The Brooklyn Marathon: Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music
First off, let’s define our pronouns. The protean author and performer Taylor Mac prefers to be called neither “he” nor “she” nor even “they,” but rather “judy” (with a lower case “j”). Last year, Mac’s superb play, Hir, explored the fraught politics of gendered language, its very title an alternative, sex-neutral pronoun. Mac’s personal preference, however, exemplifies a characteristically mischievous approach: the political point must be made, but we can have a little fun making it. So “judy” it will be.
How to describe Taylor Mac? A 43-year-old singer, actor, writer, composer, drag artist, and impresario, judy’s big breakthrough came seven years ago with the brilliant play The Lily’s Revenge, a five-hour political/fantasy extravaganza in which judy played the title flower. The product of a challenged family background, Mac is a self-taught polymath, expert in a wide range of disciplines. Playwriting is a core endeavor, most notably the aforementioned Hir at Playwright’s Horizons. Mac’s acting has also continually impressed, with recent forays into Shakespeare (Puck in Classic Stage Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Brecht (Shen Te in Foundry Theater’s The Good Person of Szechwan). Mac’s influences are broad: Charles Ludlam and Ethyl Eichelberger, certainly, in judy’s subversive use of drag and camp. As a singer, Mac builds on the emotionally raw, take-no-prisoners examples of Judy Garland and Janis Joplin, with big lashings of Bette Midler’s confrontational wittiness. But like all great artists, judy is sui generis.
The theatrical event of the fall was Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a 24-hour marathon performance of judy’s long-gestating epic survey of the popular music that has reflected and defined American history from 1776 to the present. In Mac’s grand conception, each hour of the performance was devoted to a decade of our 240-year history, allowing the audience to witness the progression of style and content, all within a contextual framework that connected the songs to ever-evolving social and political currents. The performance was the culmination of five years of preparation, workshops, and trial performances in New York and elsewhere. Mac developed the work in eight separate three-hour chunks, each devoted to a particular three successive decades, always with the ultimate goal of a complete performance of the entire piece. In September and early October, St. Ann’s Warehouse presented a series of run-up performances of the separate three-hour units. The single marathon perfor- mance, sold out well in advance to an audience of 600, began at noon on Saturday, October 8, and ended almost precisely at noon on Sunday, October 9. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music delivered just what its title promised: a massive overview of the music to which Americans have listened, danced, drunk, marched and loved. About ten songs per decade added up to 246 songs over the entire 24 hours.
While Mac’s magnum opus was a fully staged theatrical concert, it was also a work of performance art, a ’60s-style Happening, and, in Mac’s own words, a “radical faerie realness ritual.” (The Radical Faeries is a loosely organized movement that, according to radfae.org, comprises “gay men who look for a spiritual dimension to [their] sexuality.”) Mac’s project was to sing the history of unsung, marginalized groups and to uncover the subtexts of oppression and resistance in all popular music. An immense amount of research went into understanding the presence, overt and covert, of voices of women, African-Americans, Jews, LGBTQ individuals, Native Americans, and more. The marathon was as much enthralling lecture as it was performance. Mac’s copious patter held the show together, explicating, galvanizing, and analyzing the music itself as well as judy’s choices and agenda. Time after time, we were treated to cogent, provocative deconstructions of iconic American songs, many of which we all learned as kids. Mac wants to find the disturbing within the familiar, the dangerous within the cozy. “This is what I hope to be: a bridge between the insane and the normative,” Mac told the New York Times last summer.
So no question, the show was political to its core. Mac had an agenda and did not hide it. “How do we build a community while we are being torn apart?” judy asked at the top of the show. And: “It’s all about inspiring you to revolt against a government, or an institution, or your obstinate sense of self.” This passionate advocacy provided immense drive and focus but flirted with obviousness. There were a few times (and really, just a few) when I wanted the music to speak for itself more, especially in the second half of the work. Mac’s politics are completely, deliciously radical-post-gender-post-colonial-beyond-progressive, which means they are 100% admirable, 60% actionable, and perhaps 30% a little naïve, all of which Mac would be the first to acknowledge; judy’s a provocateur, not a policymaker. Still, part of the wonder of the piece was its effortless creation of a kumbaya gestalt of empowerment and optimism (ah, how credulously hopeful we all were before the presidential election).
