Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Moon men: John Phillips & Andy Warhol, 1975


Un-earthed (there's no better word for a musical about space, is there?) from the vaults of musician John Phillips, Man on the Moon (Varese Sarabande) is one of those legendary 1970s projects that benefits from its dusting of superstar glitter, even if the effect of the project as a whole seems to totter on silver platform-soled spaceboots.

Just consider the title itself,
Andy Warhol Presents Man on the Moon: the John Phillips Space Musical, and you get a sense of whole creative universes colliding -- layers of rock music and downtown art, the message of peace and love in space, a singing astronaut, a bomb on the moon, and heavenly aliens who save mankind from itself. ("I built the V1 and I built the V2 / I worked for the Fuhrer / now I work for you" is, perhaps, the most unsettling opening number in a musical ever written.)

But the lyrics also ran deeper and into more personal terrain: after the end of The Mamas and the Papas, Phillips -- into worsening addiction -- wrote a short song cycle in the early 70s that sounded notes of his own alienation and drug-fueled confusion. These lyrics are included here too, as in the achingly sweet "There Is a Place":

"There is a place between two stars / Somewhere in space that's ours that's yours / we watch the worlds roll by / and never think of dying / there's a place in space that's ours ... / People everywhere are inclined to stare / I have a need for privacy, dear / feel like a sardine and / I don't feel very clean / I'd like a star of my own / There is a place in space for stars ... " 

Phillips kept writing more songs, securing funding, rewriting the script. It was the seventies, after all, with Bowie's space oddity Ziggy Stardust, Transylvanians like Rocky Horror off-Broadway, dePalma's rock-n-roll film version of Faust, Phantom of the Paradise, featuring a stitched-together rock star and his gothic back-up singers. An intergalactic peace-and-love rock musical seemed right ... even one with a bomb that threatens the universe.

Unfortunately, over time the musical became a classic case of too much and never enough: fact and fiction flew (Elvis was approached to play the role of the astronaut; Nicholson was interested; George Lucas might be involved, then stole ideas for
Star Wars). Lavish costumes reflecting beams of light like disco balls were designed and created; one draft called for a scene to be played by actors in mid-air. Phillips and Genevieve Waite, his third wife, moved from Bel Air to New York, in part to promote her recording career.

By this point the project had taken five years, and untold amounts of money. Phillips's drugged paranoia became too much to deal with. Director Michael Bennett abruptly quit, saying he couldn't work with Phillips any longer; he went on to direct
A Chorus Line. The producer Michael Butler, who had a surprising hit with Hair, then followed suit. (John's temperment, rather than creative tension, he said, was the reason). Eventually, the musical's sheer excess and constant changes sank the production. Produced at last by Warhol and directed off-Broadway by Paul Morrisey, "Man on the Moon" closed in less than five days.

What's left survives in the form of the original song cycle recorded by Phillips in the studio, songs by Genevieve as Angel and also included in the play, performances by the cast including Denny Doherty, and a few out-takes --"The Elephants and the Donkeys" is ready to be anyone's protest chant. What's surprising is that the bare-bones music is charming and warm, obviously autobiographical, if a little oddball for either a rock or a Broadway audience. Here's the astronaut, Andy, describing his Marine father: this isn't The Mamas and The
Papas by any stretch, as Phillips describes his own family memory:

"Well the service finally cashed my daddy out / they say his heart blew a fuse / so he spent the next twenty years living down in the basement / drinking booze. / He was singing / he had his dogs with him / had a hell of a time ..."

This contrasts with other songs, as
Chris Campion describes in greater detail, sounding like a space-age Cole Porter, wistful and bittersweet, "questing after love in other realms" -- "Penthouse of Your Mind," "Yesterday I Left the Earth," "A Myth Amongst the Family of Man" (" ... that there is something higher than themselves."). Whether any of these tunes would have left the audience whistling as they left the theater is, well, left for another Broadway backer to discover.

The enhanced CD and liner notes collect lots of memorabilia associated with the musical; a full early script, interviews and reviews, black-and-white video footage from rehearsals drawn from the Andy Warhol archives, and cast and party photos from the show's brief run. Mick, Yoko, Andy, and Warren are there. Mackenzie is at the opening-night party seated next to Genevieve, looking wide-eyed.

What remains of
Man on the Moon certainly seems like one of those by-gone eras, as they used to write, of a golden age. At the very least, it makes those old enough to remember those glittery days feel quite a bit older. Is Man on the Moon
a lost classic? Not quite. But it's like hearing new stories about a great party you missed: you know you should have been there.

From the show's closing number, "Stepping Through the Stars":

"Take my hand and I'll show you / a dance that's really new / way back home at the Hippodrome / it's the one the sheiks all do / No one can resist the rhythm / it's like driving racing cars / He will love you when you're with him / steppin' through the stars / when you're steppin' through the stars."

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