Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels is a glorious mess. In some ways this makes it the perfect thing to put on to celebrate the 10th anniversary of LA’s Walt Disney Hall and its already turbulent history. While there’s a 1971 film version of Zappa’s magnum opus, and excerpts have been performed live plenty of times before, last Wednesday’s performance boasted the world premiere of Zappa’s orchestral version in its entirety. Before the show, the mood in the sold-out hall was practically jubilant, and some pre-concert shenanigans did a great job of setting the tone. Chorus members waved and blew kisses to the audience. The orchestra did a very uncoordinated version of “the wave” and made a deliberate mockery of tuning up. The audience collectively booed the “no photography” announcement. A Zappa impersonator presided over all of this from a neon throne. Finally, conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen came on stage to a rousing cheer. (Four years after the start of Gustavo Dudamel’s tenure as music director, it still feels like Salonen’s orchestra when he shows up.)
As for the score itself, it is—how should I put this?—spectacularly over-orchestrated, bordering on near-cacophony with unsettling frequency. I mean this as a good thing. It’s a bit like the climax of an Ives symphony, except it goes on for two hours, more or less. The ensemble includes a full orchestra, a rock band, a substantial chorus, a bevy of acoustic guitars, an accordion, and a few other things I couldn’t quite identify. The story is also all over the place, more like a series of loosely connected vignettes than a complete narrative arc. The notion linking (most of) these scenes is a trio of touring musicians trying to get back to LA, played with irresistible manic energy by Jeff Taylor, Matt Marks, and Zach Villa. It’s a very broad satire of small-town life in America that still feels relevant, for the most part. When the trio sings that the town they’re in is like a “sealed tuna sandwich,” we know what they mean without having to have it explicated for us. Some bits were also apparently updated or embellished, though it’s hard to say exactly where, except at those points when the characters veer into vaguely topical humor. (It’s kind of a cheap joke, but I enjoyed Rich Fulcher as Cowboy Burt quipping, “French horns? Why don’t you call them freedom horns?”)
This all culminates with a couple of even more over-the-top scenes. First there’s “Penis Dimension,” which features Marks bloviating about male anatomy in the manner of an evangelical preacher while the chorus languidly waves around glowing dildos and two women (Diva Zappa and Sheila Vand) loudly express their disgust. Finally there’s “Strictly Genteel,” one of those gorgeous, endless rock ballads that sweep you up in spite of yourself. Zappa’s lyrics here vacillate wonderfully between the platitudinous (“God bless the mind of the man in the street”) and the nonsensical (“a Swedish apparatus with a hood and a bludgeon”). It’s the perfect ending—the only possible ending, really.
Some of the most interesting stuff, though, happens in the meandering middle. There are long orchestral interludes that are musically fascinating but dramatically inert. It’s a common complaint that 200 Motels is in need of editing, but I have no idea what you’d cut from it, since most of it seems equally essential or non-essential. The narrative is so spotty that I’m not sure that cuts would make the dramatic arc any more effective. And besides, some of the best stuff has little overt connection to the main narrative, like when “Frank” (another Zappa doppelganger, played by Joel David Moore) describes composing another piece called “The Pleated Gazelle.” In this meta-operatic diversion, Zappa drops the bombast and explores a variety of chamber music textures: shuddering strings, skittering acoustic guitar counterpoint, ominous accordion drones. This is seemingly what Zappa does best, presenting an abundance of fantastic ideas without any sort of pretense of development. In a moment that could be read as a manifesto, Frank admits, “It’s not very pretty and doesn’t make any sense.” So to make it more palatable, over the orchestral accompaniment Frank tells the story of a girl who falls in love with a knute farmer. In between Frank’s monologues, soprano Hila Plitmann expresses the girl’s emotions through wordless vocalise as the orchestra swells. (Piltmann, who also played the role of an obnoxious journalist, was a standout soloist in general, hitting elaborate coloratura lines with laser precision while still being engrossingly expressive.) But as it turns out, the tale is just as rambling and capricious as the music, and the love story was merely a pretense to get us to listen to a bunch of nonsense.
But what nonsense!