Mac dates the origin of this project to judy’s experience, as an impressionable teenager, of the power of an AIDS protest. In an essay on the work, judy remembers the thrill of seeing a community “expressing their rage (and joy at being together) via music, dancing, chanting and agency.” A 24-Decade History of Popular Music grew out of an interest in exploring how communities are formed:
Popular songs use their simplicity, imperfection and humanity to rally people towards a cause (whether that cause is to love, fight, celebrate, or mourn). They are egalitarian songs; ones we have easy access to and can all join in on. As a result, I’ve decided the popular song was the form I wanted for a show about imperfection fostering community. But one song or one concert wouldn’t do. A community is built over a number of years and experiences and is multifaceted. I needed variety and a form that would not only represent the thing but actually do the thing I was interested in exploring.
Mac’s indefatigable partner in this extraordinary endeavor was Music Director Matt Ray who conducted and played for 23 of the 24 hours and also arranged all of the music, employing a modern approach that honored original notions of instrumentation but that suited Mac’s contemporary, hauntingly throaty vocal delivery. Ray began with a 24-piece band, many of whom had individual chances to shine throughout the show. With each successive decade, one musician left the stage until, in the final hour, Mac performed alone. A dozen supporting company members (dubbed the “Dandy Minions” by Mac) served as foils, backup singers, dancers, and supernumeraries. And another seventy-plus performers made individual and group guest appearances throughout the marathon.
Mac performed the entire 24 hours straight through, with only a handful of brief bathroom breaks and costume changes. Any breaks longer than a few minutes would have killed the momentum, but there is no doubt that the format was just unbelievably punishing. As much support as Mac had from the musicians and the Dandy Minions, the event was really a glorified one-person show. Of course the outrageously unimaginable feat Mac undertook was in some ways a central point of the endeavor. The thrill of judy’s mental and physical achievement was electrifying—like watching an extended Olympic event. It also served as a metaphor for the 240-year struggle for political agency, cultural visibility and artistic achievement undertaken by the original composers, singers, and audiences of the music. And the feat enabled the catharsis of feeling achieved through the grand tradition of performing in extremis. “The goal,” said Mac at the beginning of the performance, “is to reach the people by falling apart.” Art is transformative when that “falling apart” is performed and experienced communally.
From the start, Mac unabashedly acknowledged the underlying ridiculousness of asking an audience to engage for 24 hours—a smart tactic that let us all feel okay about coping with the demands in our own way. Mac pointedly noted that this event was not a concert or a play where “you’re supposed to like it all.” Rather, it was a performance art piece, which meant, “there will be parts you’re not supposed to like.” And with that absolution, the audience was able to relax and not feel the need to stay connected at an intense level for the entire show. “In performance art you just have to make a commitment to perpetual consideration,” Mac said. What’s more, a work of such epic proportions will inevitably provide varying levels of satisfaction to each individual audience member. Mac promised that there would be parts of the show each of us would not relate to and disavowed any attempts at universality. In addition, judy managed executional expectations at the outset. “Perfection is for assholes,” Mac recited more than once. And while the execution of the piece, despite these warnings, was almost super-humanly smooth, judy’s point was well taken in that it is often through small imperfections that a work is woven together with its audience.
Mac very smartly built in a significant amount of audience participation including standing stretches, sing-alongs, simple group choreography, and frequent reconfigurings of the theatrical space: chairs were moved around and even removed at various points, so that one was never sitting in the same place for more than an hour or two at a time, and often found oneself standing or sitting on the floor. (My Fitbit was very happy; I’ve never taken so many steps per theatrical hour.) This helped keep the blood moving and the mind stimulated. The audience never just sat and stared at the stage for long, keeping the eyes refreshed. Mac also knew just when to surprise and delight the audience, handing out little treats from time to time, all of which were charmingly thematic. We all joined a Bread Line during the section dealing with the Depression and were served crusty rolls and split pea soup (very welcome at 3:00 a.m.!). Mac also led many mental and physical exercises, some of which took the form of role-playing games. At one point we were instructed to aspirate “Ha” noises during Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” for what seemed like ten minutes. Yet the surrender to these communal moments took the audience past any sense of discomfort and right through to a semi-meditative, semi-ecstatic state of pure being-in-the-moment. The audience participation also served a thematic purpose: the whole notion of popular music resides in that very word “popular.” This is music by and for the people and only has meaning when it is experienced communally. Mac’s mission—to consider the role of popular song throughout our country’s complex history—required a long-form, interactive dialogue between artists and audience.
