Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900s-1950s

James Franco sent out an Instagram of a bloodied Taylor Mac in an evening dress, urging his followers to see “‘A 24 decade history of popular music’ any chance you get! But it will probably be SOLD OUT!”


The reason why Mac was bloodied is that, during his rendition of “All of Me,” the 1930s song by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons with the lyrics:

All of me
Why not take all of me
Can’t you see
I’m no good without you
Take my lips
I want to lose them
Take my arms
I’ll never use them…
You took the part that once was my heart
So why not take all of me

…Mac took out various body parts from the pocket of his dress – intestines, eye, hand — and threw them at the audience, then removed a very persuasive-looking heart and squeezed the blood from it onto his face, where it remained for the next several hours.

“A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” is not your standard concert.

It’s considerably more ambitious. In seven hours over two separate nights this weekend, I listened to Taylor Mac sing 70 popular songs from the first six decades of the 20th century. This is just the start. Mac’s plan is to present a 24-hour marathon concert delivering popular songs from 1776 to 2016.  Last week, at New York Live Arts as part of the Under the Radar festival, he presented the 1900s-1920s leg of the marathon; this week he is presenting the 1930s-1950s.  Next Sunday, January 25th, will be a (mini) marathon of songs from 1900s to 1950s.

As in any good cabaret concert, the songs Mac selects include some familiar standards -Take Me Out To The Ballgame; Happy Days Are Here Again; You Are My Sunshine; Pretty Woman – and some rediscovered gems. There are also some bizarre finds, such as Der Fuehrer’s Face, a parody of the Nazi anthem, which was incorporated into a Donald Duck anti-Nazi propaganda animated short during World War II.

Mac’s voice is a versatile instrument, ranging from sweet to in-your-face, from American Idol to American Idiot, and he uses it for some arresting interpretations. One of the last songs he chose for the 1950’s, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” written by Pete Seeger, with lyrics taken from Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, was originally delivered as a mellow folk melody. Mac turns (turns, turns) it into a kind of Rocky Horror Show punk, which is both funny and effective.

Other choices are more baffling.  “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” written by Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney, was an anthem of the Great Depression, a dramatic song in which the character singing is a proud workingman who can no longer find work:

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Mac delivers the song as if a chanteuse in a high-class nightclub. Why?

There are several other ways besides the ambitious (work-in-progress) scope that distinguish Mac’s work from an ordinary cabaret concert. Mac is an accomplished theater artist of such extraordinarily varied experience that he transcends the label of drag performer. He has written dozens of plays; his performances as Puck in the Classic Stage Company’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and in the lead role of Brecht’s “Good Person of Szechwan” at LaMaMa and the Public Theater received universal praise. He puts his theatrical gifts in play in what he calls this “performance art concert.”    For starters, working with his longtime collaborator, the costume designer who calls himself Machine Dazzle, Mac donned a different elaborate, outrageous and symbolically appropriate outfit for each decade.

For the 1900s, he wore a costume festooned with accessories meant to suggest life in the Jewish tenements of New York, from which sprung many a popular songwriter (such as Irving Berlin) . For the next decade, which included World War I, he switched to an ensemble that incorporated a gas mask in its headgear.  The 1920s featured a jazz age theme, 1930s Americana. For the 1950s, Mac wore a skirt that included a white picket fence and other symbols of suburbia.

The period-referring costumes are supplemented by some general context — Mac has clearly done his research. But he is more apt to share personal anecdotes than specific history, or even information about the songs: This is not like Broadway By The Year at Town Hall, full of factual trivia and tidbits. The “All of Me”-type shtick is more typical, and seems a natural outgrowth of the costumes.

A signature of Mac’s concerts, and at times the edgiest thing he does, is his use of the audience as collaborators; all of the audience. Near the beginning of both concerts I attended, he explained how much he hates it when theater makers ask the audience to participate with the promise that it’ll be fun. “F… you, I don’t want to have fun” Mac summarized his reaction.  But then he added: “It’s different when I ask you to participate. I want you to feel uncomfortable.” Some of what he asks us to do are just sing-alongs. But near the beginning of the 1900’s, he asked the last three rows to get up out of their seats and sit on the stage; a song or two later, he asked the next few rows, and then the rows in front of them, and then the whole theater, until we were all sitting on the stage, as he sang songs of crowded tenement life, and then (ironically, but a deeply expressive rendition of) Irving Berlin’s All Alone. He more or less repeated this routine to less effect in the 1930s. During the World War I segment, he divided the audience in half, instructing one half to sing “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier,” while the other half sang “It’s Time For Every Boy To Be A Soldier.” He then demonstrated the increasing pro-war sentiment in America by having more and more of the audience singing “It’s Time For Every Body To Be A Soldier,” until only two members of the audience sang back “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier.” Later, he enlists some members of the audience to be nurses and wrap bandages around other members of the audience, and paint some faces white, as if they are dead. He cast two theatergoers as gay lovers at one point, and, at another, one theatergoer as his own lover; the lights went dark, and when they came back on, Mac had flamboyantly wrapped himself around him.

My reaction to most of this individual casting was no more complicated than: Better them than me. But, even though not selected for the audience-cast, I became a bit more queasy and uncomfortable when Mac put Nazi armbands on two theatergoers, and, later, when he asked all the white people to stand and move to the suburbs. (So, ok, the theme for the 1950s was obviously white flight, but I would have preferred if he had assigned “whiteness” arbitrarily to people in a certain set of seats.)

I was perhaps shown up as an insufficiently with-it New York theatergoer when Mac asked all the white boys to stand and pretend to take a shower as he walked along the aisles and sang the Neil Sedaka 1960 melody “Where The Boys Are.” Suddenly, Mac spotted James Franco in the audience… and they showered together in the middle of Row K of the Live Arts auditorium — artistically, and exuberantly.

Taylor Mac at New York Live Arts

Tickets start at $75; Select $15 seats available

Taylor Mac, vocals

Jan 13, 14, 16, 17 at 7:30pm
Matt Ray, Music Director/Piano/Backing vocals
Bernice Boom Boom Brooks, Drums
Danton Boller, Bass
Greg Glassman, Trumpet
Amber Gray, Backing vocals
Yair Evnine, Cello/Guitar

Jan 19, 20, 22, 23 at 7:30pm
Matt Ray, Music Director/Piano/Backing vocals
David Berger, Drums
Viva DeConcini, Guitar
Amber Gray, Backing vocals
Jon Natchez, Baritone sax, Trumpet, Flute, Clarinet, Banjo
Aidan O’Donnell, Bass

Jan 25 at 3pm
Peekaboo Pointe, Choreographer
All band members

Note: They say the running time is three hours per concert, but it was 3 1/2 hours each one I attended — and without any intermission. (Taylor Mac encourages you to go to the rest room when you need to.)





Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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