by Rodney Punt
Twenty years ago*, experimental rock-era composer Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer. He left behind a work that has never been performed live in full, a kind of alternate rock opera called 200 Motels. Last night at Disney Hall, the LA Phil presented, in a semi-staged production, the world premiere of 200 Motels - The Suites. From remaining notes of Zappa, it was obvious that he thought highly of this work and he expressed himself clearly as he wrote about it. Because many knew the emotional investment he had put into it, they have assumed it not just worthy, but Zappa's supreme effort.
To the LA Phil's culture history credit, they took on the task for the 10th anniversary celebration of Disney Hall's opening night. The event had the feel of a Seventies happening. The rowdy audience was mostly aging hipsters, with sprinkles of other demographics and ages. They were ready for action at the beginning of the work and gave it a big applause after it concluded. But in-between, the telling expanse of time when it most counted, interest clearly flagged as the work's banal passages droned on.
The action begins when four band members are already debauched and exhausted from small town touring. For all we know they are also stupefied on drugs. A fat-bellied character named Cowboy Burt, who looks like Slim Pickens, pistol whips the band members (Zappa's own Mothers of Invention are the model). A soprano takes the predictable road from interviewer to groupie. The action gets grosser and stupider. Props include a barrel of dirt which the strung-out band members wallow in. Later on, several waving, orange-glowing penises make their way down the aisles.
By way of self-justification, the show winds up with a maudlin tribute to all of the world's outcasts and misfits, presumably to make us all forgive the show's previous banalities. Zappa's Ode to Joy for them rhymes "action" with "satisfaction" six or seven times. The Rolling Stones use of the same word in their most famous song of a decade before should have prompted Zappa to avoid it. His lame-brained borrowing of it here grates. But that's just the kind of idiocy that fills the work.
While I can admire the efforts of all the fine talent associated with the production -- Esa Pekka Salonen conducting the game musicians of the LA Phil, the singer/actors, the direction of James Darrah, et al -- I thought the work a pretentious, puerile, extravagant bore. The libretto (too kind a word) was wretched and trite but it thought itself clever and witty. The music was gauche, boring, and proceeded from one unmerited climax to another.
Zappa certainly had ambition and all the documentary evidence suggests he worked hard on this work. But inherent musical value? Not there. I don't see creative or organizational talent in this score. Zappa's alternate rock had high aspirations and the composer befriended eccentric musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky, but associations do not of themselves great art make and this cross-over into rock opera falls in the middle before it is over anything.
The work was a bloated, self-indulgent mess. Rooted in the Sixties, it is as embalmed as a dead rocker in the early Seventies.
*Corrected from the originally posted thirty years ago.