So what was attending a 24-hour performance actually like? I’ve been to plenty of marathon plays in the past—the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy—but nothing that came close to this. I prepared as for a combination hike and overnight flight, bringing a small duffel stocked with power bars, a thermos of tea, a small pillow that doubled as floor cushioning and back support, a toothbrush, and phone charger. My husband and a close friend joined me in the adventure, and this collegial support was critical. We kept each other involved and energized and took turns taking breaks, brushing our teeth, going to the lobby on coffee and snack runs, and so forth. Both my companions took brief naps, but I stayed awake the whole time and never left the theater for more than two minutes or so. Still, at about the 16-hour mark, I hit a wall. “I can’t believe this is already by far the longest stretch of time I’ve ever spent in a theater and there are still eight hours to go,” I thought. Of course it’s all relative. I’ve hit walls two-thirds of the way through 90-minute plays. And indeed the relativity of time soon asserted itself. At the 21-hour mark, I thought, “Oh boy, only three hours to go. This will be a cinch!” By the end I was adrenalized, a bit delirious but happily so. It helped that all 600 of us were on this crazy journey together, Mac included. “It’s going to go on a lot longer than you’re going to want it to,” Mac joshingly cautioned the audience as the show began (and reiterated several times throughout). It did. And it didn’t, in that, when it was over, it didn’t feel too long at all.
Of course it was wildly uneven; how could it not be? Whole hour-long stretches were a bit dull or just weird. An abbreviated, hour-long version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado set on Mars held immense promise but ended up strange and tedious (and I’m speaking as a Savoyard). On the other hand, there were entire three-hour segments that were just nonstop dazzling. Perhaps most memorable was the sequence devoted to the Civil War and its prelude (1836-1866). This included an absolutely epic smackdown between Stephen Foster and Walt Whitman as to who was truly the “Father of American Song.” During this sequence, Mac performed several very lengthy, complicated Whitman poems from memory (and this on top of memorizing the 246 songs; if nothing else, this was the most amazing feat of memorization I’ve ever seen). In the long run, critical analysis started to feel a bit beside the point. Twenty hours into a work, traditional notions of “good” or “bad” begin to lose their usual meanings, at least in the moment, and the sheer experiential momentum takes over. With the benefit of hindsight, the experience has only grown in my mind, and I now count it one of my four or five most memorable experiences in forty years of consistent theater attendance.
It began where our country began: with the Revolutionary War and with songs that called Americans to arms and began the long process of defining just what the national character would be. From the start, we saw how tied popular music was, for better or worse, to politics. The first song in the show was “Amazing Grace,” the 1779 hymn that has long, historical ties to abolition, thus placing the slave trade at the very foundation of this journey, just as it was at the birth of America. Mac placed the Native American presence at this same foundation by bringing onstage an actor named Timothy White Eagle, who humorously sported a T-shirt with the word “Token” on it. We also heard a satirical song excoriating “The Congress,” which could have been written yesterday.
In this first hour, Mac introduced what I think was the overriding theme of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, namely “The Dandy’s Revenge,” a phrase Mac used many times throughout the show. There is always a strain in popular culture of making fun of the “Dandy,” i.e., the elite, the effeminate, the intellectual. Mac pointed out many such instances in the songs, starting of course with “Yankee Doodle Dandy” itself, perhaps the ur-American song. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” both mocks and celebrates the Dandy, reclaiming the term from one of British scorn and turning it into a fraught but defining element of the American character. Mac also reclaims the point of view of the Dandy—standing both inside and outside of popular culture, adapting a privileged viewpoint thanks to his/her so-called elitism, his/her rejection of traditional social roles. Mac, in this sense, is a modern Dandy, tracing throughout our 240-year history a Dandyish take on the nation and its triumphs and traumas.
