The Playgoer: Frank Zappa, on Santa Monica Boulevard

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Frank Zappa, on Santa Monica Boulevard

by Steven Leigh Morris

Any posting about theater in L.A., from L.A., on any 9/11 anniversary seems kind of irrelevant and slightly insulting to the occasion. For this, I apologize. The most respectful idea I can muster circles around a work-in-development related to the direction, the policies, and the actions our country has taken in seven years -- the pending premiere of Joe's Garage, the 1979 rock opera written by Frank Zappa. The work was released as a CD, but never before produced on stage. It's now slated to open September 26, presented by the Open Fist Theatre Company, a warehouse venue on Santa Monica Boulevard.

To backtrack for a moment, and get some sense of why any of this matters on 9/11/08.

In 1985, the U.S. Senate held hearings on a proposal by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to put warning labels on rock music CDs and videos. Gore had been offended by the lyrics in Prince’s song, “Darling Nikki”: “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine . . . .” Children, said the PMRC, needed to be protected from sexually provocative lyrics.

Not surprisingly, Zappa, a satirist, celebrity rock musician and respected avant garde composer, testified as an opposition witness (with John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider), describing the PMRC proposal as “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children [and] infringes on the civil liberties of people who are not children.”

The next year, 1986, Zappa appeared on Crossfire with so-called “Leftist” journalist Tom Braden (former employee of the CIA’s International Organizations Division), Robert Novak and the Washington Times' John Lofton. In a contentious conversation, Zappa revealed the prescience that makes Joe’s Garage as relevant as the day it was written.

Lofton: Does the government have any purpose, Frank?

Zappa: Yeah, it has a number of purposes. . . How about national defense.

Lofton: I consider this national defense, pal! Our families are under attack by people like you with these lyrics.

Braden: John, You don’t have to buy them.

Zappa: Can I make a statement about national defense: The biggest threat to America today is not communism, it’s moving America towards a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened during the Reagan Administration is steering us right down that pipe.

Novak: . . . Do you really think . . . in this country, with the permissiveness, that we are moving toward a fascist theocracy?

Zappa: You bet we are, buddy.

[Lofton and Novak laugh derisively.]

Braden: One example of a fascist theocracy?

Zappa: When you have a government that prefers a certain moral code derived from a certain religion, and that moral code turns into legislation to suit one certain religious point of view, and if that code happens to be very, very right wing, almost toward Attila the Hun . . .

Lofton: Then you are an anarchist. Every form of civil government is based on some kind of morality, Frank.

Zappa: Morality in terms of behavior, not in terms of theology.

The ideas in this debate form the crux of the ribald cultural satire in Joe’s Garage. The story opens with an Orwellian “Central Scrutinizer,” a large, robotic puppet who speaks through a megaphone and whose job is to enforce laws “that haven’t yet been passed.” A local policeman counsels Joe, a young garage-band guitarist, to drop his music and engage in more church activities, but Joe’s sweet Catholic girlfriend, named Mary (of course), abandons him for a backstage pass to see another band.

After following that band on tour and after being used as a sex toy by the band’s roadies, the exhausted Mary is dumped in Miami, where she enters a wet-T-shirt contest to raise enough money to get home. When Joe learns of this, he goes into a funk of depression, contracts a venereal disease, and seeks religion to pull him back up – L. Ron Hoover and his First Church of Appliantology. By play's end, all music has been banned.

Jennifer Lettelleir's choreography aims to push images of fellatio and sodomy that saturate the story beyond titillation, through parody into the ugly zone of robotics grinding down everything it means to be human, and humane – a dark zone that forms the core of Zappa's take on our culture.

Much of the reason for the long delay in seeing Joe's Garage realized in three dimensions lies with Zappa's widow, Gail, who has run the family trust since her husband's death in 1993 of cancer. She happened to be there when I was checking out an early rehearsal. “It's not easy working for a dead guy,” she said world-wearily, expressing exasperation with impersonators and tribute bands, and “those who write books” about Frank Zappa, “taking a large footprint and shrinking it down to a miniscule size that's not recognizable by anybody.”

Last year, she threatened to file a lawsuit against the German fan club, Arf Society, which -- without the consent of the family trust -- was lobbying to have a street in Berlin renamed Frank Zappa Strasse.

Yet after all these years, she finally released the rights of Joe's Garage to director/producer/co-writer Pat Towne and co-writer/producer Michael Franco. Towne had directed their daughter, Moon Unit Zappa in a local stage production of Waiting for Studio 54. After Gail came to see that show and said she liked it, Towne and Franco put together a proposal for Joe's Garage. The deal was sealed with a handshake, Franco said, because “nobody was pushing papers in her face” -- as had a stream of earlier petitioners for the rights.

Gail's explanation is more difficult to align with her guard-dog protection of her late husband's work: “I said, oh, why not? Why not take a chance.”

The larger gamble is producer Franco's decision to mount a $70,000 to $90,000 production before trying it out in workshop.

“I'm 50 years old,” Franco explained. “I don't have four years to tell one story. There are too many other stories I want to tell.”

There are some people associated with this production who take the other side of the “process versus product” debate of new play development, and are perplexed and bemused by Franco's hubris.

All of which raises the curiosity and suspense around here for what will come of all this.

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