NEW YORK — His eminence, the gracious, salacious, glamorous Taylor Mac, enters in a blaze of light and a get-up that makes him look like a Vegas showgirl who jammed her finger into an electrical socket. It’s the embarkation point at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn of a tunefully exhausting journey, especially for him: 246 popular American songs, performed chronologically from the birth of the nation to 2016, over eight three-hour evenings, without intermissions. And then, on Oct. 8, the series culminates with a 24-hour marathon presentation of the entire cycle. That veritable “Ring”-length finale is also envisioned as a show without breaks. So maybe a medical triage team should be posted at the door.
Is it a stunt? Why yes, of course it is. But it’s intriguingly legit, too: Mac’s own highly subjective discourse (with full orchestra, backup singers and a corps of Felliniesque acolytes) on the political (and chauvinistic and heteronormative) signals embedded in our music through the ages. It’s entertaining, for sure. It’s also sly, belabored, audacious, messy, brilliant, annoying, endearing, beautiful, scatalogical. It’s all of the things. Like the star himself.
“The work that we’re all making tonight,” Mac declares at the outset of the ultimately fascinating “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” — a work that he actually has been assembling over the last four years. And when he says “we,” he means you and me and the unsuspecting lady in the back row he cajoles for a spell onto an expansive stage filled with instrumentalists at music stands and random people in lawn chairs, knitting. Because, he explains, as the two-foot-long black feather protruding from his headdress sways this way and that, “I wanted people who were making things” — a theme of his red, white and, uh, blue extravaganza.
Over the course of the first production, performed Thursday night and encompassing the songs of the first three American decades, 1776-1806, spectators were again and again coaxed out of our bystander shells to play along with Mac. The acolytes moved among us in the cavernous Warehouse space distributing at various, narratively appropriate times apples, ping pong balls, items of women’s clothing, cans of root beer. At Mac’s commands, audience members wiggled or danced in rudimentary drag for others in their row, or accompanied him with humming, or rested their heads on a neighbor’s shoulder, to the strains of an early American lullaby.
What in heck does any of this have to do with the history of American song? Truly, you had to be there, and if this kind of participatory goofiness brings you joy, you still have a chance to, on one of the eight remaining performance days this month and in early October. Mac asserts, a bit loftily, that he’s trying to loosen up us uptight types by importing to St. Ann’s — one of the finer temples of drama to which he’s now regularly being invited — the more casual, and casually profane, atmosphere of the gay clubs in which he honed his prodigious performing skills. He is indeed a magnetic and immensely watchable singer and commentator, especially in the architecturally elaborate costumes he’s put into for each of the decades, by aptly named designer Machine Dazzle.
For me, though, the party games with the enthusiastic crowd are not one-eighth as interesting as the material Mac chooses to sing, and what he has to say about it. During the American Revolution, he tells us, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a British song poking fun at unsophisticated American tastes that Revolutionary soldiers appropriated to taunt their Redcoat prisoners of war. In the second hour, he riffs on the nursery rhyme song, “Johnny’s So Long At the Fair,” to comment on the servile role of women, waiting for their husbands to return home. He peppers the third hour with drinking songs of the period, interrupted by a disapproving choir singing about the benefits of temperance. The first concert concludes with a hauntingly lovely rendition of the folk ballad “Oh Shenandoah,” sung by Mac with the backing of the choir.
The 24-member orchestra — which by design loses a player at the end of each of the 24 hours of the show — is conducted splendidly by Matt Ray, who, Mac tells us, did the arrangements of each of the cycle’s 246 numbers.
With spirits so high in the hall — alas, no distilled spirits are passed around by Mac’s acolytes — it seems almost churlish to suggest that a little less of the shenanigans would go a long way to making this romp with American rhythm a more galvanizing experience. And maybe, given the power Mac manages to sustain over us for three uninterrupted hours, even heretical.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, by Taylor Mac. Directed by Mac and Niegel Smith. Costumes, Machine Dazzle; music direction, Matt Ray; lighting, John Torres; set, Mimi Lien; sound, James L. McElhinney and David Schnirman; puppets, Eric F. Avery; makeup, Anastasia Durasova. Each performance in the series runs about three hours. Tickets, $56 for each of the remaining three-hour performances; $401 for the culminating 24-hour marathon version on Oct. 8. Visit stannswarehouse.org or call 718-254-8779.