The second decade included a series of delightful comic songs that tweaked the battle of the sexes, including one literally called “The Rights of Women,” that revealed an early feminist movement that has been virtually erased from the history books. Copies of a contemporary essay by Judith Sargent Murray entitled “On the Equality of the Sexes” were passed out to the audience. Frequent references in the song lyrics to Adam and Eve led to the appearance of several dozen giant papier-mâché apple trees, hung with real apples which we were encouraged to pick and snack on. In the next decade, a face-off between temperance songs and drinking songs prompted the distribution of refreshing ginger beer. A genteel temperance choir, portrayed by real-life group Choral Chameleons, attempted to persuade the audience to take the pledge, to little avail, but Mac reminded us that temperance leaders often fought on the side of abolition and women’s rights. Carrie Nation was a particular heroine of judy’s, in this regard.
This second three-hour chunk was loosely built around the putative performance of an 1820s jukebox musical about a romantic couple, Harry and Jane, who engage in a circuitous courtship. In the first decade, Mac told an outrageously raunchy joke about a chicken and exhorted all the bearded men in the audience (a sizable contingent, this being Brooklyn) to stand and dance seductively for their fellow audience members. (To those readers congenitally allergic to audience participation, I can only say that, in general, I share your qualms but that something about this performance made all misgivings disappear. Mac is so persuasive and creates such an atmosphere of joyful surrender that any resistance evaporated.) For the whole second hour of this segment, the entire audience donned sleep masks and sat sightless, listening to the music, which included the very first minstrel songs as well as the popular hit “Meet Me by Moonlight.” We played blindfolded musical chairs, were fed grapes by the Dandy Minions, and then instructed to feed more to our neighboring audience members—a tricky task indeed when sight-deprived. Upon removing the sleep masks, we found the auditorium transformed into the Midwestern prairie, thanks to hundreds of stalks of wheat suspended from the ceiling. This led to rollicking renditions of “Turkey in the Straw” and other rural favorites, which were interrupted by a memorial to the Trail of Tears. A set of children’s music of the time included the Cherokee song “Orphan Child.” A suite of popular “Murder Ballads” of the era rounded out this segment.
And so we came to the previously noted Civil War trilogy. A series of abolitionist songs set the stage, but Mac immediately complicated the potentially dogmatic politics with pointed comments about the “armchair activism” of many abolitionists, equating it to contemporary ineffective social media activism. This sequence concluded with a breathtakingly gorgeous, emotional depiction of the Underground Railroad using shadow puppets designed by Eric F. Avery, set to “Move, Daniel.” That song is a traditional Ring Shout, a musical ritual native to the Deep South in which slaves danced in a circle, often for hours at a time, declaiming lyrics with coded messages and warnings.
The second part of the Civil War sequence, seven decades into the nation’s history and seven hours into the performance, brought the very first named composer, Stephen Foster, whose music is still a part of our cultural backdrop: “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races” and more all made their expected appearances, the latter subjected to a particularly brutal deconstruction. Mac’s goal here was to overturn Foster’s traditional role as “the father of American music.” Foster’s music, judy thinks, reinforces pernicious depictions of the Old South as a pre-Industrial paradise and also ignores the prodigious diversity of the country. Instead, judy proposed the queer, ultra-democratic, anarchic Walt Whitman as the true father of American music (never mind the fact that Whitman was not a composer; his lyrical poems, judy rightly feels, positively sing with unheard melody). This battle took the form of a gaudy sports match between the two artists. Popcorn was passed out to the audience, along with Ping-Pong balls with which we pelted the loser of each successive round. Interestingly, the skirmish ended when Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” stopped the show and Whitman unexpectedly surrendered, thus the inevitable triumph of the conventional over the dangerous. As we segued into the Civil War decade itself, Mac sang a gorgeous rendition of “Dixie,” which suddenly turned bitter and harsh. The audience was divided into Confederate and Union battalions, with the Ping-Pong balls now serving as weapons, and the despair of the battlefield vividly depicted in such classics as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
By now (9:00 p.m.!), it was time for dinner, the auditorium was cleared, enormous tables brought out, and we all sat down to a Reconstruction supper, with historically accurate food: black-eyed peas, cornbread, winter squash, and other vegan delights. As we joined in a healing chorus of “Down by the Riverside,” the first stirrings of a newly reconstituted nation were depicted via circus acts that filled the spaces between the tables. LAVA, a consortium of lesbian acrobats, regaled us with their inimitable “Home on the Range.” Then came that potted version of The Mikado. This was in theory a smart idea and very much on topic as the music from that immortal operetta swept America in the 1880s, heard in every Gilded Age parlor. The choice also nodded to the recent controversies surrounding the work and its problematic depictions of Japanese characters, as well as the practice of “yellowface” in productions featuring white performers. Mac reset the work on Mars, using ultra-violet light and electronic vocal distortion to make the singers sound as if they had just inhaled helium. This became irritating after about five minutes and ultimately seemed pointless. After that slog, we all needed a pickup, and one came when the tables and chairs were cleared and the audience participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush, scrambling to claim a prime spot on the floor. Once settled, we witnessed the growing industrialization of the nation as Mac performed songs like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” The first popular parlor songs emerged here as well (“After the Ball,” anyone?), and Mac made quick work of their underlying sociopolitical agenda: “When you’re trying to validate a system, what is needed is cheap sentiment.”
