“A combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce.” That was the crotchety verdict delivered by Harold Schonberg, the New York Times’s legendarily crotchety music critic, on the 1971 premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” Written for the inauguration of the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., Bernstein’s super-size “Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers” was everything that irritated Schonberg about Bernstein — the flamboyance; the hipness; the desire to channel universal themes, with Lenny himself as the vessel — telescoped into a single evening-length work. (The prospect of an entire choir playing kazoos probably bugged him, too.)
Other reviews were kinder, but, 4½ decades since its premiere, Bernstein’s most ambitious creation has never found a secure foothold in either the symphonic or music-theater world, though the reasons behind the resistance are different from those that infuriated Schonberg and like-minded traditionalists at its premiere.
A “mélange of styles,” including rock, blues, and music theater in addition to symphonic music, is unlikely to strike anyone as problematic in a post-“Hamilton” world, nor does Bernstein’s strategy of interleaving into the Catholic Mass sequences new texts — by himself and Broadway lyricist Stephen Schwartz — now seem particularly challenging.
What once was hip, however, is now passé, and “Mass” seems trapped in the Age of Aquarius. “Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election/Half the people are drowning and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction,” goes one cringe-worthy quatrain contributed by Paul Simon. Getting the piece to shed what one critic called its “post-Woodstock aura” is difficult; add to that the forces required to mount a full production — with the various choruses, soloists, and musicians, you need between 200 and 250 people — and the reasons for its performance scarcity become clear.
But Neil Donohoe, dean of theater at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, firmly rejects the idea that “Mass” cannot speak to an audience today. Donohoe is co-director of what he calls “a boutique production” of the piece being mounted at the school this weekend. He has slimmed down the forces to 56 singers and dancers, along with 22 instrumentalists under the direction of conductor Eric Stern.
Donohoe staged a production of “Mass” at the school in 2004 in which he put the then-pertinent topic of same-sex marriage at its core. As he prepared for this production, he looked for a topic that was dominating public discourse in a similar way.
Unsurprisingly, the election season presented one, and Donohoe found himself tracking a “cultural evolution of media and the way media was used in the United States,” he said during a recent phone interview. “What was truth, what was ‘alternative truth’ and, if it was said enough, became the truth.”
The cultural conflict to which “Mass” was responding was, broadly speaking, the Vietnam War. For Donohoe, what emerged over the long, feverish election season was a social alienation induced by our use of telecommunications. “Rather than connecting us, it was actually disconnecting us,” he explained. “We weren’t really looking in each other’s eyes, walking in each other shoes, figuring out how other people feel and what their worth was.”
This, Donohoe noted, was a theme that resonated with his students, many of whom were “very traumatized by this election year. It was extraordinary for them to suddenly have something happen that was so unexpected.”
One way the production tries to get at this weighty idea is by “decentralizing” the role of the celebrant, the pivotal figure in “Mass” who is simultaneously protagonist and ringleader. Donohoe parcels out the material to four performers, two men and two women who are “on their own separate journeys.” The piece becomes about “how they encounter conflict and how they weather conflict.”
If this makes “Mass” sound like a template waiting for the crisis of the day to be, as it were, plugged into it, that is Donohoe’s strategy. The way to make the piece not seem dated, he argues, is to look past its Vietnam-era trappings and find its deeper, archetypal theme. Which, in the director’s words, is that “every generation rejects the conservatism of the generation before. It’s about each generation [rejecting] certain values of the parent generation. It generally comes down to, as we get older, we make something more dogmatic, and a [younger] generation comes along and wants a more pastoral message.”
That reference to a pastoral message is a good, and perhaps necessary, reminder that “Mass,” for all its show-biz flair, has spiritual concerns at its core, concerns that Donohoe’s production honors. He uses a small children’s choir to act as “youthful guides to lead us back to this point of innocence. To an Eden, a correction in the world, to go back where spirituality and technology can start on an even plane again, and we can start to move forward. We look to these things one more time and try to start again.”
LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S “MASS”
At Boston Conservatory Theater, Boston Conservatory at Berklee, April 7-9.
Tickets $15-$30. www.bostonconservatory.berklee.eduDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidweininger.