Nor is it merely a Radical Faerie-inflected, Cockettes-inspired glitter explosion familiar to anyone who ever saw a Thrillpeddlers show at the Hypnodrome before the troupe disbanded. Yes, there are frequent costume changes, and the costumes might better be categorized as “wearable sculptures,” but the proscenium has seldom been such a permeable membrane in both directions.
By structuring the performance so that it plays out across four nights in a 10-day period, A 24-Decade History is practically a longitudinal study in audience-performer relations. Mac envisions an act of co-creation, of “spending two weeks with a lot of the same audience members and in real consideration of the work.”
That way, “there’s just time for people to breathe and think that you rarely ever see in theater, when it’s mostly something to do before or after dinner,” Mac says. “I’m just trying to think of ways we can hang out with each other a bit longer and have to commit to the work as audience members and as artists.”
Take Chapter 1, which spans 1776-1836. It’s not an era whose music is well-remembered, but according to the synopsis, it covers “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 where the audience is blindfolded, and the heteronormative narrative as colonization.” There are butterfly wings, blindfolds, audience rearrangements, pillbox hats and Campbell’s soup cans, and a lucha libre fight between Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster over who’s truly the Father of American Song. In order for something of that scope not to disintegrate under the weight of its own ambition, it has to balance spectacle with gravitas in a way that holds the audience’s attention. But A 24-Decade History is not just American history told through song; it proves that the modes of oppression that have plagued America since its flawed-yet-optimistic founding are best understood through song.
Costume designer Machine Dazzle has worked with Mac since right after 9/11, when Mac asked him to make a lily costume for what would eventually be the five-act, multi-genre production The Lily’s Revenge. After a request for another lily costume — Dazzle recalls Mac saying, “I ruined the first one and now I want the petals to come off, and I need some daisies and those petals need to come off, too” — their collaboration solidified. Now, Dazzle is tasked with helping Mac in and out of everything during A 24-Decade History.
“He really trusts me,” Dazzle says. “Whatever the costume and the aesthetic is, that’s all me. He’s just along for the ride, and the crazier it is, the better it is — ’cause now he can talk about it during the performance or play with it or take it off. Or maybe it’ll fall apart. Whatever happens, he loves to play with all of that stuff.”
(A note on Dazzle’s defaulting to the male pronoun: While Mac has voiced a preference for the pronoun “judy,” judy says it’s mostly because neither “he” nor “she” encompasses judyself. It’s playful, because that’s who judy is, but it’s also a gentle way to rib people with little patience for nonstandard genders: “I wanted a pronoun that would immediately emasculate them, because you can’t say ‘judy’ and roll your eyes without being a little camp.”)
In any event, remaining open to a sort of kinetic serendipity is part of the show. Rehearsing is challenging, so mishaps — none of them serious — have been known to happen. An elaborate headpiece that may come apart on-stage can be reincorporated into the performance in an impromptu way. Since this isn’t an eight-shows-a-week type of production, there isn’t a lot of wear-and-tear, but keeping things clean is an issue.
“A lot of these things aren’t washable,” Dazzle says, so he uses vodka spray, a proven life-hack that ceases to work after a time. “And he sweats! Sweat has gross stuff in it.”
During earlier runs, three-quarters of the costume changes happened in view of the audience. But with a theater as big as the Curran, Dazzle plans to make fuller use of silhouette, because “a reveal is fun.” One transition, during “Pretty Woman,” is particularly time-sensitive.
“That one is stressful but it always gets a crazy ovation,” Dazzle says. “I almost cried during the 24-hour show because it just happens. Basically, I put the headpiece on him right at the end of the song — and if you don’t time it right, it doesn’t work.”
Another switch takes place as the Jewish decade (1896-1906) transitions to the run-up to World War I.
“Every time I do it and I get it done, I’m like, ‘Ahhhh,’ ” Dazzle sighs. “I have a drink, but then I’m called back up on stage for ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon,’ where I show my butt.
“I cover my butt in silvery glitter, of course,” he adds.
As each hour-decade runs out, the number of musicians on stage shrinks by one, until it’s just Mac holding the stage alone. At that point, all the maximalism has fallen off, the infinite white noise of social media has melted away, and all that remains is one individual confronting the uncertain void that is America’s future. How are we to interpret that?
“There seems to be a plague of opinions and a commerce about rage,” Mac says of the present moment. “It’s not useful necessarily to create responses; it’s more useful to be a ‘diviner for consideration.’ So, I’ve kind of got my little divining stick called drag, and I say to the audience, ‘OK, go digging.’
“Rather than just responding to the world that is,” judy adds, “I’m trying to manifest the world that I want.”
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music
Sept. 15, 17, 22, and 24, at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., sfcurran.com
Check out more from our Fall Arts 2017 Guide:
From the LED artist who lit up the Salesforce Tower to the collision of Rodin and Klimt, it’s going to be a busy fall.
We’re waiting to see what Hillary Clinton reveals in “What Happened,” but Jennifer Egan, Jeffrey Eugenides and Matt Taibbi are high on our list, too.
Trevor Noah is coming to town! And Peaches Christ takes on the 1993 Halloween comedy Hocus Pocus with queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Film and Film Festivals
A Salinger biopic, an adaptation of Stephen King’s creepiest clown, and the return of “Art House Theater Day.” Time to huddle in a darkened cinema!
No Treasure Island Music festival this year, sadly, but there’s a ton of excellent acts swinging through town this fall.
A relative dearth of powerhouse musicals about the Founding Fathers this season means that Bay Area theater has room to breathe again.