We’re halfway through the marathon, readers! A pause to note some of the logistics of the event: while virtually all of the action took place in the vast, open performing space on St. Ann’s ground floor, there was a small, side balcony area, dubbed the “Dandy Boudoir,” where Mac occasionally popped up and which also contained lounge chairs, suitable for restorative naps. The audience was free to come and go during the performance, and the lobby had a few cots and benches, which saw their share of briefly snoozing audience members. More popular was the bar, liberally dispensing both caffeinated and alcoholic libations, as well as snacks, healthy and otherwise. With this event, St. Ann’s Warehouse fulfilled its long gestating promise of becoming one of the major centers of New York cultural activity. They flawlessly handled the staggeringly complicated logistics of the performance, including feeding hundreds of people multiple times, not to mention the daunting technical aspects of the show.
I’m remiss in not addressing an absolutely central aspect of Mac’s performing ethos, and that is judy’s famously gaudy, indeed epic, costumes, created by the brilliant designer Machine Dazzle, aka Matthew Flower. These works of art transcend drag, ascending into the realms of architecture and sculpture. Enormous headdresses top baroque configurations that wrap and virtually restructure Mac’s body. An entirely different costume concept appeared with each new decade. And as each decade ended, its costume was placed on a mannequin in the lobby so that we could admire the incredible artistry at close range. Given their weight and restrictiveness, it was no surprise that Mac generally removed the headdress and most of the body structure several minutes into each section. Particular favorites of mine included the mid-nineteenth-century hoop skirt rimmed with barbed wire and festooned with hot dogs, the 1950s outfit constructed out of a white picket fence, and perhaps the kookiest of all, a spectacular life-sized ice cream cone for the Depression. Mac’s use of outlandish drag is not just amusing. It also harnesses the power of gender- and taste-busting apparel as a tool of protest, of performativity and camp as a political instrument.
On with the show! As we closed out the nineteenth century, the focus shifted to immigrants and the fecund world of tenements, particularly the Jewish voices that rose to prominence at this time. We witnessed the birth of Ragtime, of Vaudeville, of Tin Pan Alley and its songs that became commercial hits across the nation, such as “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Mac addressed questions of cultural appropriation as immigrant sounds began to be assimilated into mainstream American music. The Dandy Minions strewed mattresses across the main floor and encouraged audience members to pile onto them, recreating the cramped housing conditions of New York’s Lower East Side. The first decade of the twentieth century ended with the emergence of the most important composer of the era, Irving Berlin. Mac also noted the progressive politics that became inextricably intertwined with popular musicians and artists at this time. (“The only thing conservative people have created in the history of mankind are the Die Hard movies and god,” judy wryly opined.)
As the century progressed, we moved from the tenements to the trenches of World War I. Again, the audience was enlisted in a reenactment, culminating in a request for all draft-aged men to come onto the stage, foregrounding the large percentage of the country that would have been drawn into the fighting. These young members of the audience huddled together, passed a bottle of whiskey around, and were wrapped in bandages by female Minions as Mac sang Berlin’s “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” as a haunted, terrified dirge, as well as the home-front staple, “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”
Fortunately, the war came to an end and the ’20s roared into view (“Happy Days Are Here Again!”) as Mac sang hits of the era, tap danced, and talked through the post-War strategies of repressing versus dealing with trauma (cue a heartbreaking rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me”). The first stirrings of coded gay culture made their appearance, via the popular song “Masculine Women/Feminine Men.” And in one delightfully extraneous bit, Mac found the oldest and youngest persons in the audience, an 80-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman, and brought them onstage to dance together.
Came the stock market crash, and we plunged into the Depression. As was the case with all popular culture of that era, every song Mac chose had some underlying relation to the economic catastrophe, from the seemingly insouciant “Minnie the Moocher” to the romantic “All of Me,” which judy reconfigured as an expression of utter poverty. It was also the era of the Harlem Renaissance, represented by a swing-danced “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” As we sipped our split pea soup, I waited for two songs of the day that seemed inevitable: Yip Harburg’s “Brother Can you Spare a Dime?” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Mac surprised me when we did hear from those artists, but not as expected. Instead, we got Harburg and Harold Arlen’s “Napoleon,” a typically trenchant song about the perils of commercialization, and Guthrie’s lesser-known “Dust Can’t Kill Me.”
At about the 17-hour mark, we entered the 1940s, and Mac’s energy noticeably began to flag. For a few minutes, judy looked a little lost, even delirious. As the band played the opening vamp to Billy Bigelow’s “Soliloquy” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, I gasped. Surely Mac would never be able to make it through this bravura, lengthy song, a virtual aria that tests even classically trained vocalists. But damned if judy didn’t come through with a fully belted, deeply felt, vocally uncompromised performance. And then followed it with a brilliant exegesis of the song’s various depictions of masculinity. Indeed, judy also gave us a galvanizing “Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis in this segment. And although World War II certainly infused the music of the era, the focus kept shuttling off to the margins, from the Latino community (with a look at the Zoot Suit Riots) to the Japanese internment camps. A creepy rendition of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” was a bit misguided, but a haunting “Ghost Riders in the Sky” was powerfully tied to the epochal explosion of the atomic bomb.
The mattresses were cleared, the chairs returned, and all seemed ready for the peaceful comfort of the 1950s—but not so fast! As Mac reminded us, this was the era of “White Flight,” and so all Caucasians had to move away from the prime chairs in the center of the room and sit or stand on the side. Audience members of color stayed center and were treated to up close renditions of rock and roll classics. Eventually, gay members of the audience—the urban pioneers—were allowed to move back into the “city center.” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” engendered a choreographed erotic shower fantasy. Best of all in this segment was Mac’s rendition of “Secret Love,” performed so intimately that it felt like judy was singing it directly to each person in the room.
Boxed breakfasts were passed around, and Mac entered dressed as an explosive, wildly stylized version of Jackie Kennedy, signaling the start of the 1960s. White, heterosexual members of the audience were allowed to return to their seats after beating their breasts and exorcising their “white guilt.” And suddenly we heard new sound after new sound: Bacharach! (“Here Where There Is Love”), Motown! (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”), Dylan! (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” especially powerful). Steffanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis, two absolutely sensational backup singers from Detroit, joined Mac for this entire act. Bayard Rustin’s landmark March on Washington served as a focal point as Mac (now sounding more and more like Lauren Bacall) imagined what songs would have been sung on buses bringing marchers to the capital.
At this point we all needed a pickup, and we got one from the surprise appearance of the Brooklyn United Marching Band, performing “Move On Up.” As we left the ’60s, the specter of the Stonewall riots loomed. This defining moment in the gay liberation movement took place on the night of Judy Garland’s funeral, and Mac turned the oft-noted connection into an emotional highlight, staging a full-scale re-creation of Garland’s funeral procession, with the company parading a prone woman through the audience as Mac sang, in eulogy, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Tears and laughter combined in a moment that transcended camp and entered a sort of rapture, fueled by the impressive spectacle, the political resonance, the soaring song, and the raspy earnestness of Mac’s performance. Coming a bit after the three-quarter mark of the marathon, this was nothing less than a showstopping “twenty-o’clock number.”
The cheesy “Gloria” brought us in to the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the focus turned to the sexual revolution. Up in the balcony, the Dandy Minions simulated back room sex acts behind a back-lit sheet in a segment set to David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Mac spoke of the importance of sex-positive politics but acknowledged the complexities and contradictions of the movement: the liberation, thrill, and joy, but also the self-consciousness, fear, and guilt associated with anonymous sex and how music celebrated, codified and subverted those feelings. A giant penis balloon was bopped back and forth over the heads of the audience to much hysterical laughter—we were all rather punchy at this point. Mac was punchy too, and the second wind that had sustained judy since the 1940s began to fade and, for the second time, I wondered if judy might not be able to finish the marathon. Mac struggled with “Purple Rain,” asking the audience for support. But at the end of this section, judy pulled it together, grabbed hold of a third wind, and, from that moment on, sailed through the rest of the performance.
Intriguingly, while the bulk of the show focused on songs that truly were among the most popular and iconic of their era (at least, as much as can be measured in the pre-commercialization age), the survey of the last thirty years changed tack, tackling a lot of niche, experimental stuff—a nod, perhaps, to the increasing fragmentation of popular taste in the digital age. The launch of this final chapter jumped right into the AIDS crisis with Mac celebrating, in judy’s words, “A community of people that was being built as a result of being torn apart.” The song “Addicted to Love” took on new meaning in this context. Mac wore an ’80s party dress made of cassette tapes, topped by a headdress featuring three screaming skulls. Music from the Queer Core movement made an appearance, including the anthem “Denny” by the band Pansy Division. Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” was another highlight.
The second part of this chapter (1996–2006) was devoted to radical lesbians, with Mac’s costume uproariously delivered by a butch UPS worker. An honor roll of lesbian activists, seated on a platform, rose up from beneath the stage as the segment began, starting off with the song “Pussy Manifesto” (a song with extra resonance given that the Trump harassment scandal had recently broken). Anaïs Mitchell, composer of the recent musical Hadestown, joined Mac for a duet and then brought onstage all of the women involved with the show over the last twenty-three hours to sing a Riot Grrrl’s song. A stirring manifesto by the Lesbian Avengers, an activist group, was read aloud by cofounder Sarah Schulman. And as this penultimate section ended, Mac said an emotional farewell to Matt Ray, judy’s music director, and prepared for the final, solo segment.
This last hour began with a costume change that was among the most amazing coups de théâtre I’ve ever seen. Mac spoke of needing to go through a rebirthing process, and a giant draped circle descended from the ceiling, surrounding judy and, somehow, turning into a massive, flowing, golden dress. The last set consisted entirely of original music by Mac, performed solo and self-accompanied on the piano, banjo and ukulele. These songs, witty and tartly complex, served as a suitably low-key coda to the marathon, a “cool-down” from the intense, emotionally drenched previous 23 hours.
It’s hard to remember ever seeing an audience so ecstatic. Many were awash in happy, exhausted tears. As far as I can tell, virtually everyone stayed until the end. Certainly the vast hall was as packed at the conclusion as it was at the beginning. After lengthy bows, Mac invited the audience to join judy for a dialogue about the experience—on the following afternoon. For myself, this was the first true all-nighter I had experienced since college. I slept a bit that afternoon, but it took me a few days to get back on schedule. Partly that was the disruption of the natural sleep cycle, but there was something more—a stimulation, an implantation of new, radical perspectives, an emotional immensity of beautiful, imperfect, impassioned music, all flooding my being. It’s hard to sleep when your mind is set spinning like a hundred turntables.
I haven’t even mentioned some of my favorite moments: a gorgeous “Shenandoah,” a lovely “Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?,” a scabrous, shattering rendition of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” a world-weary, risqué take on Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” a very authentic, Springsteenian “Born to Run,” an inventive arrangement of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and too many others to list. I also haven’t properly credited brilliant work by co-director Niegel Smith, set designer (and 2015 MacArthur Fellowship winner) Mimi Lien, lighting designer John Torres, and so many others. Nor have I conveyed the strange delight of the most visible Dandy Minion, a “boylesque” performer named Tigger, who played multiple roles throughout the evening and found more than a few excuses to strip naked and run around the auditorium.
The whole show sounds like it might have been an overbearing exercise in Political Correctness run amok, but it really wasn’t. There was something incredibly inclusive about the event, something wonderfully, almost naively positive that short-circuited any sense of agitprop cliché. The artists were angry but also celebratory. They wanted to listen to every possible voice. They craved dialogue. With A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, the theater truly lived up to its millenniums-old provenance as a place of communal ritual, political awakening, and emotional catharsis.